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.”

Of Anger and Beauty

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Tzen sat on the third floor of the abandoned building in near darkness. Only those streetlights that remained unbroken filtered light through shattered windows and draped plastic into what was once an active construction site.

The money to be made in this part of the city wasn’t going to be in condos, or retail stores. It was only in drugs, and violence, and death.

From somewhere nearby, voices raised above the wind-noise and the distant traffic. Men were bragging at volume, the smell of narcotic-laced sweat filtered up and through the stink of the city streets into Tzen’s olfactory sensors.

Time to power up and move.

Navigating his way through the construction waste with a grace and agility that belied his bulk, his massive boots made nearly no sound on the dusty concrete. At the open edge of the floor he stopped, surveying the alley below.

Seven men clustered in the shadows between the buildings, jabbering over one another in Quikspeak as they examined the contents of a backpack that lay on the ground between them. Tzen focused and picked out the partial label of a well known medical supply company. They had quantity. Not users then, but traffickers.

And a little girl.

She sat off to one side, back against the wall, head down hugging her knees and rocking gently back and forth, keening.

Tzen noted the slung weapons of the dealers, and gauged the best possible vector for descent, then stepped out from the third floor into space and dropped, a tonne of unwelcome heavy into the party.

He landed with one boot each on the head of two of the closest dealers, driving their skulls down through their own bodies into the pavement. Tzen’s lower extremities telescoped into themselves to absorb the impact, the result being no more sound that the wet squelch of compressing and redistributed flesh.

The remaining men were stunned, drug packages still in hand. They stood immobilized, weapons left slung at their sides, unable to rationalize where their comrades had disappeared to, and how this mechanical monster had replaced them.

Tzen raised both arms, elbows cocked at ninety degree angles and turned his hands in automatically to clear the barrels as a volley of flechettes erupted into the two unfortunate souls in their path. In an instant their torsos were spread across the alleyway beyond, hips and legs crumpling where they stood.

“One, two, three, four,” Tzen grated in the closest approximation of a sing-song voice his hardware would allow, “can I have a couple more?”

The man to Tzen’s left was the first to react, bringing the barrel of his weapon up already firing. A steady stream of shells struck Tzen’s chest-plate at an angle. Tzen turned until the angle of their ricochet intersected with the man on Tzen’s right, sending him staggering gurgling backwards to drop in a heap. Tzen swung an arm in a swift fly motion, catching the gunman under the chin and knocking him off his feet with an audible crack as his spine dislocated from his skull.

The remaining man ran screaming, the bag and the drugs forgotten at Tzen’s feet.

It would do well to have stories told of the monster in the darkness. Fear is a more effective deterrent than even violence.

As he collected the drugs from the ground, the soft sobbing sounds bubbled up to the forefront of his attention, and he turned and lumbered over to where the girl sat, still curled in a ball but eyes now wide and watching him.

He reached out an armored hand slowly, and she considered the blood-spattered monster who stood before her, and the apparent gentleness of what had only moments ago dealt death without hesitation.

“Come, little one. Let’s get you home.”

The girl reached out and let Tzen pick her up and cradle her into the crook of one arm.

As they trudged out of the alley into the night, he remembered carrying his daughter home like this, in another time, in another body.

Out of the Woods

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Dez pulled the bike up to the edge of the tree-line, the electrics going quiet automatically. In the distance, mile-high lamp standards flooded the distribution center with artificial daylight, even in these early hours. Long haulers, fresh off the intercontinental, sat waiting to be broken down into short-hop transports. Autonomous skips skittering like cockroaches into the city with their cargos.

Dez had enough power from the solars to get down there, but he’d need to find fuel if he was going to get out again.

An almost forgotten itch permeated his body, miles of combat mesh-weave under his skin picking up the transient power and data traffic that hung heavy in the night air. He’d been turned off for so long it would take some time before the feeling faded back into normality and the urge to tear open his skin and carve out the implants abated.

He was coming back. Slowly.

He eased the bike onto the gentle downward slope of the field, building up as much kinetic energy in the flywheel as the battery could manage before shutting everything down and allowing inertia to propel him down towards the outer rim. Without power, without any data signature the security software would ignore him like they would a coyote, or any other inconsequential predator. Even the edge dwellers transmitted a pulse, but he was a ghost.

Coasting between a long string of fuel tankers, he turned into the space between two of them and braked to a stop. Uncoiling a siphon line from the main tank of the bike and hugging the side of the truck, Dez moved up to where he could read the display from the tanker’s internal scale. He stuck the tap to the underside of the tank, the end-cap sealing automatically as the bore twisted its way through the multiple layers of alloy, slowly enough to not risk a spark igniting the field.

While it drilled, Dez skirted back to the edge of the tarmac and collected an armload of rocks from where the paving system had pushed them when it first cleared the ground. Humping them back to the tanker he waited until the fuel drill stopped whirring, made a mental note of the tanker’s load weight, then placed the first of the rocks on the shrapnel guards surrounding the wheels and watched as the weight climbed slightly. He breathed deeply, slowly opening the tap to start the fuel transfer to the bike. When the digits on the display approached their starting point, he added another rock, repeating the process until the bike’s main tank and saddle-bags were full, then he stopped, disengaged the tap line and watched as the tank’s self-healing membranes closed the hole behind him.

At some point the tanker would be moved, the rocks would be found, or fall off and alarms would go off, but Dez would be miles away by then.

The cowling of the bike soaked up what little energy the overhead lamps provided, the charging circuits the only thing Dez dared leave alive while he straddled the bike and propelled it manually, the tires of the bike and the toes of his boots making nearly no sound on the smooth glasphalt surface.

Reaching the edge of the pack of parked transports, he slowed, keeping up some momentum as he surveyed the gates. Waiting until a transport negotiated the turn from the terminal building to the exit, he fired up the main drive and plastered himself flush to the tank, head low behind the faring. The engine screamed as he shot through the gap just ahead of the hauler’s cab where the barriers receded and out onto the night highway. Any alarms were left far behind as he leaned the bike deep into the curve of the onramp to the intercontinental, then disappeared through the traffic of the long rising straight.

At this speed he would make the coast before the sun went down again, and there he’d be able to find someone to light his hardware back up.

The itch under his skin receded into a familiar flutter, an awareness he only now realized how much he’d missed through recent years.

Rest time was over, there was work to be done.

Hack

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Saykoe felt the agents following her, unseen, but their presence always just a corner, just a doorway behind.

She slipped into the narrow gap between two buildings, opened her communications system and coded in to decrypt the tunnel. As she stepped into the street at the end of the alley, the evening disolved into blackness.

“Got her,” the agent spoke aloud, the need for stealth now passed, “she’s out cold and her comm channel is decrypted and open.”

Hours later she awoke, a throbbing pain in the back of her head. The cold asphalt damp beneath her, and the street empty.

In the corner of her heads-up, a nearly open channel blinked, waiting for input.

In the control room, two agents watched Saykoe through the observation glass. She was strapped to an inclined table in the interrogation room, her head wired into a highly restricted VR rig, her every move recorded and scrutinized by the system.

“She won’t know she’s not on the street,” the seated agent spoke, “she’ll still think she’s outside.”

“You were sloppy,” his partner snapped, pacing, “you should have realized there was more than one level of encryption. If it occurs to her she’s being virtualized, she’ll never open a channel and we’ll never get the codes from her.”

Saykoe pulled herself unsteadily to her feet, looked up and down the street but saw no one. There was still the omnipresent feeling of being followed, but the sense of urgency had abated.

The blinking comms-prompt begged for attention.

Slipping back in-between the two buildings, she gave the prompt focus, and started feeding it a complex series of coded keys.

In the server room, the intrusion system slowed the virtual environment and captured every bit with the highest fidelity, while in the control room the agents studied the console with intent.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before. Get me a channel to over-ops, priority, encrypted, they’ll need to see this.”

The seated agent opened the session, coded-in and then fed through the appropriate keys to get over-ops online. A fraction of a second later everything froze.

Under the flickering glare of a single fluorescent tube, Saykoe looked up from the makeshift console to the agent taped tightly to the chair before her, his head wired into a highly restricted VR rig.

“Got you, you fuck.”

With the virtual environment on pause, she executed the code that she had staged, and watched the progress as it crawled through the agent’s open line and into the over-ops cerebral cortex, creating a series of back doors and opening communications ports for future incursions.

Stepping back onto the street, she felt the heat of the thermite as it consumed the heart of the building behind her, and everything within. Turning up her collar, she welcomed the cool breeze as she disappeared into the night.

All That We See, or Seem

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

He sat on the side of the bed, back against the wall, and looked through the window into the neon night of the city outside.

Between he and the glass of this closet apartment, fifty stories above the streets below, lay a girl he’d known for only tonight, but who’s presence seemed to stretch backwards through his memory forever. She lay facing away and fully nude beside him, twisted slightly at the hips. He studied the rhythmic rise and fall of her breathing, and marveled at the life her tattoos continued to live even while she slept. A dragon blinked slowly, regarding him from her shoulder, occasionally stretching and ruffling it’s wings, it’s tail curling and uncurling languidly around her exposed thigh. Around her ankles slowly revolved pairs of snakes, continuously eating one another.

He studied the razor sharp line where the black of her hair gave way to the pale almond of her skin, shorn almost to the flesh excepting the six inch vertical fan that now lay flat against the pillow, vacillating of its own accord between a limp resting state, and the rigid double row of spikes she’d worn at the club that he was sure was as much weapon as fashion statement.

She’d materialized through the slow steady beat of the dance floor, locked onto him and stayed without question and without explanation.

His body ached from the frenetic pace they’d kept until she was satiated, both physically exhausted but his mind still on fire.

He fished for his jacket, found and ignited a cigarette, and turned back to the view outside.

The smoke of the city presented an ever present ceiling above the buildings, lit from below by a million miles of neon signage, the murky cloud a tapestry of purples, pinks and blues, lines of which stretched off into the distance, lost beyond the limits of his vision, beyond this sleeping girl.

He pulled on the cigarette, letting the smoke drift slowly through his nostrils and creating a cloud of its own inside the room.

She stirred, and he studied the undulating lines of her body as she repositioned herself, the dragon shifting as though irritated before shaking itself out to settle back into place when she’d stopped moving again.

At the edge of his vision there was a brief flicker. Was that pixilation? Momentary derez?

He drew another long inhale off the cigarette and as the chemicals numbed his brain he stared with renewed focus at the curvature of her hips.

If this wasn’t real, he didn’t want to know.