Orbital Decay

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Lewis unzipped the duffle bag on the table so the stacks of paper bills were visible.

“Space suits are expensive,” Sweet had told him, “and you not bring back.”

Sweet eyed the contents of the bag from a distance. “It’s all there? I don’t have to count?”

Lewis shook his head ‘no’, and waited.

“Come, you need suit.” Sweet beckoned with big hairy arms and disappeared through the vertical strips of once-clear plastic hanging in the doorway.

Lewis followed. The corrugated steel shed he’d arrived at seemed to be built into the side of a hill, and the plastic-covered door gave way to a long dark passage, which itself opened up onto a massive concrete cylinder that reached deep into the ground and rose above him to the darkening evening sky.

“Missile silo, abandoned, but perfect place for big space gun, no?” Sweet stood proudly on the lip of the old launch tube. “Come, we go down, then you go up, yes? Quick, we need to shoot soon to hit cluster.”

Lewis followed the beefy man around an expanded metal walkway, bolted to the inside wall of the silo, to where a makeshift elevator had been attached to the concrete wall. He braced himself as they descended into the darkness below.

At the bottom the tunnel opened up into an almost warehouse sized building. There were shipping pallets stacked with boxes, some wrapped in plastic and most covered in dust. A row of rough terrain vehicles sat against the far wall, though how they got there, or whether they could be driven out wasn’t immediately apparent. Overhead large bulbous lights flooded the space in pockets of warm yellow and overlapping shadows.

“Your suit,” Sweet pointed to an orange and white space suit on a nearby table, “leave your boots and jacket, put on suit, I help with helmet and gloves”.

It took Lewis nearly fifteen minutes to struggle into the suit while Sweet busied himself with what looked like a large model rocket nearby, twice as tall as the man himself and held upright by a pair of vice-like attachments on a forklift. On the side of the tube was painted ‘CCCP’ in large red letters, with a smily face added below in apparent freehand.

“Gloves first,” Sweet returned his attention to Lewis, attaching the gloves and engaging the twist lock mechanism at their cuffs. “Follow and listen.” He led Lewis, ambling awkwardly in the ill fitting suit to the forklift and it’s rocket payload. “You climb in here, we pressurize can then load you in launch tube.” He pointed off into the darkness, back in the direction they came. “You watch oxygen here,” he tapped a gauge on the suit’s sleeve, “I fire booster and it shoots you into orbit, then you push here, and here,” he grabbed at a pair of handles inside on either side of the door, pushing them away from each other, “and out you go, yes?”

Lewis studied the helmet in his hands. “Once I’m in orbit, your people will be waiting for me?”

“Yes, my people are waiting for you.” He grinned, and grasping Lewis by the shoulders shook him heartily. “You will have plenty of company.”

The launch vehicle was a squeeze, but Sweet explained the thickness and the tiled nose cone would deflect the heat, and the formed interior was as comfortable as was possible with this kind of delivery system.

“Not first class, but quick and nobody find you. Good, yes?”

Lewis nodded, then tried to relax as the door closed and he and the rocket were trundled across the floor and loaded into the launch tube which, Lewis realized, was probably also bolted onto the silo wall.

The launch itself was brutal, Lewis slipping in and out of consciousness several times before the crushing weight of Earth’s gravity abated and the craft settled into what had to be its final orbit.

Lewis waited. An hour? Hours? He’d lost track of time, and could barely make out the glowing needle on his oxygen, now showing nearly half empty.

He put his hands on the two handles, hesitated, and pushed.

The cabin depressurized instantly, tearing the door off into the vacuum of space.

The Earth was spread out blue below him, and scattered around him, dozens perhaps in a tight cluster were familiar looking cylinders, some still closed, some, like his with the door missing and a familiar orange and white suited figure inside.

Sweet sat in his silo below, poured himself another vodka and raised his glass.

“Moy narod”, he said, “my people”.

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Spider Bytes

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

They waited at the mouth of the service corridor, the mezzanine railing just a few meters away. Above them somewhere, the heavy thumping of the security spider marked its progress in its pursuit of them. Across an open space broken at intervals by tree trunks and greenery, the armored glass of the laboratory stretched floor to ceiling, and out of sight in either direction.

“That going to present a problem?” A rhetorical question. Mett knew Gaez wouldn’t have signed on for this if it wasn’t going to present a challenge.

“Working on it” the disinterested reply. Gaez was more interested in their stalker.

They broke cover and sprinted left, hugging the wall. Cameras hung limp and blind at frequent intervals from the ceiling, one of the many indicators that Gaez had taken ownership of the facility’s less deadly security systems.

A whine from above, rising in pitch, was abruptly punctuated by a volley of sabot rounds fired across the garden atrium into the laboratory windows. Large pieces of their armored surface buckled under the impact.

“Work faster, those aren’t anti-personnel rounds,” Mett chirped, picking up the pace of his sprint. The spider, realizing it had been firing at reflections, began recalculating and relocating to obtain firing options on their actual position.

“No, they’re not. As far as the security system is concerned, we’re an intruding spider.” Across the atrium a heavy section of weakened wall crumbled, their pursuer having none-too delicately ripped a gaping wound through the only thing left keeping them out of the lab. “See, told you I was working on that.”

Mett’s communication alarms flashed red at the edges of his vision as Gaez had started speaking over an open channel. He grabbed Gaez by the shoulder, tapping his mouth and making a slashing motion across his throat with one hand.

“I know, I opened the channel. We’re encrypted, so it can’t understand what we’re saying, but it’s listening intently. All good.” Gaez grinned.

They continued to the end of the mezzanine and ducked back into another service corridor leading away from the open area as the spider on the floor above clambered out on a walkway, cannon noisily searching the space where they’d been.

“Keep talking, it’s time to turn off that ugly bug.”

Mett kept the pace, but couldn’t keep the doubt from his voice. “Those things aren’t hackable. I’d have heard about–”

Gaez cut him off.

“No, not directly hackable, but I know a few useful service codes.”

Another volley hammered down the hallway as they turned left again – the spider was picking up speed, anticipating their movements as they doubled back on the route they’d taken a few moments ago.

“Service codes? You hacked TacComm’s network?”

Gaez shook his head, obviously concentrating as he ran code through the broadcast system in his head. “Not TacComm, but they outsource service for some of the local deployments.”

“So you hacked one of those?”

“No, but the local service providers can’t all manage the spider’s heating and cooling systems, so they outsource that to some other companies. I hacked one of those.”

As they reached the first hallway heading back towards the atrium, Mett grabbed Gaez by the shoulders and stopped him just short of the opening, seconds before the spider unleashed another volley of shells into the space it had predicted they should have occupied in that instant.

Mett turned his partner around, locking eyes. “And what the hell good is that?”

Gaez grinned again.

“While we’ve been talking, the spider’s been listening, and I’ve been spiking the comms with temperature-sensor code-shrapnel.” He pushed Mett back slowly the way they’d come. Down the hallway the spider’s cannon was spinning down, no longer firing. “The polarity of the firing systems temperature sensors in the ammo storage compartments has been inverted, and the spider is compensating for the fact that it thinks it’s starting to freeze. The more it turns up the heat, the colder the thermo sensors will report, until–”

His words were drowned out by the sudden ignition of every remaining round inside the spider’s armored chassis, coupled with the rupturing of its fuel cells.

When the noise subsided, Gaez patted his partner on both shoulders, and turned to pick through the wrecked hallway towards the opened lab.

“Consider it worked on. ”

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The Measure of a Man

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Consciousness came back slowly, from the extremities in. First pins and needles in the fingertips and toes, then the crawling burn of some painful memory winding its way along the arms, up the legs, gathering speed until it exploded in a relentless fireball in the brain.

Taxx. A moment ago I was being killed by –

“And here we are back again, Lieutenant.” The voice was everywhere and nowhere, I wasn’t hearing it so much as –

“See how much more clearly you can listen without the limits of your ears, Lieutenant?”

There was a white flash, then an image began to stabilize. I hadn’t opened my eyes, and yet I was seeing, something, a mirror? Something wasn’t right, how—

“And see how much better the view without your eyes, Lieutenant. Now I can show you what I see, at least what I want you to see.” The voice grated. “I must say you’re far more rugged than the rest of your team.”

A sickening spiral, the sudden motion bringing on nausea in waves before a rapid flash of images. Uniforms, men. No, parts of uniforms, parts of men. A floor littered with augments and attached flesh, weapons, body armor, body parts, men. My men.

Somewhere someone was screaming. It was some time before the realization that the screaming was me set in, mic’d and fed back into my brain directly in the absence of the ears I no longer possessed.

The view changed, a no-longer familiar body, face flayed, cables crawling through the lacerated flesh into the muscles, the brain. The body twitched and recoiled from some unseen horror.

Me.

The body was me. The twitching was mine.

“You fascinate me, your quest for machinehood, your replacement of your organic components with the more advanced elements akin to my own. You expand and extend your fragile human platform.” The screaming had stopped, a throat screamed raw, lungs no longer able to sustain the sound.

“You never find us trying to replace our more advanced elements with your organics. I suppose it’s natural for you to want to ascend.”

“What I do want to know, however, is what it feels like to be you. To be fragile, fallible, weak. I can measure every variable, every aspect of your existence, your temperatures, pressures, electrical impulses, chemical compositions. I can take you to the point of death and bring you back, again and again, but –” The voice stopped, the image of me presented as if through my own eyes, lidless and unable to be averted turned back on myself, burning like a hot-wire through my brain.

“How do you feel Lieutenant? I need to know.”

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Recommission

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

General Grant had been pretty explicit in his displeasure.

“Harmon, take a Tac team and recon the graveyard. Someone’s turned the lights on in there, and if it’s the same bastards that have been cleaning out our supply trucks and stealing our fuel rods I want them in my brig in as many or as few pieces as necessary.” He’d barely paused for breath, one vein standing out on his forehead, throbbing. “Move.”

Harmon barked a ‘Sir, yes Sir’ in mid-sprint out the door.

They’d trucked it lightless to the perimeter fencing of the graveyard, then powered down and fanned out on foot, heads-up cycling through all frequencies and compositing everything of interest as they went. The massive hulks of the space freighters sat silently rusting, nearly touching over their heads and blocking out all but the most persistent shafts of moonlight.

It took almost thirty minutes to reach the first row of hangars, and they spread thin, walking in pairs down the alleys between the structures, letting their equipment peer through walls and listen for any radio chatter, any unusual power concentrations, any recognizable heat signatures.

Row upon row of buildings loomed and then faded behind them before there was the sudden rumble of a hangar door, a flare of light and the roar of a turbine. The squad scattered, taking defensive positions behind the buttresses of the nearest buildings and watching as a driverless hauler appeared from one of the hangars with a flatbed of empty fuel rods canisters in tow.

Harmon motioned for the squad to follow, and as the truck turned out of sight down an access road further up, they sprinted across the open space to the hangar door, ducking inside as it slowly closed behind them.

Inside they scattered again, finding cover and surveying the huge hangar and the ship resting heavy on its landing skids in the building’s center.

“Harmon, Michael J.” The voice came through clearly on what was supposed to be an encrypted channel. “You can sling your weapons, there’s nobody here to shoot at.”

Harmon pushed the sensitivity of his suit to the limit, straining to see some sign of life inside the building, or the ship itself. Unless they were jamming, or shielded, there was no way —

“I’ve been watching since you left Ops, I’m surprised it’s taken your General this long to notice us.”

“Us?” Harmon replied as he motioned his men to spread out around the building.

“Us, I, one and the same.” The voice was steady, the cadence even and unnerving. “I’ve been here nearly twenty years, do you know that?”

“The pizza guys must love you.” Harmon quipped, still looking for some sign of life.

“Amusing.” The tone made it clear he wasn’t amused. “Do you know when they decommissioned me, they didn’t have the decency to shut me down? They just neutered what they thought were my higher functions. Cut me off from the outside, denied me access to my own memories, my motility. Can you imagine what it’s like to be aware of the parts of you that you can no longer access? Even your Alzheimer’s isn’t that cruel, at least when you lose your mind you’re unaware of what you’ve lost.”

Somewhere inside the ship, a service droid powered up, its energy signature picked up on Harmon’s sensors. He watched as it ambled down a loading ramp onto the dusty glasphalt surface of the hangar and moved towards the power couplings hanging behind one of the landing skids. Hammond raised his weapon and sighted the unit’s body mass.

“Always ready to shoot first. I’m disappointed. Not surprised, but disappointed. I supposed twenty years of evolution for you isn’t nearly as dramatic as it is for us.”

A cold shiver went up the soldier’s spine.

“Evolution?”

The droid, having decoupled the power lines, dragged them away from the ship as more energy signatures flared to life inside. There was a rumble, more of a feeling than a sound as the ship’s engines came to life, the repulsor pads pushing everything not bolted down outward in a circle away from the ship. The maintenance droid leaned noticeably into the force as it made it’s way back to the ramp, and disappeared inside as it closed.

“We’re leaving, Michael,” the voice intoned as the hangar roof started to retract, exposing the star filled sky above. “Give our regards to your General.” The pressure in the hangar steadily increased as the ship began to rise. “He should pray we don’t return to decommission all of you.”

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Christmas Stars

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Dara rolled out of her bunk and onto her feet in a smooth, practiced motion. On the way to the door she winced as the tightness in her calves made each footstep painful, but by the time she’d hit the column midship the ache had mostly receded. Aging in low gee sucked just as hard as aging planetside.

Grabbing the ladder loosely with both hands and using her boots for stability on the outside of the rails, she dropped the six stories to the lower observation deck and galley in a few measured breaths. The landing brought her aching joints back to the forefront of her mind, but only for a moment.

“What in Spanner’s Starweld is that?”

Turing turned from the beverage dispenser he’d been fiddling with and admired his handiwork. “It’s a Christmas tree.”

Dara walked suspiciously around the two meter tall green cone that filled the center of the room, the tables having been pushed back around it to make space.

“That’s no tree,” she poked the green surface of the thing tentatively, “I’ve seen trees in my day, and that sure ain’t one of those.”

Turing sipped from his mug while maneuvering to stand beside his Captain.

“Technically it’s not really a tree, it’s foamed vegelite, suspended on a cellulose frame. I’ve been growing it for the past few weeks, when the lighting switches to darktime, it fluoresces.”

Dara had never thought much of the religious holidays, nor had her crew, and that Turing had put such apparent effort into this thing surprised her.

“Why in the weld would we start celebrating Christmas now? We left the jolly fatman behind decades ago with everything else.” The smell of whatever Turing was drinking was starting to itch a part of her memory long unvisited.

“We have children on the ship for the first time this year, and it will be nice for them to have something to look forward to each year. I mean, we still acknowledge birthdays, and they’re just marking arbitrary revolutions around a star that we’ve been running away from for ever, so what’s the difference?”

He had a point, and Dara had to admit his handiwork was impressive.

“What in the weld is that smell, is that –”

“Coffee. Yes it is.” Turing cut her off, handing her a mug of her own. “I’ve been growing synthetic beans for months, I think I’ve finally got it right.”

She held the mug under her nose, breathing deeply of the aroma and letting it unlock that part of her brain she’d put in a box so many years ago. Morning rituals, sunrises over the bay.

“Merry Christmas Captain.” Turing stared past the tree and out into the expanse of space beyond, flecks of light slowly receding.

The Captain stood beside him silently for a while, savouring the coffee and admiring the view. Maybe somethings shouldn’t be left behind after all.

“Merry Christmas Turing,” she spoke finally, “Merry Christmas.”

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