Elevation

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Jack stood a few feet to the side of the station wagon, the door hanging open, the engine having just rattled and coughed into silence.

Ahead, bathed in the yellow glow of the headlights was Celine, barefoot in the jeans and tee she’d been wearing when she disappeared. Head tilted to one side, arms stretched out, not quite above her head.

Jack heard himself chamber a round into the rifle without really registering the decision to do so.

“Don’t you move,” his voice broke, hands shaking, “don’t you fucking move.”

Celine didn’t move, she just hovered there, in the road, toes pointing down to the oil sprayed gravel without actually touching it.

“It’s alright, Jack, everything’s going to be ok.”

Her voice was calm, and it soothed him, as it always did when things seemed out of control. She was ever the rock on which he could anchor his tenuous grasp on reality.

“It’s not alright,” his voice carried easily, all other sound seemed to have been erased around them. “It’s not bloody alright Celine, I saw that thing, saw what it did to you. I saw what you…”

He couldn’t finish the sentence, but instead took a tighter grip on the rifle and fought to steady the barrel before him.

“I’m still the same, Jack. I’m still Celine, I’m still your wife, I’m just something else now too,” she straightened her head and smiled, “something more.”

His mouth opened and closed noiselessly as memories flooded through him, the lights, the smoke surrounding her, penetrating her, consuming her where she stood hanging the washing.

Now here she was, a hundred miles away in the road like nothing was the least bit wrong.

It wasn’t natural.

Movement just outside the range of the headlights brought him back to the moment, and his aim wavered slightly as a pack of wolves crossed the road far beyond her, their silhouettes just barely visible in the fade of the artificial light. Their eyes shone as they paused and looked before continuing on their path into the woods on the other side of the road.

One didn’t turn away, and instead the curious creature padded slowly into the circle of light, ignoring Jack and his rifle, the car and its headlights to circle around Celine, sniffing the air around her legs.

When it had completed several revolutions, it raised itself up on its hind legs and placed its paws on her shoulders, its body equally as long as she was tall, and rubbed its head against hers, before dropping back to the ground and wandering nonchalantly away in the direction the rest of the pack had taken.

She didn’t move, didn’t flinch, and even though she clearly wasn’t anchored to the ground in any way, wasn’t stirred in the slightest by the bulk of the massive animal.

Jack heard the rifle hit the road this time, without really registering the decision to drop it, and he staggered forward, taking slow halting steps with tearing eyes until he stood within inches of her.

“My Celine…”, his voice choked off.

Celine reached out and cradled his head in her hands, staring down into his upturned face and searching eyes.

“You know, Jack, you’re not a wolf,” she smiled, and with a quick twist snapped his neck, letting his lifeless body drop at her feet, “you’re just a man.”

Adapt and Overcome

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Commander Abhrams wasn’t an athlete, but had trained almost maniacally to meet the physical requirements of the space program. He wasn’t the smartest either, and in school most reports included notes suggesting he ‘would do better if he applied himself’. He’d made up the time later though, studied after work and on weekends to get through the entrance exams. Nothing was going to keep him from space once the program opened up.

He got his wings, worked through the ranks and nearly four decades later found himself here, in command of a ship, out among the stars with an ark in orbit and boots on the ground of this new world.

The planet had been bombarded with an advanced terraforming agent while he was still in the academy, and now, with the lander parked on a flat mesa nearby, Abhrams looked with wild wonder at this world around him.

The shelf of the mesa gave way to a beach of tumbled river rock, beyond which a lake reached out to the horizon. Along the edge of the lake, bullrushes reached skyward, and though from a distance he couldn’t be sure, he would swear they were nearly four metres tall.

Nearby, a thicket of what looked like sunflowers grew out from a patch of the river rock. As he watched, a small flying thing – possibly a bird – hovered close to one, reaching in – maybe to pluck a seed – when the flower folded in half with a snick and trapped the flying thing inside.

Motion near the water’s edge caught his eye, and the rocks began, in ones and twos, to unfold themselves, legs extending from inside the protective stony shells to form into a line of ants the size of cats marching up towards the mesa. Abhrams stepped back, but they divided, giving him a metre wide berth before joining up again and closing the distance to the ship.

He took a few steps towards the lander itself, but the rock-ants climbed on top of one another, forming a stationary wall ahead of him, and it didn’t move as he approached, but rather rose higher, the giant ants buttressing the structure from behind and blocking his way. Beyond them he could see the entire surface of the landing craft was moving, a rippling mass of life teaming over its surface, and he could only stare in horror as the ship slowly seemed to shrink in size beneath the weight of these creatures until it was no more.

The flow of ants changed then, turning about face as a singular unit and almost pouring off the mesa  as they returned to the lakeside.

He watched as they passed, and realized that the once grey and rocky surface of their shells now glistened with a fresh white alloy veneer, and as they spread out across the beach, he could almost make out the corporation’s logo spread across a number of their backs, before they rolled back into balls and the ground was still once more.

Somewhere out on the water a large serpentine fish broke the surface, fins extending from its body like legs to sprint across on top of the water. Behind it a blur gave close chase, the pair zig-zagging around the lake until a mouth opened up ahead of the hapless fish, the pursuer having driven it straight into its partner’s jaws. Abhrams gaped at the pair of animals he would have called leopards, as they hung half in and half out of the water face to face, one spitting half its catch into the other’s mouth before both slipped beneath the surface of the lake leaving nothing behind but stillness.

Things had gone terribly awry here, but he’d already made up his mind. Adapt and overcome.

Nothing was going to keep him in space, now that there was a new world opening up.

Zen and the Art of Self Repair

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Mareck’s Sensei had spent countless hours sitting in front of his bonsai tree, studying it, almost communing with it, and occasionally making an almost imperceptible cut.

For years, Mareck thought the old man was crazy.

The sun, having warmed the other side of the earth, was creeping up on the horizon as Mareck returned to the sprawling expanse of stacked and cantilevered shipping containers that he called home.

A warm envelope of soft light followed him from the garage, through the hallways and down the stairs into the basement, leading him with a gentle glow and dissolving into shadows behind him.

In the darkness a whirring disk, sensing the dirt and blood he was trailing behind him, dutifully scrubbed the slate floor back to gleaming, hovering just out of view as its master limped and grunted his way through the house.

The deepest room housed Mareck’s laboratory, and his recovery room, and on entry he began an almost ritualistic deconstruction.

The space was an eclectic hybrid of stone, and bamboo, of stainless steel and ceramic. He removed his clothing, tossing the items into a chute in the corner that whisked them away to be cleaned. Any damage to the fabric would be repaired automatically.

The thin armor suit came off next, its microfibre base-layer relaxing from a skin-tight fit to baggy elastic, allowing him to slide it off his shoulders for it to drop to the floor around his ankles.

The damage to the shoulder and thigh plating was extensive, and would require careful repair.

But not tonight.

In the middle of the room stretched a coffin sized transparent cylinder, hinged on one side, and it was into this that Mareck crawled, the gashes in his thigh and upper body now leaking fluid freely.

Once inside, the lid closed and the unit sealed. There was a moment as the headpiece aligned, and the interface handshaking completed, and then he uplifted into the house itself, the sensation of limitless freedom replacing the throbbing wounds and aching muscles.

His point of view changed from looking up through the glass towards the ceiling, to looking down through the glass at his now sleeping body, its heart-rate slowing as the tank filled with artificial amniotic fluid.

The point of detachment used to unsettle him, but this had become second nature now, he was as much at home in the house as in his own flesh and blood.

Ambient music filled the empty spaces in his consciousness, as the doors and windows all sealed metal-shutter tight for the duration of this recovery.

He would spend countless hours now above and inside his own body, studying it, almost communing with it, reaching inside with the most delicate of tools to repair blood vessels, to neuroglue severed nerve bundles and stitch together muscle and skin.

Anyone who could see him would surely think he was crazy.

My Lucky Number’s One

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Chase peeled off her evening attire slowly, the fabric offering some resistance in the numerous places it was still actively staunching blood flow. The garments dropped haphazardly to the bathroom floor. The time for precision and planning was behind her, she’d clean up the mess once she’d slept.

Climbing the steps around the tub, she lowered herself gingerly to sit on the cool tile. Swinging her legs into the steaming liquid first, she gripped opposite sides of the tub and lowered herself slowly, not stopping until her head slipped beneath the surface, a crimson cloud blossoming around her like a rose.

She barely flinched as the fluid filled her lungs, oxygenating her as it cleaned the evening’s toxins from her insides. The bioagent surrounded her, slipping through her skin to permeate her deep tissue like smoke through cheesecloth, picking away at the scar tissue that was already starting to form, dissolving the deep hematomas, coercing the open wounds to knit from their depths out to the surface. The swellings slowly subsided, the throbbing aches eased, the fractures in her ribs mended.

All the while she lay motionless, the stain of an evening’s abuses slowly turning the milky white of the bath to a deep crimson nearing black.

She joked once that this tub had removed her last ounce of respect for her liver, and relieved her of any responsibility for it’s preservation.

On the other side of the city, in a similar tub soaked the inflictor of the cuts, and bruises, and other blunt force traumas she’d endured on this particular evening. He’d inflicted other traumas, over time, that even the tub couldn’t ease away, as near to magic as it was.

This other tub with its soaking man, however, differed in that even his tub, for all it’s advanced healing capabilities, couldn’t fix what she’d broken, or to put it more succinctly, couldn’t breathe life back into the dead slab of meat she’d left in its care.

It was a shame, really. She’d loved him, once, and for a time she thought they were the perfect couple, both at the top of their professional game, experts at solving sensitive problems involving… expendable people.

Until he betrayed her.

Why is it always those closest to you that betray you?

She’d instructed his tub to clean itself thoroughly, so it would be, at this very moment, diligently working to dissolve her once partner, once lover. It would be slowly atomically disassembling him, as well as the bed sheets and his clothing, the conch-shell decoration from the dresser, a coat hanger, two sets of chopsticks, two bourbon glasses and the handful of bath towels she’d mopped up and moved his broken body with.

In her pile of clothing remained an unfinished and particularly fantastic bottle of bourbon. She was an assassin, not a heathen.

As it turned out, he’d found someone he thought he loved more than her.

Silly mistake.

He’d also gone on to betray this someone, in the end, during the few minutes of begging she indulged him in.

Someone else would be tomorrow’s problem.

She was feeling her age at the moment, but she’d feel much younger come morning.

Switcher

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.