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.”
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Dax found his usual seat in the back corner of the cafeteria and unpacked his lunch.
He laid out a sandwich, a can of iced coffee, and an orange on the table in front of him, then fished a lock-blade knife from his jacket pocket and set about peeling the orange.
“Hey, army kid!”
There were snickers, and Dax looked up to see a crowd of the school football team gathered behind their quarterback.
“I’m not an army kid,” Dax continued slicing the orange, drawing the knife blade from pole to pole, reducing it to equal sized wedges.
“Well, you lost your arms didn’t you?” Again the laughter and the boys exchanging high-fives and shoulder punches in amusement.
“It was an accident, just leave me alone.” Finished with the orange, he rested his hands on the table, still holding the knife.
“They look pretty real army kid, I heard they tore off at the shoulders, that must have been gross!”
Dax twitched visibly, the memory of a summer job cleaning metal fabricating equipment, and a machine that jolted to life when it should have been offline was burned forever into his brain. The sudden searing pain, the shock, the blood-loss, and waking up in a hospital feeling like his life was over.
“Can you punch really hard?” The quarterback was talking again. “Can you crush things with your bare hands?”
The company, to avoid a lawsuit, had flown Dax halfway around the world and had him fitted with the latest in prosthetic tech.
“They don’t work like that,” he glared, just wanting to be left to eat his lunch in peace, “I’m not like that.”
From a table nearby someone spoke over the crowd. “Show him the knife trick, the one from that Alien movie.”
There was a murmur through the group.
“What knife trick?”, the boy was determined now, “Show me!”
Dax slouched, staring at his untouched lunch before pushing his seat back, standing up and walking around the table. He stopped in front of his tormentor who, wary of the knife, took an involuntary step back.
Dax turned and put his left-hand flat on the table, fingers slightly apart.
“Put your hand on top of mine, just like this.”
There was a moment of hesitation before the rising chatter of the crowd forced him, and the boy placed his hand on top of Dax’s.
Dax yanked his hand out from under, and slammed it down on top again, pinning the boy’s hand beneath his.
“What the…?” he started.
“Don’t move, or this will hurt,” Dax instructed, not looking up.
With his right hand, he tapped the table with the tip of the knife blade in a downward stabbing motion between the thumb and first finger, then lifted the knife to bring it down again between the first and second.
He repeated this, slowly from one end of their hands to the other, tapping the table lightly each time with the blade between the fingers, close but not touching flesh. He paused for a moment, looked sideways at the boy. The growing silence was suddenly replaced with a deafening staccato as he repeated the stabbing circuit, moving back and forth between their fingers with blazing speed and uncanny accuracy, tearing holes in the tabletop but never once looking down.
After what seemed like an eternity, he raised the knife to eye level and drove it down with as much force as he could muster, aiming for the thickest part of the back of his hand.
His prosthetics engaged full safeties, stopping the knife blade mere millimeters before breaking his skin, and freezing his arms in place.
The boy yanked his hand away, staggering backward.
“You’re fucking crazy man, you stay away from me you fucking freak!”
The rest of the group backed away, and Dax closed his eyes and waited for them to fade from his awareness, and for his arms to unlock.
After a few moments, he sat down, closed the lock blade and put it back into his coat pocket and stared, no longer interested, at his untouched lunch.
He didn’t want to hurt himself, he didn’t want to hurt anyone at all, not really. He just wanted that to be his choice.