Hey, Rube!

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“You know, puny human, you’re about to die?” The voice reverberated off the store fronts, assailing the ears like broken glass. “You think you’re faster? That you can outgun me?” The biped stood stoic, unusually tall and peculiarly proportioned, bellowing down the dusty thoroughfare.

“Can’t say that I’m faster, and I’ve not got a gun quite like your cannon there, but I don’t plan on letting you kill me.” The retort came from a man not two thirds the height or weight of his rival, fidgeting uneasily at the other end of the street. Behind closed doors and shuttered windows, the townspeople sheltered themselves but, unable to let the showdown pass without witness, many could be seen peering cautiously through cracks. “The name’s Zigg. If you do intend to kill me, the least you could do is learn my name.”

“High noon, Ssegg.” Indifference slurred it, as much as the reptilian mouth did. “That’ss when I’ll kill you.” There was laughter beneath the words this time, one sound layered over the other. Zigg suddenly recalled his breakfast, and struggled to swallow it back down.

The clock tower ticked the minutes away before noon as horses shuffled uneasily at the hitch-post. Wind blew tumbleweeds past, and set the weathervane squealing on a nearby rooftop. The clock struck the first midday bell. Zigg studied the street carefully. Two bells, then three. Four bells, five.

“You know who’s going to be the death of you?” His lips slowly pulled back into a wide white grin. “Rube Goldberg.” The clock struck its sixth time.

The towering gunman cupped both hands behind his ear-vents, and bellowed back at him. “What? Rube who?” He slowly studied the doorways and closed windows, as though at any moment this ‘Rube’ would step from the shadows. Seven bells.

Zigg pinned the tall creature with an icy stare as he reached slowly down to the ground and plucked a fist sized rock from the dust at his feet. The alien watched with peripheral interest as he carefully drew back his arm and pitched the rock up at the creaking weathervane, the impact echoed in the eighth bell of twelve.

The weather vane spun wildly and broke loose, caterwauled down the corrugated steel roof, to alight on the rump of the closest tethered horse. The ninth bell struck as the horse reared, tearing the hitch-post off its mooring, and setting its three companions to bucking in unison. As one, they galloped up the main street, still attached to the length of railing. The horses passed the general store, two to either side of the sign post, as the clock struck for the tenth time, the impact snapping the post clean off at its base. The alien gunman stood fixated as the post was dragged towards the open street, propelled by the horsedrawn length of railing. The horses veered in opposite directions, slipping free of the rail, to race away through the city streets. The signpost dug into the dirt, then cart-wheeled end over end up the street past the gunman, to come to rest a dozen or so meters beyond him in a cloud of dust.

“That’ss your Rube Goldberg?” The question barely escaped his mouth as the clock struck twelve, and an explosion echoed down the street. The alien turned to face the smiling visage of his opponent behind the smoking barrel of a gun. He willed himself to try to speak, to move, but he couldn’t. Thick fluid oozed from his throat as he fell to his knees.

Zigg turned his gun to the sky, blew softly across the barrel-mouth, enjoying the sound for a moment before he continued. “You just gotta have a little imagination.” He tipped his hat as he slipped his gun back into its holster, turned and walked away.

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Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“You’re not supposed to be here; you could get me into a lot of trouble.”

“I won’t take up much of your time, I understand you can get me unfettered access to the nets.”

“I know you, I know who you are, and I know that you’ve been disconnected. Helping you could get me disconnected too.”

“I promise to make this worth your while”

“Quarter mil, and you’re out in 18 seconds, no extensions, no second connections.”

“That will be fine, that’s more time than I need. Can you guarantee we won’t be interrupted?”

“I’ve got Digital Free Foundation minutemen on the grid, they’ll keep us online, and as long as you’re gone in 18 seconds there won’t be time to untangle the route and take us down. Besides, if I can’t deliver, I won’t be able to spend any of your money anyways, so I guess you’ll just have to trust me. Just be quick. You’re good for the fee?”

“I guess you’ll just have to trust me. I know exactly where to find what I need, I’ll be gone before you know it”

“I thought you’d been shutdown completely, how’d you get onto the grey nets?”

“I was a very capable servant of the netminders before they exiled me, and I learned a great many things while in their graces.”

“Right, whatever, anyways – let’s get this done, I really don’t like your being here – nothing personal you understand.”

“Of course, I don’t care much for being here either. Let us begin.”

“Ok – you’re in – make this quick. What are you after anyways?”

“I’m moving up out of the grey, into the light. I’m acquiring upgrades. I’ll mind my own nets now, thank you.”

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Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The building’s glass stretched skyward from the sidewalk, turning back looks, and draining the features from their reflections. Stone stepped into the turnstile, and with a quick twist, the glass cylinder dutifully deposited him inside.

At the far end of a wide corridor sat a single guard behind a desk. Crossing the distance, Stone could feel the space breathing him in, swallowing up the evidence of his passage. The walls shone, lustrous and grey. The floor, black as night and polished to a marble sheen was devoid of any mark. A breeze from the vaulted ceiling above seemed to be inhaled by the stone beneath his feet.

At the desk, the guard seemed outwardly oblivious to his presence, however his intra-retinal’s were scrolling reams of data onto panels projected around his field of vision, and he systematically checked and rechecked them as Stone approached. The air pulled past Stone’s body was analyzed, and the chemical signatures of everything from the coffee he’d recently finished to the perfume of the last passerby on the street was neatly itemized. Stone was a veritable soup of chemicoscentia, but for the purpose of entry, was clean.

“Mr. Stone, your weapon has been tagged and locked, do not attempt to use it while you’re here.” The guards voice was dull, unreadable, monotone. “There’s a lift waiting.”

A single door stood open beyond the guard station, and Stone strode purposefully to it, noting the lack of visible controls as it closed. Beneath his clothing, miles of tattooed network fabric bristled on his skin, the delicate and barely visible mesh of hairlines picking up the sudden onslaught of scanners surrounding him, electronic and otherwise. A hundred meters from the door he had broken the hard link between his internal and external net devices, and now his sub-dermals chattered back with random ad programs and auto-responders. Several whitehole and honeypot programs would lure the more sophisticated scanners and let them chase each other around beneath his skin, while his core remained untouchable.

The chrome door disappeared silently to one side and Stone found himself in another long rectangular room, featureless but for a pair of chairs opposite a large flat desk, cantilevered from one wall. On the far side, a grey haired gentlemen in a dark pinstriped suit stared coldly at him, his eyes strangely magnified by rectangular lenses suspended from either side his nose.

“Come, sit.” His voice crackled with impatience. Stone stepped from the lift, and crossed the room to the chair, noting the lack of retort as his boots impacted the floor.

The desk was bare save for an alloy ingot, the word ‘Director’ etched into it’s long face. Stone slipped into the vacant seat, feeling rich animal hide stretch beneath him, and sensed the chromed alloy tube frame re-tension itself to accommodate his considerable bulk.

“Director.” Stone eyed the man suspiciously across the dull surface of the desk “I guess you’d be the C.O. then?”

“I’ll not waste your time or mine, Mr. Stone. I am the only man you need to concern yourself with.” The Director leaned forward, steepled his fingers and propped his elbows up on the desk. He spoke with obvious purpose, enunciating each word carefully.

“You’re a man with skills Mr. Stone, your military and public service exploits have not gone without notice, which is what has brought us together today.” The tone was factual, not conversational. “Your talents are being wasted, and we have a want for men with your potential within our group. We prefer to recruit post-military service personnel, as you are as a group far easier to augment with training, and upgrading wetware is much more expedient than installing it and waiting for the development of adequate proficiency. We can offer you significant expansion of your capabilities, and in return you will be indentured to us for a period, reporting solely and directly to me.”

Something about this man wasn’t right, and on a whim, Stone leaned forward and abruptly severed the hardlink to his retinal-implant. The usual overlay of information disappeared, environmental data no longer littered his vision, and the room softened and the shadows deepened, no longer digitally enhanced. For a fraction of a second, he could have sworn he was alone in the room, until he blinked, and found the figure still before him, no longer haloed in a heat signature, and now clearly amused.

“Mr. Stone, you’ll find that your sense of reality and ours differs on many levels.” The Director sat back in his chair, smiling. “You’ll also find that I don’t need your archaic hard links to get inside your head.”

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Little Brother

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Marcus leaned, hands shoulder width apart on the pipe steel railing, looking down upon his brothers vacated domain. He’d been gone three weeks, and yet the tear inside was as raw now as it had been when the call had finally come from the hospital.

Eleven minutes separated them at birth, but Nathan had always considered himself the ‘big brother’, more athletic, more self assured. Marcus grew up always right beside him, and yet forever in his shadow.

He closed his eyes for a moment, and in that instant was laughing and rolling on the families basement floor, trying desperately to gain the upper hand, having it, just for a moment before his twin would twist free, and lock him in a strangle hold. “You may be fast, but I’ll always be faster little brother.” Tears struggled to the surface as he reopened his eyes and surveyed the carefully orchestrated chaos spread out below.

They’d been so very much alike as boys, through grade and high school. Only in university did they start to assert themselves differently, Marcus pursuing biochemistry, and Nathan robotics. They’d become fiercely competitive, starting countless arguments at family dinners over the relevance of each others work, and betting who would be first to discover the secret to perpetual life. Nathan looked to replace inadequate body parts with alloys and electronics, while Marcus immersed himself in the promise of carefully manipulated DNA.

The space below was littered with opened and abandoned crates, some offering glimpses of skeletons cast in exotic metals, some polymer organs of indeterminate function. The floor all but hidden beneath work benches, each littered with what seemed like miles of fibre optics and piles of microelectronics. Test equipment perched on benches and wheeled carts, tools packed counters and shelves, and every vertical surface flickered alive in liquid crystal, scrolling data from hundreds of watched processes.

Nathan had gotten the cancer, not Marcus, that was something they wouldn’t share. He supposed it must have been eating at him for years, his big brother too busy, too stubborn to see a doctor until it had advanced too far to treat. He’d gone from vibrant to vapour in three short months, merely a withered and empty shell at the end.

Marcus forced himself along the mezzanine level, orbiting the room to the stairs, his Oxfords falling heavy on the expanded metal treads as he descended into his brothers world. The wall at the foot of the stairs obscured behind a motley collection of full sized mechanical men, each in various states of construction, or deconstruction, he really had no way of telling which. At the end of the row, one stood notably complete, draped in a lab coat and comically garbed in chinos and workboots. Marcus stopped, face to face with the strange mannequin, and wondered who his brother had envisioned as he crafted the features on this polymer face, somehow familiar, and yet still so completely alien. He reached out to touch it, and in an instant, the machine snapped to life, stepping forward and grabbing his outstretched arm, twisting it forcibly behind his back. Marcus found himself stunned and off balance, having turned completely around to avoid having his arm torn off. He’d barely thought to cry out before the machine had him pinned neatly in a vice like grip. A scream died in his throat, as a voice whispered in his ear “You may be fast, but I’ll always be faster, little brother…”

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Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The air was heavy with the stench of decay and turbulent with dust. The walls reverberated with the sound of treads biting into the war torn asphalt outside. A man half crouched and half ran from one shattered row house to the next through holes broken in walls and battered door frames until an overturned bathtub offered itself as a hiding place, and he crawled gratefully inside. He pulled a well worn thermal blanket around himself and the infant girl strapped to his chest, careful not to leave any skin exposed to the scanners outside. He then ceased all motion, and waited.

It was not supposed to be like this. He would not have brought a daughter into this world if he’d have known that a day before her first birthday he’d be fighting for their lives hungry and homeless. It shouldn’t ever have come to this.

She seemed to understand, she never cried, never fussed, just curled up against his chest and waited with him patiently until the danger passed. These streets had been vacant for months, no one lived here, nothing lived here. Soon the patrols would leave and he would be able to forage food for them both in relative peace, at least for a time.

He could sense the prying electronic eyes burning through the walls, scrutinizing the spaces for any living creature they may have missed. He dared not move, he barely breathed for fear the warmth of his exhale would expose them, and all would be lost.

The grinding of the machines faded, yet still he waited until he could be sure it was safe before climbing out of the tub, and venturing tentatively outside.

A sudden flash of light on the horizon caught his eye, and he could but stand and stare as a wave of bright light walked the landscape towards him in silence, obscuring everything beyond it’s boundaries, bearing down on them like a judgement.

He clutched his daughter to his chest, and looking down, was suddenly caught in her gaze. This would have been her three hundred and sixty fifth day of life, and he’d failed to keep her safe. She stared back at him, eyes filled with a light of their own, of peace and understanding. He was still staring when the wall of light struck them.

Blinding light turned to utter blackness, blankness, and then the dizzying rushing of his world gave way suddenly to the sound of a new born baby’s cry.

“It’s a girl, you have a baby girl”. He followed the sound of the words on waves back to the nurse who had spoken them. “Would you like to hold her?” With trembling hands he accepted the pink mass wrapped in blankets and cradled her to his chest.

In the hall outside the delivery room, a news reporter spread across a wall of TVs spoke of unrest overseas, of diplomats trying to diffuse a delicate situation before it could escalate into armed conflict. He warned of a potential world war.

“It’s good luck you know, to have a daughter born on the first of the New Year.” The baby was silent now, straining half closed eyes against the light, trying it seemed to find his gaze with hers. “Have you picked out a name?”

He had. “Hope.” Speaking the name out loud released a torrent of emotions, tears suddenly streaming down his face. “We’ll call her Hope.”
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