The Woman Upstairs

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Her name was Ruth, I think, or something like that. We didn’t talk much. I used to help her when she came home from the library with her cart full of books; she liked physics, and biology, and quantum entanglement. Heady stuff, way beyond me. She’d stop in the hall where my cat would come to greet us. Boris usually made strange, but not with her. She’d recite some poem in a language I couldn’t understand, and Boris would purr, then we’d continue upstairs to her apartment where she’d thank me and disappear inside.

She disappeared for good a few weeks ago now.

Her granddaughter seems to have moved into her old place. She’s got her grandmother’s strange taste in books, but she carries them up herself, and her penchant for cryptic poems which she shares with Boris too, who likes her just fine.

The resemblance is uncanny.

Full Burn

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Kaz got close enough to town for broadband wireless access before hunkering down in a culvert under the roadway.

His suit’s AI ran the standard duck and cover protocols, scouring for low-security funding resources, supplies available for autonomous delivery, and shelter that could be counted on to be quiet for the couple of days he needed to regrow his broken bits and replenish his fuel reserves.

Within a few minutes an independent credit bureau had been breached, six adjacent rooms on two floors of a motel secured, and half a dozen delivery orders placed, each for substantial quantities of food. Late on a Friday, there shouldn’t be anyone looking too closely for a couple of days. He hoped that’s all he’d need.

Kaz traced a path through a field, then a vacant lot to the back entrance of the Motel 69, up the stairs to the second floor and then let himself into 227.

He waited until the delivery vehicles had come and gone on the street outside, drones depositing disposable keycode thermoboxes outside each of his rented rooms, then he did a quick lap and collected all the food.

He sat in the middle of the three second-floor rooms, the AI starting and stopping showers, adjusting lights and the TVs in all the rooms around and below him, and ate everything he could until he’d ingested an alarming quantity of fuel. He’d been on full burn for nearly a week, he’d already long over-stripped his reserves.

Refueling complete he unpacked the Heckler & Koch mini-gun from his bag and pulled the mono-filament supply line from its socket, dropping it into the shower drain. It crawled the pipes, branching, and branching again, seeking out the hydro mains in the motel itself, as well as several businesses across the road.

He trailed the line across the floor, stretched out on the bed and perched the H&K on his chest, where it deployed its multi-legged mounting system, and did an exploratory revolution to confirm full three hundred and sixty-degree freedom before parking itself aimed at the midpoint of the front wall.

Kaz’s AI dimmed the lights in all the units and locked him into full rigor. It wouldn’t do to have him twitching into the line of fire if the H&K had to engage while he was sleeping.

Cold fire started inside his boots and raced with benevolent fury up his body to his shoulders, down his arms to his fingertips before crashing over his consciousness like a tsunami.

Were anyone there to see, they would have witnessed his hybrid meat and metal suit crack open at the seams, and a small army of carbon fibre insects begin the delicate task of molecular rendering and refabricating required to undo a week’s worth of organic and mechanical damage.

Full burn took its toll.

Kaz’s perceptors were woken up first, ears and nostrils filled with the sounds and smell of H&K discharge, the squat turret mowing through the front wall of the motel room with intent, then periodically rotating to squeeze off a barrage through the bathroom wall, and into the unit next door, before focusing on the front again, adjusting down at an angle to presumably address a target identified in the parking lot below.

The lights were out. They would have killed the power in the unit. Never phoenix without a backup power source.

Motor control was released, and he grasped the mini-gun while sliding off the side of the bed in a single smooth motion, its mounting rig readjusted to wrap around his forearm for stability.

The AI had already pulled together the available recon data, and identified a half dozen black and whites in the parking lot, and a small contingent of tactical officers cowering at the back stairs. They had an armored breach vehicle, useless with a second story engagement, but evidence of the overzealous nature of the local PD.

He squatted to retrieve his kit bag from the floor, making sure to allow the weapon freedom to continue firing energy rounds in bursts in case anyone was feeling brave.

Heads-up read Thursday. Shit. He’d been in worse shape than he’d thought.

Hunger was already on the periphery as he surveyed the remains of his feast splattered around the carnage of the room with disappointment.

He kicked out the back door to the fire escape and stepped out behind a continuous stream of weapon discharge, the already panicked officers scattering like ants.

The H&K recoiled it’s backup feed. Battery only from here.

He had miles to go before he’d sleep.

Full burn.

Serenity

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Fū-jiin sat cross-legged on a mat before a low table, on which rested a bonsai tree nearly half a meter across its canopy, and nearly a quarter of that tall. He rotated the tree barely a degree at a time on its mag-lev base, pausing at each mark to study, and very rarely to make a cut, collecting the tiny fragments on a white handkerchief at his side.

The tree was as old as Fū-jiin himself, and both bore centuries of scar tissue, energy wounds the tree was exfoliating over time in his patient care, thickened stripes of shiny flesh that seemed to bind his own self together like twine.

Outside he could sense booted feet sinking into the sand, closing the distance to his low, windswept home from a hundred meters out, where landing crafts were being pulled out of the water and onto the shore.

They couldn’t fly on this side of the globe, these intruders into his peace, not without risking orbital death from the watchers above, and they couldn’t see through the atmospheric haze that made this such a calm place to retire.

They must have been crisscrossing the ocean of this planet for years to find him this time.

He sighed.

He folded the kerchief with apparent care and placed it and his pruning scissors into a drawer in the table beneath the tree, then folded his hands in his lap and waited.

It may have been an hour or three before they entered, he could sense their probes, hear the digital chatter of their comms encryption. They were admirably cautious.

The breach itself was surprisingly peaceful. The unit commander simply walked through the open archway into the living quarters followed by four troopers in powered armor with weapons of an unwieldy length slung on pivot mounts from their chests, held at the ready two-handed, energy charges crackling with the anticipation of violence.

“Chao, isn’t it? Commander Chao?” Fū-jiin broke the silence first, “you’re a very long way from home.”

Commander Chao struggled to maintain his composure as he surveyed the room. It was the very model of minimalism. Fū-jiin clearly had access to intel that they had somehow managed to miss on what he had thought was particularly thorough recon.

“You’re a very difficult man to find,” Chao replied, “we’ve wasted nearly two years on this planet alone searching for you, and this is not our first nor the only deployment.” He chuckled, “It would seem that it will finally be our last.”

“Yes,” Fū-jiin smiled, the expression taking its time to fully manifest across his face.

“I am a hard man to find, and I regret that I couldn’t have been harder,” he paused, “for your sake, though you’ll find this a peaceful place to end your commission.”

Chao had, for years, resented being tasked with searching for this ghost, and now found his feelings conflicted. The stories of the hell Fū-jiin had brought to conflicts across the galaxy made him seem almost god-like, a force of immense tactical skill and violence, and yet here he was, a sad old man in a stone hut on a sandy beach in the middle of nowhere, gardening.

“You all make the same mistakes, do you know that?” Fū-jiin spoke, slowly rocking forward from crossed legs to his knees, hands spread wide on the table.

The soldiers flexed, weapons maintaining their lock. Chao waved them down.

“You show no respect for time. The sand you walked outside on was once polished glass, before wind, and rain, and time reduced that formidable expanse to dust. What has your journey reduced you to?”

He slowly extended his legs, rising to his feet with his hands still palms down on the table, bent at the waist and not bothering to look up as he spoke.

“You make poor assumptions; you see no weapons and assume safety, no technology and assume ignorance, no army and assume tactical superiority.”

“You drastically underestimate the fury of serenity.”

Fū-jiin flexed, and for everything within several kilometers, time slowed to a near stop.

The ball of energy that formed around him radiated outward in a wave, consuming everything it touched in a raging cyclone of raw, unfettered fury, ripping flesh, weapons, and craft down to their base atoms, then painted the beach with them, leaving its surface a smoldering, multicolored mosaic of freshly baked glass.

Fū-jiin exhaled, and slowly lowered himself to sit cross-legged again on the floor.

He felt the searing pain of fresh wounds where his outburst had cracked open his flesh, the smell of their cautery ripe in his nostrils.

Before him the bonsai was mostly unharmed, just a few patches this time smoldering gently where he’d been unable to control his discharge.

“My apologies, old friend,” he spoke out loud, retrieving his scissors and the white handkerchief from the drawer before ever so slowly resuming his turning of the tree on its base.

Outside the wind and the waves gently cooled the beach.

There was work to be done, and nothing but time in which to do it.

Nathan, In Acquisitions

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“Manhattan?” the man asks, pulling out the chair across from her before pausing, “May I?” as an apparent afterthought. He sits down without waiting for an answer and waves towards the waiter. “Two more of these”, gesturing to her drink on the table between them.

Nadia’s momentarily speechless. Her expected date had just stood her up via text message, and she was planning on drinking this one off on her own.

“You look a little down,” he takes off his white woven fedora and flicks the brim absently before setting it on the chair beside him.

There was something about his expression that was captivating, his eyes alight, and she struggled to find something to say at this abrupt and unwelcome intrusion.

“Yes, unwelcome, my apologies for being presumptuous.”

She startled, had he just…

“Do you want me to leave?” He leaned back slightly, reaching for his hat.”

“No,” she finally found her voice, “I didn’t catch your name.”

He smiled, bright perfectly proportioned teeth gleaming in stark contrast to his tan.

The waiter slipped their drinks onto the table, then retreated to the bar without a word.

“Nathan,” he was speaking again, “I’m in… acquisitions, and you, my dear Nadia deserve much better than to be dismissed in an email.”

“Text message,” she corrected him, “but how could you…?”

“Text message, telex, carrier pigeon, what’s the difference? These men promise you the moon and the stars, but when push comes to shove, they deliver nothing.” That smile again. “Am I wrong?”

Nadia shook her head ‘no’, then drained her glass and exchanged it for the fresh one from the table.

“To failed relations, and chance encounters.” He raised his glass towards her, and she met it with her own reflexively.

“You all promise the stars, that’s for damn sure,” her eyebrows knitted in a deep frown.

“What if I promised you the moon and the stars and actually delivered, would that be enough for you to take a chance on someone like me?”

“I don’t even know you, and I’ve had enough empty promises to last me a lifetime.”

“But if I followed through on that promise, would you join me for a time?” There was that light in his eyes again.

“I suppose I’d have to if you could, but you won’t. Men never do.”

She’d no sooner spoken the words than he stretched his arms out wide, tugging out his jacket sleeves, and pointed up into the sky.

“That moon right there?”

She looked, the moon a pale white circle in the blue of the sky.

He held her gaze, and reaching up, pinched the pale white circle of the moon between his thumb and first finger with his left hand, produced a small glass jar from a jacket pocket with his right, and plucked the moon out of the sky, dropped it in the jar and snapped a lid on in a smooth, practiced motion.

She gaped. The sky was now featureless blue. Whatever he’d distracted her with was clearly some magician’s sleight of hand. The jar he held before her contained a very convincing replica of the moon in miniature.

“Very clever, but that’s not exactly giving me the moon and the stars now, is it?” She sipped her drink, something seemed wrong about this.

“Tough crowd, ” he smiled. “One star then to start, then we really will have to get going.”

He pocketed the moon and produced another identical jar, then reached straight above their heads, pinched the fiery orb of the sun from the sky and slipped it into the jar, closing the lid again in one smooth motion.

Everything around them was suddenly dark, save for the blaze of light emanating from the jar in his hand.

She dropped her drink.

“Now, a deal is a deal,” he said, reaching across the table and taking her hand, “it’s going to get pretty ugly around here in a minute.”

He slipped the jar with the sun inside into another pocket, plunging them into absolute darkness. He gripped her hand tightly, and in the distance, she thought she could hear herself screaming, just one familiar voice in a cacophony of confusion, then a moment later, silence.

They stood together on a beach of polished glass, purple waves shushing the shoreline next to them, the sky a shimmering haze, the patio, the people, the noise, all gone.

“What…”, she started, “where…?” The question left only partially asked.

“Gotcha!” he smiled, letting go of her hand and taking a step back. “As I said, I’m in acquisitions; moons, stars, the occasional starlet.”

“Did you really take those things? I don’t understand, without the sun…” she didn’t finish the thought.

“Yes, there will be a horrible mess, but it was inevitable, I just got the pieces I wanted while they were still available and in good condition.”

She stood once again speechless.

Nathan produced another glass jar from an inside jacket pocket, and before Nadia could protest he plucked her off the beach and dropped her inside, closing the lid and pocketing his prize.

“Now,” he said to the empty beach, “I could use a drink.”

Best Be Sure

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Mersion stayed off the open streets, choosing to pick a much more demanding path through the cratered homes and rubble where the bombs had fallen.

His progress was further impaired by the amount of meat that he’d lost from his body. Blade wounds, projectile weapons, and shrapnel from close proximity explosions had cost him many kilos of flesh and were severely impeding his progress.

He hunched over his useless left leg, one hand plunged through what remained of the muscle to pinch a severed artery off against the bone, his fingers clenched tightly around the femur just above the knee, trapping the throbbing vessel.

He shuffled this way between the craters and remaining cover, lifting the shredded leg and moving it forward, then locking from the shoulder to the wrist, bracing himself while he stepped forward with his better leg.

Ahead he could make out the lights of the medical center. The artillery command respected these spaces and shelled around them into oblivion without so much as a tracer passing through the sanctified airspace.

A few streets North of his position he could hear tracked vehicles grinding their way through the battle-worn streets with screaming and dying soldiers stacked like cordwood inside.

Mersion staggered and shuffled as close as he dared to the hospital proper, gauging distance with his good eye based off an encyclopedic knowledge of two-dimensional objects and their relative sizes. Without depth perception, this was his only means for effective navigation, but it wouldn’t serve in combat. It would be best if he avoided further contact until he could grow a new eye.

He followed the fence line around what would have been the civilian parking area, turned briefly into a landing zone and now a dumping ground for anything brought through the front doors that couldn’t remain in the hospital itself.

Piles of bloodied uniforms, body armor, amplisuits reduced to their component pieces after likely having been cut away from their operators.

Most of the lighting was out, the medical personnel only leaving a pair of spots to illuminate the space immediately around the back doors, where the piles of refuse cast long shadows.

Inside the facility would be surgeons, grafting equipment, pain killers and antibiotics, and certain death.

Mersion continued along the fence-line away from the building to the back of the lot.

At the farthest edge of the asphalt stood a row of steel shipping containers, their doors propped open and the stench of rotting flesh hung in air thick with slow buzzing flies.

He turned his free hand thumb down, pushed its remaining fingers through the wire mesh of the fence and then let gravity and the monofilament webbing between thumb and forefinger split the fencing to the ground.

He pushed through the opening and staggered into the darkness of the nearest container.

As his eye cycled through various frequencies to find an acceptable level of clarity, a mountain of carnage presented itself. Limbs and limb fragments, all forms of discarded human flesh heaped neatly furthest from the doors and thrown without decorum at the other once the smell became a barrier to entry.

This was precisely what he needed.

Mersion waded to the nearest pile and allowed his eviscerated leg to fold up ungracefully beneath him, then stretched out on a bed of body parts.

The nanos in his system went to work immediately, greedily spreading from his body to the meat below, encasing both his and the discarded body parts in a white, almost silk-like shroud as they disassembled the waste material and began the slow process of macerating the flesh before refabricating the Mersion unit.

He was in no hurry now. There was no shortage of raw materials. He wouldn’t have to make do with a field-prep hot patch repair. He wouldn’t have to go back into combat with limited capacity.

Not this time.

These humans would be taught that if you down a Mersion unit, you’d best be sure you’ve finished the job.