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.”

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.