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.

Starting Over

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The elevator descended to the hospital basement, and she followed the orderly through the open doors and down a pale green hallway. He was speaking, but she listened instead to the hum of the overhead fluorescent lights, and her heels striking a staccato rhythm against the linoleum floor with exquisite clarity. Distracted, she missed most of what he said.

“…not uncommon for the initial emotional response to be overwhelming. You’ll find the dampeners will help balance it out if it gets too much. You’ll find a comfortable level once you learn to control it…”

A set of double doors swung open as they approached, and closed behind them once they’d passed.

He stopped near the end of the hall at a single solid door, and turned to face her.

“Are you ready? I’ll be right here if you need me.”

“Yes,” she spoke, the sound of her voice unfamiliar in her ears, “I’m ready.”

He opened the door and stepped into the room beyond, then held it for her until she’d followed him inside.

In the middle of the room was a gurney, lit by a single overhead fixture that bathed its length in cool white light. On the gurney itself was the body of a man, draped in a clean blue sheet, turned down at the shoulders. The rest of the room was obscured in shadow, but this is why she was here. To see him.

She moved around the body, studying his face from all angles. His skin now grey and lifeless, his hair, once deep auburn now streaked with grey and white at the edges. His eyes were closed, but she could picture in her mind the crystal blue that they were when he was alive.

“Can I…”, she hesitated, reaching without realizing towards him.

“Touch him?” the orderly replied, “of course, yes, he won’t mind.”

She smiled despite herself at the awkward remark, this must be new to him as well.

She cradled the man’s face in her hands, then ran her fingers through his hair, as she’d done a thousand times before. The sensation was so much different now, the texture of each strand against her skin captured with such fidelity.

A sudden flush of heat started in her chest and rose through her neck into her cheeks. She could feel her heart racing, and a sudden feeling of panic crashed over her like a tidal wave.

“It’s alright,” the orderly was speaking again, “It’s alright, give it a moment and the dampeners will kick in.”

She gripped the side of the gurney with both hands until the feeling passed, and a calmness crept in. A soothing cool pushing the overwhelming emotions aside.

“It will take some time with the new suit while it adjusts to your personal emotional stimuli.” He was facing her across the body now, watching her. “There are safeties, obviously, that will catch things before they can get out of control. Once the initial calibration period is behind you, you’ll be able to access and control specific tolerances to sensation, light and sound, and establish your own comfortable emotional boundaries.”

She looked back at the lifeless body on the gurney before her.

“I imagine it’s quite a shock,” the orderly continued, “to see yourself like this.” From his tone she could tell he was original equipment himself.

“Not really,” she replied, “he hadn’t been me for years.”

Varsity Blues

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Jessica sat in the corner booth at the back of O’Tooles with the best sight line to the door. She wanted to see him when he arrived, Taylor Jacobs, highschool sweetheart.

Well, he might have been. He’d always been polite, and they grew up on the same street, so that was to be expected, but she never fit in with his crowd. He played quarterback, she hated the cheerleaders. He bowled on Friday nights with the ‘in’ crowd, and she spent most Friday’s at the library, or jogging laps around the outskirts of a town she wished she could feel at home in. She went to watch him play hockey one night, and his team mates pointed and made jokes that she couldn’t hear. She toughed it out for a while just to spite them, but she left at second intermission and never went back. She always thought one day she’d be interesting enough, or ‘in’ enough for him to see her.

But that was highschool. That was years ago.

He walked through the door just like he’d done a hundred times before, blonde gelled hair combed over neatly to one side, faded and worn varsity letterman jacket open over a plain white t-shirt, stretched out in the belly more than she’d remembered, but still handsome, and he still walked like he owned the place.

“Hi, ” he smiled as he sat down, “sorry I’m late. You look great.”

He was exactly as she remembered him.

The waiter arrived and announced the specials, and as she opened her mouth to order he spoke first.

“Budweiser,” he said, “I don’t need a glass.”

It was ten o’clock in the morning.

“I’ll have a coffee, with milk. In a mug please.”

He didn’t catch the sarcasm.

As she worked her way through a second and then third cup of coffee, Taylor polished off five bottles of Budweiser while listening intently.

“…and after the academy graduation, I spent a year flying research crews between Starlight Station and Io. On one flight, we almost got blown into orbit when Prometheus, a really large volcano, erupted without any warning. I was hovering over top of the crater so the imaging team could get a better vantage point, and we almost got too close a look!” She laughed, remembering the exhilaration of the moment and the flood of relief when she was sure they were safely clear of the blast zone.

Taylor peeled absently at the label on his most recently emptied bottle, and smiled. “That sounds really exciting.”

“Yes,” Jessica sat back and regarded the fattening, mildly inebriated former football hero as he scraped bits of the beer bottle label from under his fingernails.

“Hey,” he perked up, “why don’t you come to our hockey game later? Me and the guys usually bowl afterwards, you could come have a drink and maybe keep me company for a few frames.”

“That sounds like fun, but I don’t think so.” She motioned for the waiter as she reached for her pay-card. “There’s a shuttle leaving at eighteen hundred, and I’d like to get back home.”

He slumped back into his seat, but the pretty boy pout that might have worked at one time merely served to cement her decision.

They said goodbye, and he gave her a hug that he held for a little too long after she let go. The smell of beer and sweat lingered as she walked towards the exit.

“Don’t be a stranger, Jess,” he called after her as she pushed open the door.

Jessica turned and smiled across the dimly lit bar, struck with the nostalgia of the moment played out in reverse. She’d heard a familiar and hopeful wanting in his voice, something she remembered from her youth.

But that was highschool.

That was years ago.