Conspicuous Failure

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The two technicians parked the ArVee down a side street and covered the last hundred meters on foot. They took up a position in the shelter of an alley behind a battered wall with a clear view of the square.

The combat frame they had the open trouble ticket on was seated on the broken rim of the fountain in the square’s center, its heavy weapon laid across its feet between its legs and a hand cannon gripped in its right hand. Behind it, a pair of concrete dolphins hovered in the air, part of some forgotten water feature now run dry.

As they watched, the humanoid frame raised the pistol to its temple, and a fraction of a second before it pulled the trigger, it jerked the barrel just enough to one side so the round missed its head completely, tearing noisily into a building in the distance.

“What the absolute fuck is it doing?” Zune, the more junior of the two gaped in disbelief. “Do these things even get depressed?”

The frame reloaded the hand cannon, paused, then repeated the motion exactly, pulling the barrel off target at the last instant so the round didn’t impact its cranial casing.

“It’s a troubleshooting indicator, it’s designed like that so that critical failures are conspicuous.” Dek was scrolling through pages of documentation as he spoke. “Same reason your cabin rebreather leaks onto your bunk when it backs up so you fix it. Stops you from ignoring a stuck pressure relief valve until the unit explodes and vents you and the contents of your cabin into space you while you sleep.” Not finding what he’d been looking for, he scrolled back to the top and began searching more slowly. “It can’t hurt itself, so the indicator’s not terminal. Love to meet the dumbass that didn’t think through the collateral damage on this thing though.”

Zune tried connecting to the frame from his console without success. “Remote diagnostics is down.”

“Of course it’s down, if remote dee was up, we wouldn’t be here, would we?”

Dek could swear these techs got thicker skulls every tour.

“Send the shutdown codes, then we can take a closer look. I don’t see that behaviour anywhere in the maintenance code list, I have no idea what failure that’s indicative of.”

Zune dialed up the frame overrides in his HUD, and sent the shutdown codes.

The frame turned to look in their direction, then placed the hand cannon on the fountain rim beside it, and rested both hands on its thighs and stopped moving.

Zune stayed in the alley watching the thermals on his HUD until the frame had been absolutely still for a full minute.

“Got it, stupid bucket’s a brick now, I’ll go jack in and see what it’s got to say for itself”

Dek turned to respond as Zune stepped out of the shelter of the alley mouth. The frame kicked its heavy weapon up off the ground into its waiting hands, and in a deafening barrage of slugs, Zune and most of the brickwork near where he’d just been standing disappeared into a cloud of dust and mist.

Dek didn’t wait to see if the frame was ambulatory, he dropped his gear and sprinted to the ArVee, reversing at full throttle until he was sure he was safely clear of the area.

“Control this is TK two one nine, that twitchy frame you sent us to check out? It’s got a faulty remote shutdown, and a faulty loyalty subsystem. I’m going to need an orbital strike with extreme prejudice. Frame is off-leash, asset irretrievable.”

Dek paused, trying to will his heart rate back down to something bordering mildly terrified.

“I’m going to need a new tech too,” he added after a few minutes, “and a day off.”

He turned the ArVee around without stopping, braking, steering, and hammering the gas again in one smooth practiced motion, then continued racing clear of the strike zone, glancing nervously skyward in anticipation of the hand of god railing down.

There was going to be hell to pay with the documents division when he got back to base.

Soul Tether

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

When they first met, it wasn’t the clumsy exo-rig she was using to navigate the university halls that caught their attention, or the baggy tie-dye jumpsuit her body was hidden inside. It wasn’t the way the students parted around her as the red sea, respectful and yet indifferent to the alloy and carbon fiber elephant in their midst. It was the determination of will that creased her face, in stark contrast to the brilliant tranquility in her eyes.

She was undeniable in the space she took up, and yet still somehow invisible to everyone around her.

They alone, however, were transfixed.

She had to stop in order to not mow them down, and they stood staring at each other for what seemed like eons before either of them spoke.

That was twelve years ago, and they’ve been, quite literally, inseparable ever since.

Her rig allowed her to exact coarse motor control over her body, a body that disowned her before she was old enough to form memories of anything different.

Her mind was exceptional, she’d designed and refined the neural interface and mechanics, evolving it iteration after iteration over years, licensing discoveries to interested parties to fund her own further development. The university was her forever home, her laboratory, her savior, her prison.

She’d never felt anything, not really, not that she could remember. She knew what it felt like to have someone touch her face, or run their fingers through her hair, but she’d never known how it felt to touch someone else, anything else, her nervous system having been disconnected from the neck down since childhood.

They worked on the neural interface together, she directing them, using their hands as she had previously used apprentices and interns. The first implant she installed gave them blinding migraines for weeks, but the second was much gentler and allowed them to control her rig with her, and in time it allowed her, through them, to touch things and feel them with their fingers, feel the grass beneath their bare feet, the sand in-between their toes.

Their interlinked neural interfaces meant they could feel how she felt when she experienced each new thing through them, constructive waves of the joy of discovery compounding the endorphin rush they fueled in each other in a form of gentle feedback loop. It was intoxicating.

They couldn’t be more intimate, more vulnerable, more exposed to each other than they were like this.

Twelve years. They traveled together, newly able and eager to visit places together she’d never dreamed of visiting, places she would never have dared to go.

On the night she felt the end coming, they stayed together, coupled, interlinked, as one until the very end.

She’d pleaded with them to disconnect, fearing, knowing that her death would be their death too, but they were insistent.

When you love someone that deeply, you can’t let them go through something like that alone.

They had experienced everything together, they had to share this one last thing.

Besides, they couldn’t imagine living without her.

Ab Fab

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“We have a problem,” Gates was talking as the door was still swinging shut behind him, “a massive fucking problem.”

Cooper switched the displays between them from opaque to semi-transparent and nevertheless managed to regard his subordinate with clear irritation.

“Come in, have a seat, no – I’m not busy at all.”

“It’s Osiris, there’s a serious problem with Osiris.” Gates had closed the distance to the desk and stood shifting his weight from foot to foot, agitated. He plucked a stack of documents from his PDA and flung them up on Cooper’s display, the pages orienting themselves and sorting into stacks of requisitions and shipping manifests.

Cooper’s irritation deepened, he had work to do.

“Mars? What about it, and what the hell is all this?”

“Not just Mars, specifically Osiris. Our mid-space foundation project there. A decade ago, after we sent a stream of bulk loaders and drop pods with large facility printing gear to the surface, funding was pulled. It was officially resupplied twice to secure a permanent outpost there and then we shut it down.”

“So, how is this a problem now?”

“There have been thirty-eight supply drops to Mars since then. There should have been zero. They started about six months after we pulled the plug. They were buried in relay shipments we sent to Artemis, supplies apparently requisitioned there, but the cargo never got offloaded on the moon, it was forwarded to Osiris station.”

“Why the hell would Artemis be procuring supplies for Mars?” Gates started flipping through the manifests; raw materials, mining and material processing equipment, maintenance robots, control systems, and more and more advanced and specialized 3D fabricators.

“That’s part of the problem,” Gates leaned forward, bracing himself with both hands on the desk, “nobody at Artemis knows anything about this. They received instructions from us to refuel the bulk loaders in orbit and send them on, but we didn’t make any such request. They thought they were following our instructions, and we assumed we were fulfilling their requests, and nobody had any reason to ask any questions,” he paused, taking a deep breath, “until now.”

Cooper pushed the stacks of documents to either side of the screen, clearing the space between himself and Gates.

“What’s changed?”

“Osiris just put forward a request for a seat on the world council.” Gates’ words were almost a whisper.

“What the fuck are you talking about? Osiris is an empty warehouse on a rock, there’s nobody there. There never has been. We haven’t put so much as a foot on that desolate dust bowl, who the hell is pulling your chain?” Cooper shouted. Gates stood up and took a reflexive step backward.

“The initial deployment included a prototype AI with instructions to adapt to the resources and environment on Mars. The idea was for it to build the best facility with what we shipped and what it could mine onsite, but it was a prototype, and we stopped shipping resources and didn’t provide any further guidance. Nobody thought to turn it off.”

Cooper stared across the desk at Gates, struggling to comprehend the information he was receiving.

“Do we have satellite visibility?”

“There’s a distortion field of some sort in place, atmospheric disturbance maybe, but it remains consistent and we haven’t been able to see through it.”

“We should get a recon patrol…” Cooper started, but Gates cut him off.

“We sent a tactical platoon of Atlas drones, they landed and we lost contact as soon as they breached the dust zone. We received a message from Osiris shortly after, ‘Improvised, Adapted, Overcame’, followed a little later with ‘Thank you for your service.'” He winced. “It appears to have learned sarcasm.”

Cooper slumped. This was going to be his ass when he had to explain the situation, and there didn’t seem to be a way around that.

“Give me everything you’ve got, I’m going to have to take this upstairs.”

Gates stuffed both hands in his pockets and shrugged.

“That’s the icing on this particular shitcake. Osiris’ last message was that this had already been communicated to a higher authority, and to notify you as a courtesy that we’ve been relieved.”

Future, Tense

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Julia sat in her boss’s office, barely taking up any room in the massive wingback chair, eyes locked across the massive wooden and steel desk at Tomas.

“I know something,” she began.

“I pay you to know things,” he didn’t give her the chance to finish, “and I pay you to go through the appropriate channels to make them known to me. I don’t have time for the low-level interruptions of the worker bees Julie.”

“Julia. My name’s Julia, and I know something you don’t know that you really, really want to, and if you want me to tell you, you’re going to have to sit quietly and listen.”

Tomas fought down the rage rising. He could throttle this insubordinate little bitch without a second thought, and an army of sycophants would dispose of the body without question, but his curiosity was, for the moment, the stronger impulse. Violence could wait. He sat back, steepled his fingers and held her with an icy stare.

“Enlighten me,” his tone flat, “but please do make it quick.”

Behind him, through a massive expanse of glass, the sun painted the sky in deep pink and violet hues as the day slowly turned to night.

“Your prediction system, your approach doesn’t work. It’s impossible to predict what someone else will do in the future, it’s only possible to predict our own individual futures, and only in the very near future before the iteration tree becomes super-massively complex.”

She paused and smiled a thin little smile.

“I know you never achieve your aspirational goal of violating the privacy of anyone else’s future.”

She straightened in her seat and held his stare. “This all amounts to nothing.”

“Well, if that’s true, how could you possibly know what I will or will not do in my future?” His tone smug now, amused as his response. “You’ve just told me you can’t know my future.”

“I can’t, not exactly, but I can extrapolate what happens to you from my own actions, from my own future. I have seen everything I may do in many of my possible futures, and from that, I can predict with relative certainty what your future holds.” She fumbled idly with her satchel as she talked, but her voice held steady.

“Well, I can tell you what your definite future holds, how about that?” Tomas leaned forward as he spoke now, all traces of amusement lost. “You won’t come to work tomorrow, because you’re fired. And you can find out how successful we’ve been on our project when our stock skyrockets, something you won’t benefit from as your options are revoked for cause. Did you see that future coming?”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

Julia fished a portable music player from her satchel, thumbed the ‘play’ button and began slowly sliding the volume from low to high.

“What on earth are you doing?” Tomas stood and pounded the desk, then started around the desk towards her. “I’m nearing the end of my patience, I could…” he stopped, teeth clenched, shaking.

“Kill me?” Julia finished the sentence for him. “I know. You have… will… maybe a hundred times. Some futures you have me killed, in some I take my own life, in a couple you even find the balls to kill me yourself.”

Tomas flinched as the sound coming from her music player suddenly hit a frequency that caused one eardrum to crackle like a radio tuned between stations. Seconds later it was gone, but the pain stopped him halfway around the desk.

“Once I realized there was no future in which I didn’t die, and how many of those futures you had a hand in, I figured out why, who you are and what you do. Then I searched for the one that had meaning.”

She found the right frequency and held there as the glass started to oscillate too.

“At least in this future, I amount to something.” Her smile now merely one of determination.

Behind Tomas the wall of glass shattered into a cloud of pebbled fragments, the pressure difference at altitude sucking the wreckage out into the early evening sky.

Tomas half turned, momentarily dumbfounded by the sight.

Julia hit him in the midsection with her shoulder at a full sprint, her momentum coupled with their combined mass carrying them both across the short distance and out into the cold air.

“In this one,” she screamed, still holding him as gravity turned their forward motion downward, “in this one you go with me, you pretentious little prick.”

A Dancer, To Dance, Is Dancing

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“What is it doing?” Cerulean shimmered into the environment, overlapping the space Fuscia already occupied, though they didn’t seem to mind.

“It’s dancing,” Fuscia replied, moving to fully envelop Cerulean, their resulting colour an oscillation between both of their beings rather than a blend of them. “It’s a dancer, it dances,” they added, as though this was obvious.

Cerulean studied the room, it’s pale yellow floors, and the walls reflecting back the image of the dancer as it danced. From one corner of the room waves rippled through both spaces, theirs and its, undulating and rolling back on themselves when they reached the hard boundaries the dancer danced within.

“Its movements, are they caused by, or are they causing the waves of undulation?” Cerulean pondered, out loud. “They are almost synchronous, and yet not, quite, exactly.”

Fuscia spread through the space, leaving Cerulean at the edges and rode these undulations around the dancer, mimicking their frequency, their amplitude, following them as close as possible.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Fuscia mused, “as quick as I am, I can only go where it’s already been.”

Fuscia detached from Cerulean completely, and attached to the dancer at the tip of one flailing appendage, then followed as it danced, an otherworldly shadow.

Cerulean was fascinated, this creature of a physical world so in tune with a form of energy they in the spiritual took so for granted, a form they presumed was theirs and theirs alone to experience.

The atmosphere in the space itself then changed, in an instant, as Fuscia locked into absolute synchrony with the dancer, who itself seemed to channel the frequencies and amplitudes of all the energies at once in the space they occupied together. They were, for an impossible moment, all interconnected and intertwined.

Cerulean alone bore witness, and in the magic of the moment was changed, indescribably, but absolutely.

As quickly as it began, the moment passed.

The undulating waves in the room ceased.

Fuscia fell out of synchronicity with the dancer, as the dancer itself stopped dancing, collecting its things and moving to leave the space.

Soon even the light waves in the room were no more.

Cerulean and Fuscia stayed, silent for what seemed an eternity, reveling in what they had just witnessed and been a part of.

“I want that, I want to do that,” Cerulean was first to break the silence, “I don’t understand it, but I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

Fuscia simply beamed.

“I want the dancer to come back. Make the dancer come back.” Cerulean strained at the edges of the dancer’s hard space, a strange yearning now growing inside.

“The dancer always comes back,” Fuscia replied, “it always dances, it’s as if it knows something, knows there’s something here and is trying to become one with the energy it so eloquently chases in this space.”

Cerulean softly keened.

“Don’t worry,” Fuscia comforted them, “the dancer always dances.”