Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Bennett stood out on the sweeping plateau of rock a mile above the ocean and watched as the planet’s orange sun dipped below the horizon.
Beneath him, miles upon miles of tunnels and caverns carved out of the living rock by a hive of the planet’s indigenous flying insects. They hummed now with server equipment, quantum stores of data and wealth from across the charted and inhabited worlds, kept safe here for the rich from prying eyes, and the tax siphons of planetary governments.
As darkness descended, he strolled back inside, the massive glass doors rolling closed, sealing him inside for the night.
In the middle of the large lounge, on his way to the kitchen, he passed the feature reminder of his company’s conquest of this place. The once blistered, but now polished to a high shine ruby red shell of the presumable queen of the nest of insects that had once called this space home. Its multi-segmented torso curled into a tight ball, wings, legs, and all outer extremities burned off as they flooded the nest from low orbit with liquid fire, destroying everything that wasn’t part of the planet itself.
He’d found the shell in the ashes, the only thing to have remained even remotely intact from the inferno, and made it the centerpiece of a massive table. A slab of glass several inches thick, cut around the shell, such that its body provided the base holding the table aloft, and the crown of what must have been its head protruding through a hole cut in its near-center.
He dragged his fingers along the surface of the table as he passed it, then turned down the long hallway to his sleeping quarters.
That night he dreamt of the site’s acquisition, his dreams coming in fits and starts, waking almost from sleep only to be pulled back into the darkness, each time a little different, a little more disturbing.
At first, he was on one of the acquisition ships, staring down at the seething nest and feeling the heat rising up even through the craft’s shielding. He watched the flame pour out of the passages up and down the rock face from it’s peak to the waves breaking at its base, watched the fiery balls of the insects trying in vain to flee their home, the very air around them turning to fire as death rained down from the sky.
Then he was running through the tunnels, devoid of the hardware and networking equipment his company had installed, empty save for the scrambling racket of thousands of feet on the rock floor. The heat this time was closer, at his back, advancing.
Before he awoke, he was drowning, struggling through an icy, crushing force of water so oppressive he thought it would drive him insane.
The whole time, throughout his dreams, he felt a relentless driving need to move, to escape, and heard a high pitched keening sound, one that vibrated his teeth and stood his hair on end.
When he woke finally, the terror of drowning bringing him gasping, wide-eyed, and bolt upright in bed, he couldn’t get that noise out of his head.
He stood, ears still ringing and jaw still buzzing, and staggered down the hall through the lounge into the kitchen, wincing as he stepped on something sharp, and limping the rest of the way to the water dispenser.
As the lights came up, Bennett realized he’d cut his foot badly, leaving a trail of blood across the white stone floor of the kitchen.
Where the trail ended, and the lounge began, a sea of broken cubes of shattered glass covered the floor, and it was one of these that he’d stepped on.
The coffee machine jolted to life in the corner on its morning schedule, making him jump. Puzzled, he looked out across the lounge at the windows to the outside, the room still pitch dark.
By the time the coffee was brewing, the sun should be well into the sky.
Bennett took a few steps towards the lounge, confusion added to the inescapable noise grating at his nerves.
In the middle of the room, the ruby carapace was split neatly in two, its occupant having outgrown it. The queen spread out wet wings, slowly beating them dry, as it’s multifaceted eyes followed Bennett.
The noise grew louder, and Bennett’s knees gave out, sending him crumpled to the floor, clutching at his ears. He realized then the windows were a seething, crawling mass of insects, blocking out the sun, answering the call to come home.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Jodie climbed into the passenger seat of the big sedan, the door closing itself with enough force to remind her never to leave anything in its way too long.
Jacko was already behind the wheel, flipping switches and bringing the old turbine engine to life, mumbling the startup sequence under his breath.
She twisted the rearview mirror to make sure her facemask was still in place and caught a glimpse of B sitting in the back seat. She blinked, then reached and tried to hold the mirror steady, but everything was vibrating and trying to focus on him made her nearly vomit.
She pushed the mirror back towards Jacko and opened the window, breathing the cold morning air and the thick smell of aviation exhaust.
“What’s the deal with him?”, she waved a thumb back over her shoulder, not taking her eyes of the horizon, “he creeps me out.”
Jacko, having gotten the massive engine settled into a steady throbbing squared himself in the seat and pushed both throttle sticks forward before answering. The carbon fiber giant lurched into motion on a cushion of air towards the city.
“B’s not a he, it’s an it,” he corrected her, “just because it’s built on a bipedal biochassis, doesn’t mean it’s human.”
They reached the end of the long driveway, leaving the decrepit barns and old farmhouse behind. They drove in silence along the regional road, then the interstate, then finally exiting into the maze of inner city roadways that would lead them to the office tower they’d been studying for the last few weeks.
Jacko pulled along the curb at the intersection of Fifth and Twenty Seventh streets, stopping just long enough for B to climb out of the back seat before continuing to a midrise car park a half block further on.
Jodie risked a look in the side view as they glided away, watching as B disappeared into a crowd of pedestrians, a blur she could only almost see if she looked away from him. It. Looked away from It. When she tried to look directly at where B should be, she found it impossible to hold her gaze there.
She turned back, her eyes and head aching from the strain as they turned into the skyward cover offered by the old parking garage.
B followed the pack of pedestrians as it was programmed to do. Beside, never in front, and vibrating at a range of frequencies from head to foot so as to be virtually impossible to look directly at.
Cameras and sensors along the pedestrian walkways would pick B up as merely a blur, but with no electronic signature, no alarms would be raised. It would only be after, should they review the recordings, and only if it were to be flagged up for human attention that B may be noticed. By then it would be too late.
At the banking tower, B followed the lunch crowd through the detection panels without incident, lost in the flood of staff returning to their offices.
B resonated through every bandwidth, echolocating and triggering passkeys and code fobs, and storing the respondent code in memory cells grown just for this purpose within its chassis.
In the elevator, one fidgety intern looked B directly in the eyes for a moment, instantly regretting it as he convulsed into a mild seizure. The elevator cleared as his coworkers, concerned, hustled him back out into the lobby, leaving B alone.
This simplified things, as B now had the elevator car to itself. It thumbed the datacenter level, oscillated an extended digit in response to the passkey challenge, and the car descended without complaint.
The data center itself presented another series of doors, each unlocked with a previously stored key, vibrated through the hardware without contact.
Once inside, B walked slowly between the rows of racks, soaking up the electronic traffic as barely perceptible oscillations in the atoms around it until it located the specific server it was sent to find.
It then pinched the network cable between two fingers, synchronized with the host and uploaded its code payload directly into the wire.
Its job complete, B walked to one of the large exhaust vents at the end of the aisle, stood on top of the grating and vibrated itself into dust.
From Jacko’s vantage point at the garage up the street, he could see the sudden gust of black dust blow up from the sidewalk grating before it was lost in the early afternoon bustle.
“We’re done,” he turned and climbed back into the sedan, “Vatican dot local has chosen a new benefactor. Funds should be fully diverted by the time the markets close.”
“What about B?”, Jodie asked as they pulled back into the street, heading away from the bank.
“Don’t you worry, after today, I’ll grow you an army of Bs”
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
I look out the viewport to the crushing void of space.
It doesn’t feel real. I don’t feel connected to any of this, out here alone amidst all this nothing.
“Put all the weight on the balls of your feet and press them into the floor,” advice from an old teacher. “It’s impossible not to remain present when you’re focused on feeling the floor. It will help center you in the moment.”
I shift my weight forward, but instead of the floor, I’m pulled back into a distant memory.
Shadow coloured stones crushed and scattered under sneakers. Our passage unheard, we had slipped silently across the rooftop expanse to its eastern face. Lumbering ventilation units dotted the rooftop at intervals, drinking heat from the spaces below to exhale in great humid sighs. These were the only sounds to disturb the pre-morning air. There were no bird songs, no passing craft, no murmuring undercurrent of peripheral lives.
It was the silence before the break of day.
The two of us sat, silent, legs dangling into space from the parapet, the last of the previous night’s beer in hand, each of us absently slaking the thirst neither of us felt anymore.
It’s not the night’s antics that made this moment memorable, indeed I don’t remember anymore what we did that night. I barely remember the rising of the sun itself, though I’m sure as always it was worth the wait.
The memory, rather, is of two unlikely friends sharing the last moment we’d know together, in silence, waiting for the sun to rise and give us permission to leave one another, to go to our separate futures.
It is those few moments, that shared time of solitude so exquisitely inscribed upon which I now reflect. A time remarkable in its clarity, plucked from a sea of murky memories, of happenings that have long since faded from view.
I blink and she’s gone, as the rooftop is gone, replaced with the gnawing emptiness.
What I wouldn’t give for one more morning like that, for one more rising of any sun.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Walter moved purposefully around his small kitchen, pulling out bottles and tins, each marked with black ink on hastily applied white labels. Jasika read them while he worked; garlic powder, dried dill weed, flour and bread crumbs, and a jug of what looked like cooking oil beside fresh lemons and a strange leafy vegetable she didn’t recognize.
“Parsley,” Walter said, “here, beat these with some water”. He handed her two brown shelled eggs, and a moment later a ceramic bowl and whisk.
Walter turned his attention to a plate of raw chicken breasts, which he dutifully pounded flat as paper, before depositing a stick of frozen butter in the middle of each and carefully wrapping the meat around it.
“Do you cook?” Jasika shook her head. She boiled noodles a lot, mixing in packets of tofu or dried meat and powdered sauce, never anything like this.
“This helps me think” small pieces of bamboo were being carefully inserted into the meat and butter, preventing it from unraveling. “I’ve been trying to figure out how best to test the wetware processor Torva stole.”
Walter starting mixing bread crumbs and spices in another bowl “Suppose you needed to do calculations with a terabyte of floating point numbers, what sort of processors would you use?”
Jasika didn’t hesitate “I’d build a massively parallel floating point array”
“Ok, let’s say they were fixed point numbers instead” Walter dunked the chicken bundles one at a time in Jasika’s abandoned egg mixture before depositing them into his bowl of bread-crumbs and spice.
“Then I’d build an integer fixed-point array instead” Jasika was visibly puzzled by this line of questioning.
“What if you didn’t know what you were going to be processing?” Walter turned his attention to a cook-top where he was heating oil, and in a second shallow pan tossed a handful of onion shavings into a pool of melting butter “Or what if what you were processing changed as you processed it. Could you fabricate a cluster that could handle that?”
Jasika thought for a moment before answering “You can engineer a processor grid with any combination of integer and floating point units, and a controller to regulate the flow, you’d just have to determine what the likely ratio was up front so as to optimize the array”
“That wetware unit – do you know what it does?” Walter was now pouring heavy cream into the pan with the onions. Jasika shook her head as he continued. “It’s a processing engine, but it makes what it needs of itself as it processes. It’s kind of like a pot of stem cells – each one is nothing to start with, but could be anything. As the data flows in, the cells adapt to it. Each cell conforms to its own bit of the data, and they cooperatively formulate the appropriate response to it.” He stopped and turned to face her “Any data, no matter what type, no matter how fluid, it adapts and processes, reshaping itself in real-time.” The smell of hot vegetable oil filled the small room as he turned again to the range, and the coated bundles dropped in series into the fryer.
“With your processors, you have to predict what they’re going to be used for. You put data in one end, it’s acted upon in a predefined way, and you get data out the other end. If the data changes, you have to run it again, maybe on a different configuration of chips.” Walter picked up a tin of red curry sauce “Watch this” he motioned to the white creamy sauce thickening in the second pan “think of the sauce as three streams of data, onions, cream, butter, the pan is the processor, and the heat is the energy causing it to percolate through. I get out exactly what I expect, but what if I add another stream of data, one with its own inherent potential for change” he began pouring the curry into the sauce, stirring, the white sauce quickly turning pink “all of the data is changed, almost in an instant to reflect this new input, each bit is still cream, and onion, infused with butter, but now it’s all tempered with curry. The existing data adapted to the new input all on its own, I didn’t have to know about it in advance, or change the pan or start from scratch, I just poured in something new and the entire equation changed. That’s organics, your binary machines can’t do that, no matter how sophisticated, they can’t expand multi-dimensionally of their own accord just because someone poured a new stream of data into them.
Walter turned off the cook-top, and fished the crispy chicken bundles out of the smokey oil, depositing them on a nearby towel.
“That beautiful little unit in there – that’s my sauce, fluid and infinitely adaptable – I’m going to be the curry.” Jasika stared at him, struggling to wrap her head around this sudden shift from food to his metaphor “I’ll need an inhibitor to make sure it won’t fry my brain. I could use your help with that, I’ll want something solid state, not anything that little beauty can rewire on me. Then I’m going to jack that right into my head, let it have access to all the data I’ve got up here” Walter paused to tap his temple “and let it do what it does. We’ll see what a super efficient computational engine can do with everything I know. This is mind expansion the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Timothy Leary taught at Harvard”
Jasika didn’t have a clue who Timothy Leary was, and she wasn’t sure what to think of any of this “Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?”
Walter divided the food onto two plates, smothering the chicken kiev in the curry sauce “No, I don’t know yet, but once I’m jacked in and stabilized, I’ll know beyond a shadow of a doubt. I’ll know everything beyond a shadow of a doubt. Then we’ll do some serious cooking!”
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Dmitri shuffled through the crowd, his handler’s grip tight on his elbow. Someone had draped a jacket over his hands, tightly zip tied as they were in front of him, presumably to stop onlookers from becoming anxious.
“When you’re on the plane, we’ll release you,” a voice in his ear, “you’ll be a free man when you arrive on your home soil.”
He’d come to this country as a young man, recently wed, and with a young child not yet walking.
There were no opportunities in his country for people with his talent, and the intelligence community here paid well for what he could see.
He spent years in virtual, surfing the netstream, a constant flood of real-time information jacked right into his brain, sifting through raw data identifying patterns the AI’s could not see.
There had been complications from the ocular implants, and his optic nerves were burned out, leaving him blind in the real world, but he never noticed as he was constantly immersed in the vibrant colours of the virtual. He had been promised replacements when they could do without him long enough for the surgery.
Then his country was sanctioned, this country’s leader lashing out at a perceived slight from the leader of his own.
He saw the patterns in the data before it happened, but there was nothing he could do.
At first, he was just no longer able to send money home to his family, but then his security clearance was revoked, and he found himself here, in custody at an airport, no job, no assets, not even his personal belongings. From data analyst with the highest clearances to persona non grata in a matter of hours.
Without clearances, his implants became dead inputs, should he try to use them, his mind would fill with static. His life, as he knew it, was over.
“Mind your step,” the voice again. He shuffled his feet forward until a shoe caught the lip of a stair, and he tentatively climbed the steps.
“You’ll be seated, and the flight attendant will strap you in after I release you.”
He was guided into a seat, the weight of the jacket disappeared, and then so too did the pressure of the restraints.
Also gone was the guiding hand at his elbow, and for a panicked moment in the darkness, Dmitri realized he was completely alone.
“There are soldiers stationed at the end of the boarding tunnel, should you attempt to escape and remain in the country, you will be shot.”
There was a brief pause, then, almost as an afterthought, “Thank you for your service.”
Dmitri sat in silence. He listened as the plane filled with other passengers, apparently oblivious to his status. The flight crew was gracious, offering him food and beverages as they crossed the ocean.
On arrival, he was asked to wait until the other passengers deplaned so he could be afforded extra assistance.
On the ground again he was guided through customs without incident, and without so much as a ‘good luck’, left in the cacophony of what he could only hope was the airport of his homeland.
That voice, although the first time he’d heard it without the artifacts of filtered digitization, was unmistakable.
“Europa, is that you?” He could feel pain in his cheeks where tears should flow.
She buried her head in his chest and wrapped her arms around him, and he held her tight.
When she finally stepped back a little, he reached out tentatively to trace her face with his fingertips, memorizing the contours of his child’s visage, one that had grown from an infant into a young woman without him.
“You’re more beautiful now than ever,” he beamed, “and I don’t need eyes to see that’s true.”