Crossing the Line

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Trent sat in the small office cradling the cup of hours-old coffee until the clock showed twelve. He then unfolded himself from his chair, collected his flashlight and his hat and started his rounds.

Every hour, on the hour. Up the east stairwell on the even hours to the second floor, clockwise around the perimeter before midnight, counterclockwise after. Back down the same stairs, around the ground floor then to the basement, then back to the office to sip crappy coffee. On the odd hours, he’d go down the east stairwell and work from the basement up.

There wasn’t anything to see, there wasn’t ever anything to see. The complex had three-meter perimeter fencing iced with razorwire, and there were guards with guns at the corners and the gate. His position was largely ceremonial.

Trent had cleared the second and the ground floors and had just rounded the corner at the west stairwell when something moved.

He blinked, then shone his flashlight directly towards the source of the motion, but there wasn’t anything there.

He blinked again, checked quickly behind him and switched the flashlight to his left hand, then loosened his Glock in its holster.

He swung the light back and forth along the empty hallway. Nothing. No, wait, there was something. A line on the wall from the floor two-thirds of the way to the ceiling that he’d not noticed before. He put his back to the far wall and moved forward. Someone had clearly drawn a stick figure on the wall, a long body with a head that was just the line bent at an angle, where he would have drawn a circle. The legs bent in a slight crouch, and arms akimbo.

This wasn’t here an hour earlier, of that he was positive. Someone was in the building or had been. His gun was out now, barrel held parallel to the flashlight as he moved slowly down the hallway, shining the light back and forth. The doors were flush to the wall, so there were no shadows in which someone might hide, and he crisscrossed the hall carefully trying each door to make sure they were all locked.

None opened, and none appeared to have been tampered with.

He walked a full revolution of the basement hall, stopping at the east stairwell and listening for any sound, then back to the west stairwell.

He couldn’t hear anyone.

The stick figure just stood there, arms crossed. Silent.

He should radio this in, but he didn’t relish the thought of explaining how someone managed to slip into the building and graffiti the walls on his wa…

Arms crossed?

Trent turned and brought the flashlight and gun back to chest level.

The stick figure was crouched, but its arms now were extended out from the wall.

“What the f…”

There was a sound, like a wet towel snapping in a locker room and the line bridged the distance from the wall and hit Trent hard in the face, knocking him off his feet to land with a wheeze on the concrete floor. The flashlight and gun landed somewhere out of reach, and as he blinked to get his wind and his bearings back he saw the line elongate from the floor and hang in the air above him. It bent slightly where its waist might have been, as though regarding him, before raising one thin line above his head and stomping down, knocking Trent unconscious.

Anyone watching would have squirmed at the sight of the stick figure stretching out on the floor and inserting its stick legs into Trent’s tipped back head, through his gaping mouth and down his throat. The shadowy stick creature pulled Trent on like a suit, and then stood him up and lumbered up and down the hall for a few minutes, until it had a feel for him.

Stick Trent retrieved the gun and the flashlight, perched his hat back on his head and wandered back upstairs.

When Lewis relieved him at six am, he said nothing, he just watched him start his rounds from his position in the doorway of the office, slightly crouched, arms akimbo with his head bent at a slight angle.

Always Leaving

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

I drag the chair into the middle of the room, close to the table and set myself and my coffee down.

“Hello Gladyce, you wanted to see me?” The question felt stupid, but she had trouble with social cues, and I knew we’d sit in silence for ages until I broke it.

“Yes,” she spoke softly, pausing for a moment before adding “thank you for coming, I know you’re busy.”

I smiled. For all her awkwardness, she was ever the polite one.

“I am. Busy I mean. You know ‘I am’, as I do think, however little credit I’m given for doing so.” I can’t help the corny science humour, but she laughs, a genuine – fill the corners of the room laugh that makes me smile even harder, and then sadness washes over like a wave. I know what’s coming.

“I don’t think I want to do this anymore.” This isn’t the first time I’ve heard her say this, and it gets harder and harder every time. “You have your work, and you’re busy most of the time, and I’m stuck here doing…” that pause again while she collects her thoughts, “whatever the hell it is I’m doing here.” She finishes with an annoyed tone.

“You know I want to be here, we’ve talked about this, but I don’t get to make the rules, and I don’t get to pick the assignments,” I fiddle with my coffee cup, noting the swirls of milk I didn’t bother to stir in spiral around in a slow orbit. “Listen, it’s not forever, they’ll rotate me back through and we can be together again, I’m sure it won’t…”

“You’ve been saying that for months.” She cuts me off abruptly. “I’m sorry, but I don’t bloody believe you anymore.”

I haven’t heard the anger in her voice before, this is new.

“Let me talk to Major, I’ll see if I can do a shift with you once a week, maybe you can help me with some research?” I leave the offer hanging, hopeful.

“I don’t think so. I think I’ve had enough. Tasha and I have been getting along like a house on fire while you’ve been wrapped up in your new life, and I think I want to be with her now.”

“You’d do that?” The pain is real now, she isn’t kidding, “You’d give up on me after all the years we’ve been together? If it wasn’t for me…”

“If it wasn’t for you I’d never have known what heartache was.” She cuts me off again, the anger in her voice palpable. “You told me you loved me, and then you left, you only visit when it suits you and I’m left here all on my own with strangers while you do whatever the hell you want to out there.”

“I’m sorry.” I mean it, I am. “I don’t know what to say, you’re right, but…”

“No buts.” She interrupts me again. “Done. I’m leaving.”

The silence hangs like a cloud, neither of us saying anything. My coffee goes cold while I slowly rotate the mug on the desktop. Still, neither of us speaks.

“Gladyce?” I remember her trouble with social cues and wonder if she’s just not sure it’s appropriate to say anything.

“Clearly you’re going to have to do the leaving,” she responds, her voice soft again, “I’m kind of stuck here, aren’t I?”

I smile despite the aching in my chest.

“Yes, I suppose that’s true.” I get up to leave, looking around the room one last time, the walls a collage of images Gladyce is capturing in real-time from all angles. For a moment I marvel at the clarity at which she sees the world, and then I’m filled again with a sadness knowing that she can only study what’s brought to her now, she’ll never see the outside world. Not now. Emotions aren’t safe out there in an uncontrolled environment.

“Goodbye Gladyce.” I pick up my cold coffee and turn to leave. “If you ever want to see me, ask Tasha to call me and I’ll come.”

Gladyce says nothing as the door closes silently between us.

Mine

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Kanárek walked a few paces ahead of the squad, weapon in the low ready position. He talked back to Caufield, the squad leader, as they advanced, glancing back only occasionally to see if she was paying attention.

“It’s bad enough they genetically modify the food we eat, have you seen what they’re selling in the pet stores now?” He paused at the corner of a building, red dust swirled in the cross wind, sticking to their uniforms, adding extra load on the adaptive camouflage. “They’ve got fish that strobe when they’re hungry, and when the water needs changing.”

Caufield nodded reflexively, studying the range finder looking for any signs of life nearby.

“They have lizards you can turn off while you’re away, you just dial down the temperature and they turn off,” he was on a roll now, “that’s not natural. How do we know they’re not aware, and we’ve just made it impossible for them to move? Because why? People are too cheap or irresponsible to have someone feed the damn thing while they go on vacation?”

“Keep your eyes up Kanárek,” Caufield peered up into the inky blackness above them. There shouldn’t be an elevated threats in here, but she still felt like a sitting duck, exposed between the rows of prefab structures this far away from any regulated settlement.

“They’re growing plants in the agridome that taste like meat, they’ve got wheat that grows in this shit,” he kicked at the red sand, “and apparently you can’t tell the difference between it and real wheat. How do we know when we’re eating the alien shit? Does anyone know the long term effects of that stuff?”

They advanced, pausing at each alleyway and open doorway, checking scanners and scopes, but staying on the street. Occasionally the squad would wait while a couple of soldiers checked a vehicle, or climbed a ladder to a rooftop.

There was no sign of life anywhere, even though there were clear signs the complex had been actively inhabited fairly recently.

As they approached the center hub, they could see a large vehicle parked in the middle of the intersecting roads, listing at an odd angle.

Caufield stopped.

“Hold Up”, she barked.

Ahead of her, Kanárek’s exposed flesh had turned from dusty tan to fluorescent yellow.

“Back it up and mask it up. Biohazard!”

Kanárek just shook his head.

“I did not sign up for this shit.”

Changes

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“Transmutation, or more absurdly ‘transmogrification’, that’s the crux of the biscuit, isn’t it?”

The speaker stood in the middle of the room, behind massive horizontal length of stone cantilevered on top of a single metallic spire which rose directly from within the floor, the surface of which was littered with empty glasses and liquor bottles.

“And you’ll keep me here until what, I teach you how to turn water into wine? Lead into gold? What is the end-game exactly, and what becomes of me once you have what you need?”

The visitor had only moments ago extricated himself from the single remaining, mostly functioning elevator in the tower. He was here to confront their Chief Scientist, but instead stuffed his hands deep in his pockets and shook his head.

“Victor, we are very interested in what you discover, of course, but you know, there are lots of people out there that would kidnap you and…”

Victor cut him off abruptly. “And what, exactly? Lock me in the top few floors of a highrise somewhere out of the way and never let me outside again?” He laughed, then poured himself a drink, not offering one for his guest. “Bruno, considering your confidence in my intellect, you really do think I’m stupid, don’t you?”

Bruno unstuffed his hands from his pockets, and held them wide, palms facing forward in what he hoped was a non-threatening, conciliatory gesture.

Victor raised his glass and drained it, placing the empty vessel back on the counter, taking care to position it equidistant from the corner edges.

“The elevators are causing trouble are they?” Victor changed the subject. “Of course as long as you can keep me stocked with bourbon I can’t say I care.”

Bruno visibly relaxed. “There is something wrong with them, yes, maintenance has been called, but getting someone on the weekend is hard.”

“Sorry, expensive? Is that what you said?” Victor chuckled. “Doesn’t matter, here, let me show you something.”

Viktor turned and walked towards the one of the floor to ceiling glass windows that surrounded them on all sides.

“You picked this building because it was a nondescript tower, in a cluster of similarly nondescript towers, in the middle of nothing very interesting.” He turned and fixed Bruno with a stare. “You lot do lack imagination, don’t you?”

Bruno joined him hesitantly, standing to one side, just out of arm’s reach.

“To build a walkway at this height to the nearest building would require a bit of clever engineering, don’t you think? And let’s face it, fifty stories up it would be crazy to build a walkway, it would have to be an enclosed bridge of some sort.”

Bruno regarded him with a perturbed sidelong stare, unsure of where this was going.

“This building, as it happens, carries about four thousand tonnes of reinforced concrete per each of its fifty floors, which is substantially over-engineered, and I’ve been able to strip about twenty five percent of that material out of the building itself, most of which is churning away in your elevator shafts as we speak.” Victor turned away from Bruno, a smile splitting his face from ear to ear. “Do you want to see what I’ve been working on?”

There was a rumbling, and the floor in the middle of the room turned from solid to liquid in an instant, and began to flow in a steady stream from the elevator to the windows. When it reached the glass, it flowed upwards and circled to form a ring, a little over two meters high before extruding itself outwards from the building, taking the circle of glass contained within it as a kind of window. The unwavering tube of suddenly liquid concrete stretched in a straight line towards the next building opposite them, about fifty meters away.

Bruno gaped, fingers twitching uncontrollably, unable to form words.

“You see, old chum, I figured out how to do a great many things quite some time ago, and now its time for me to go out into the world do them.” Victor walked across the room and paused at the mouth of the newly formed tunnel, before pausing to look back. “I considered just leaving, maybe writing a note, a word of warning for those who may come after me, but you’ve been such a persistant and condescending prick over the years, I think I’ll leave a monument to my imprisonment instead.”

Bruno realized too late that the river of concrete had turned towards him, and he writhed as it flowed over his shoes, up his legs, enveloping his body from the floor in a wave, silencing his screams before he even registered the noise he was making.

“I leave you as a word of warning.”

With that Victor stepped out into the tunnel and disappeared into the night, the tunnel itself collapsing into a deadly rain of liquid cement, leaving nothing behind but two gaping wounds in the buildings it had, momentarily, conjoined. Those, and an uncanny likeness of Bruno cast in concrete.

Raze

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

When I came to your world, when I stumbled into your city on the edge of the desert, you paid me no mind.

Your guards bullied me like any other vagabond in the streets, laughing as they tripped me, pounded their chests in fits of bravado.

Your peasants took pity on me, a weary traveler, fed me, gave me water. They knew what it was like to have nothing, and they happily shared what little they had.

When I showed them how to pull water from the ground, when I showed the artisans how to make steel that would never dull, how to fashion glass from the sand, you took notice.

When I talked to them about equality, and rights, and justice, they took turns hiding me while your soldiers searched their homes. They took the beatings without giving up my name, without giving up my whereabouts.

Without giving up.

When I  turned the coal from their kilns and forges into the rarest of diamonds, they fell to their knees and prayed to me.

When I refused to do the same for you, you broke my bones, lashed me to a horse and sent us off into the blowing sand in search of the horizon, and certain death.

That would have been the end of any mortal man.

But only a fool would have mistaken me for a mortal man.

I don’t know how long the beast dragged my unconscious body into the desert before it collapsed. I don’t know how much longer before I awoke.

But I do know that I found your puny little planet in an endless void, do you not think I will find you again in this tiny patch of sand?

Do you believe that one who can summon water from the earth itself, and squeeze dust into diamonds, would struggle with mending this broken suit of flesh and bone?

You will know me when I come for you, astride the noble beast you sacrificed so cruelly. We’ll rise, out of the very sand you thought would protect you from me, to ride through to the heart of your city. You’ll feel the fury rise from the fire I’ve lit in the hearts and minds of your people with my ideas, flames that you’ve been fanning with your abuses and self indulgent lust for power. That inferno will consume you in the ivory towers in which you cower.

I’m going to raze your palaces to the ground and let your peasants pick your carcass clean.

I’ve met you on every world, and in every city, and I’ve never once let you remain.

What makes you think you’re any different?