Focal Point

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Sebastian stood in the middle of the living room, basking in the late afternoon sunshine. Rays scythed through the walls of glass, catching random dust particles and lighting them, like so many flecks of stardust.

He felt the polished barnboard floor, warm beneath his bare feet, and the gentle breeze easing through the open patio doors.

Outside, stretched on a lounger was Dorothy, propped up on pillows, reading a book. The dogs lay around her, golden coats shot with white, once unstoppable balls of youth and energy, now quiet companions content to merely exist in her company. She was beautiful, grey hair, laugh lines, eyes that could hold any man in thrall until she chose to release him.

He turned, and in the kitchen, Dorothy sat peeling an orange, carefully manicured nails slicing the skin like knives as she flayed and segmented the plump fruit before giving him a coy smile and popping a slice into her mouth and chewing it slowly.

Laughter at the beach distracted him, and as he looked their children ran out of the ocean up onto the beach, splashing and chasing each other, joyous outbursts mingled with the cries of annoyed seagulls disturbed from their perches and forced into flight. Dorothy stood there, her back to him, sundress blowing in the breeze keeping watch.

Max, the older of the retrievers wandered in through the open door and stood next to the long leather couch on the far wall, head down, waiting.

“Go on, just get down before your mother comes in.”

Max hopped onto the couch, turned around several times before flopping down in a ball, head on paws, regarding Sebastien with curiosity.

Outside Dorothy turned the page of her book, drained the last drops from her glass of wine, hair blowing freely about her head, held only by her sunglasses pushed up from her forehead, likely forgotten.

He smiled.

Dorothy in the kitchen finished her orange, and started again, slicing the peel with lacquered nails like knives. He fell in love with her like this, at this very table in his apartment in Queens when she stayed over on just their third date. They talked all night, drank wine, ate oranges that she peeled with those perfectly manicured nails.

At the beach she called, it would be dinner time soon, the children would have to come inside.

They would have been nearly twenty now, going off to school.

Or in their sixties, with children of their own.

Or not even a thought, just some possible undreamed-of future, coalescing unknowing to the scent of oranges.

For a moment Max was a puppy, precocious and daring on the good couch he knew he was forbidden to be on, then he was old again as that youthful bubble of energy rippled through the room and was gone.

Outside Dorothy propped herself up on pillows, nearly spilling her wine glass, carelessly filled too full, and started her book.

In the kitchen, she plucked an orange from the bowl.

At the beach, the children dropped their towels and shoes on the sand and ran screaming into the ocean.

Sebastian stood, rooted at the epicenter of these variations of their timeline where they still existed, his wife, their children, focused his attention on these three pockets, unable to enter any without tearing the rest out of time and space. Who knew how long any of them had, outside of these tiny loops of time.

There was nothing left but to keep them alive, even just for these short whiles.

Scale Tipping

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Ten kilometers out we dropped to below a hundred meters, sea-skimming and churning the water behind us as we split the night. We made landfall and proceeded to fly nap-of-the-earth inland down the mouth of what once would have been a raging river, now a dry dusty wound in the landscape.

Outside the cockpit the canyon walls loomed above us, leaning in as if to try to block out the sky, to swallow us. If there were any threats, they’d come from up there. In this chasm cut into the surface, our presence would only be known by the thundering rush of the air we displaced. Unless we slipped, caught a wall or misjudged a change in elevation, then the fireball would be visible from space. Nothing would matter then.

The crew was silent. Eyes on instruments, hands on sticks, counting down the seconds until target.

If we were successful tonight the balance of power here would be irrecoverably tipped, the strike that would win the war.

The closer we got to the target, the more winding the trench, evidence of how powerful this river once was before its flow was cut off.

Each time the ship banked, proximity alerts glowed cautionary warnings, wingtips dangerously close to contact, our belly barely clearing the bumps and rocks scattered about the valley floor.

Still, no-one spoke.

The destination marker appeared on the edge of the targeting display, and we continued to snake closer and closer until we entered the strike zone and then controlled chaos broke loose.

“Light the target,” our quarterback screamed from her perch in the upper observation seat, “let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.”

The bay doors peeled open and a flood of fist-size balls streamed out in our wash, blanketing the valley bed in a deep purple phosphorescent glow.

Targeting systems lit the wall ahead, no doubt setting off alarms all over the compounds on the surface above, and we nosed up slightly, exposing the launch tube for our single ordnance.

“Fire, fire, fire,” her voice drowned out by the roar of a solid fuel ignition as the spear leaped from our nose, and a blanket of flame poured through the cargo bay venting, lighting the valley floor.

“Climb, climb, climb,” the command redundant, as we already had the sticks pulled back hard, throttles pushed to the pins racing for the outer atmosphere before anyone on the ground had time to react.

Beneath us the massive missile slammed into the canyon wall, punching through the rock and into the reservoir the controlling faction was hoarding for themselves. Water gushed from the tear, and once it found purchase, its sheer volume and weight tore the hole ever wider, racing down the dry spillway to meet the sea.

As the water reached the blanket of dropped pods, they exploded with life, micro bioreactive agents released into the soil, washed up the walls where they found purchase, releasing tendrils into the earth that fed on the water and crawled for kilometers outward, popping through the dusty surface in a wave of green, of life, grasses, shrubs, trees, insect larvae that grew, hatched, bred and multiplied in seconds.

By the time the watch commander had given up trying to find the intruder in the sky, the land around them was transformed into lush jungle landscape reaching skyward.

Their hold on the people here would be broken; food, shelter, fresh water, all of the things the invaders withheld to keep a boot on the necks of those they sought to control, all once again freely available.

They would find the infection of natural opulence ran deep and grew back faster than even their flame cannons could burn down.

In the trees, the indigenous population could wait, while now feeding and growing stronger.

Soon they would take back what was theirs.

As we reached the peaceful envelope of space, gravity releasing us from the high-velocity crush of our escape, our quarterback said simply, “Well done. Let’s go home.”

Below us, somewhere, an oppressed people had been given what they needed to take back their land.

Food, water, shelter.

And hope.

Elephant Shoes

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

I stand in the doorway, an invisible force for the moment stopping me from going any further.

Arthur, ever the watchful companion, lifts his head and looks right at me, ears perked up, tail wagging, gently thump-thump-thumping against the bedspread.

She sleeps.

With feet like lead, I manage the distance from the door to the edge of the bed, where I stop again, rooted.

This is as close I will get.

I thought I’d forgotten the gentle curve of her cheekbones, her hair absently tucked behind her ear even when she sleeps. The slow, rhythmic rise and fall of her chest, the way she tucks the duvet in between her knees.

I can almost smell her hair.

How long can this last?

Arthur lays on his back now, looking at me upside down, his jowls giving in to gravity and his teeth exposed in a funny inverted smile.

He huffs, and she stirs, eyes opening sleepily.

I’m lost in a sea of amber-flecked green.

Please, let this last.

The expression on her face changes. I’m not supposed to be here, I’m a million miles away. I recognize the look of sleepy confusion, and I know, tomorrow, if we could sit on the balcony drinking coffee together, she’d describe that space between waking and sleeping where she tries to hold onto the dream, to write it down on some non-volatile part of her brain to deconstruct later.

But I won’t be here in the morning.

This is as close as I’ll get.

“I love you”, I say.

She can’t possibly hear me, but still, her mouth moves in reply and I can almost hear her voice as she says, “elephant shoes too.”

It’s a private joke.

I feel my heart breaking first, then a tug at the base of my spine and I’m yanked backward through the doorway, then the wall in the hall into the living room. Arthur rounds the corner at a gallop, he can sense the terror I’m feeling as I leave him at the patio doors, out and up, the grass receding, the giant sycamore tree in the yard.

Then the clouds.

The edge of the atmosphere.

The sucking void of space.

The rest is a blur, the distance we covered as a crew so carefully, so patiently to end up here, gone by now in an instant.

I wonder as I’m pulled through the cockpit windshield and snapped back unceremoniously into my body if the rest of the crew shared the same experience.

I’d ask them if I could.

But I can’t.

I close my eyes, the blinding fireball of the star that’s caught us in its inescapable grip searing into my brain.

My last thoughts are of a sea of amber-flecked green, of elephant shoes.

Retroactive Futurism

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Jodi pushed open Jane’s door, knocking while it was already swinging inwards and waited until it had closed behind her before speaking.

“Next Tuesday at quarter past noon he’ll have stopped Bob McKibbon’s heart.” The announcement was followed by a left-handed flick of fingers down her right forearm towards Jane’s desktop, the bits of data that comprised the intel briefing making the leap across the office to the mid-air display where it hovered for review.

“Christ, that’s the third one of these this quarter,” Jane scanned the document top to bottom, making notes in an action plan as she went. “We’re going to have to go back a few years on this one too, increase junk food intake, sugar, closet alcohol consumption, we can’t bend the timeline in any way that will require affecting anyone else’s,” She pushed back from the desk, turning her attention to Jodi, “do you have any idea how much of a pain in the ass this guy’s becoming?”

“As long as he’s in the pole position, we retroactively justify his futures. That’s the gig, nobody said it was going to be easy.” Jodi softened. “Look, I know it’s a shitshow, but you’re the best at this, if anyone can restring his timelines so he doesn’t destroy himself and the party, you can.”

Jane pulled up a list of pending events, spinning the display around so Jodi could see.

“It was bad enough when he was firing intelligence staff,” she started, “re-engineering the history of spooks who are trained to recognize when their timelines have been distorted was an invitation for disaster, but that just needed to hold up to administrative review. Retroactively creating health conditions to cover deaths, that has to stand up to coroner scrutiny, and that’s an entirely different level of sophistication and detail.”

Jodi surveyed the office, noted the absence of anywhere to sit and so stood shifting her weight from foot to foot as she replied.

“This can’t go on forever, you know that. His term will expire, the mantle will be passed to someone else, hopefully, someone who isn’t just another petulant child, and we’ll get back to reworking foreign governments, and de-escalating conflicts in far-off countries, just like the good old days.” She smiled, not entirely confident he wouldn’t somehow secure another term before common sense and decency made an inevitable return to the administration.

An urgent action item popped to the top of the list on Jane’s display, and both women studied it in stunned silence.

“He can’t really think he can push this through,” Jane’s voice was clearly strained, “aren’t there safeguards on rewriting electorate laws? He can’t honestly think we can just eliminate the term limit without anyone noticing.”

Jodi stood silently for a long time before leaning close and whispering in Jane’s ear.

“You should go back a few years and increase his junk food intake, and sugar, he doesn’t drink publicly, so you’ll have to make him drink in private, excessively, maybe late at night. Nobody will notice if he’s drunk then, he doesn’t make much sense at the best of times.”

She straightened, fixed her suit jacket and read Jane’s face as the realization of what she was suggesting swept over her.

“If you prioritize this, you can save McKibbon’s life while you’re at it.” She smiled again, a genuine expression this time. “There’s already a death event on the timeline for next Tuesday at quarter past noon, maybe it’s time we reallocated that.”

Jane’s mouth tightened into a line. She held eye contact for a long minute, then nodded once and turned the display back and started working.

If she was successful, McKibbon might be just one of the millions of lives she’d save this week.

Art Medium

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Rebecca stood in the middle of her little gallery and surveyed her work. She’d hoped her recent direction was going to be different, maybe spark some kind of reaction from this sleepy little town, but the series hadn’t gotten anything more than polite smiles. 

Not one piece had sold. She should never have left Chicago.

Her mournful reverie was broken with a crash, as her boyfriend barreled through the front door struggling with the apparent weight of a large plastic bucket.

“Becc, you’ve gotta see this stuff,” he deposited the pail heavily at her feet, causing thick liquid to splash over the sides, “it’s from that meteorite we saw hit the woods.”

Rebecca surveyed the bucket of viscous, deep coloured liquid, and the splatters across the barnboard floor and her sandal-clad feet, a mix of anger and distaste brewing at the back of her throat.

“Lewis,” she started slowly, “what have…,” she paused, the sudden urge to touch the liquid replacing her annoyance, and she plunged one hand into the pail, pulling it back and studying the near luminescent swirling glove of colour that enveloped her to the wrist.

“It’s beautiful,” she turned and wiped a large stripe across one of the closest finished canvases on the wall. Using both hands, she began smearing the material, pushing out to the edges until the surface was covered completely. She was enthralled as she worked the material, at different thicknesses and stroke directions, it became many different colours, like gasoline on water.

“Get it all,” she turned, fixing Lewis with a stare, “I need all of it.”

Lewis simply nodded as he exited the same clumsy way he’d come in.

Rebecca dragged the bucket around the gallery, covering every canvas she could find with scenes that seemed to her to be almost alive; landscapes with people who seemed to sway of their own accord as the material shimmered in the light and shadow. She made portraits of figures with deep shadows where their eyes and mouths should be, featureless creatures whose gaze nevertheless seemed to follow her around the room as she worked.

Over the next few days, Lewis brought several more buckets into the gallery before he stopped coming at all.

Rebecca didn’t notice.

Someone came in and left with a painting, Rebecca too preoccupied to bother about taking money for it, and before long others came and left, each with a piece of her new found art. Word spread, and as quickly as she could finish the paintings, they were carried off to people’s homes, the surfaces not even dry.

When she ran out of her own canvases, she cannibalized other artwork she owned, and when they were gone she tore covers off the hardback books she’d collected and painted those.

Once she’d run completely out of the liquid, and lacking anything on which to paint anyways, she left the gallery for the first time in weeks.

Walking past her large front windows, she caught her own reflection in the glass. Branches had grown from her back and shoulders, pushing through the fabric of her shirt to reach skyward, gnarly and grotesque. Her face a spiderweb of bruised lines, undulating in waves beneath the surface. She paused to straighten her shirt collar before turning back to the sidewalk.

Across the street, she watched as one of the townsfolk sublimated while walking past the coffee shop. He turned to step off the curb into the street and, just as a sudden gust of wind blew past, he simply became smoke.

She made it perhaps twenty more steps towards the downtown before stopping, a desire stronger than any gale force wind forcing her back.

She turned and headed instead, unimpeded, towards the edge of town.

As the ‘Welcome to our community’ sign faded behind her, and the sound of the interstate was carried to her ears on the evening breeze, she knew it wouldn’t be long.

A city was calling.