Service the Masses

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

He eyed her cautiously as they undressed, her gaze wandering over his muscular frame, he picking out the subtle characteristics that identified her as a mech; her stance, the symmetry of her body and its flawlessly calculated motions, the perfect geometric arcs her hips cut as she walked. Afternoon sun seeped reluctantly through smokey acrylic to carve dusty fingers in the stale air. The light accentuated her form as she closed the small distance between them on the balls of her feet. In an instant, she was on him, twisting him in a wiry embrace that found them both locked together on the bed. He felt the sheets beneath his bare skin, faux cotton made soft from too many washings.

‘Are you ready?’ She barely breathed the words, but he was, and they rolled together as one on the bed, exacting murderous complaints from the wood and metal frame beneath them.  He could feel the corded muscle beneath her polymer skin, feel the way the fibers contracted and released as she flexed, her body a geometry text of angles and curves, throwing shadows on the rice-paper walls, one moment acute, the next unnaturally obtuse.

‘Come on baby. Harder – Faster.’ She was on her hands and knees now, looking back over her shoulder, her irises ratcheting through various degrees of dilation, straining to optimize the light. ‘Pull my hair.’ He wrapped one hand in the long soft fibers cascading across her back as their bodies blended into one. He could hear her air exchanger accelerate and then stop suddenly, her entire frame in an instant becoming rigid within the supple flesh of her body, seizing almost completely before fail safes spurred the air exchanger back into motion, and each pair of joints were reflexively released.

He sat on the end of the bed, smoking a cigarette, and watched as she dressed in silence and then strode purposefully toward the door. ‘I’ll see you again next week.’ She paused a moment, pulling a handful of paper money from her purse and tossing it on the desk. ‘You know, you are my favorite.’ She smiled at him then, a warm, almost caring smile, before she disappeared behind the closing door.

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Looking Forward

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

With an almost discernible sigh, the bridge ceased its seemingly endless attempt to shake the crew unconscious.  Captain Jax waited until he was sure the worst was over before instructing the muscles in his body to unbrace themselves from his seat, and it took some time before those muscles began to obey.  The space around him was filled with a haze of smoke and sublimated material that before the storm had made up control surfaces and various other parts of his ship. The giant view screen was dark, and as the fire suppression systems shut down, and the environmental control systems began to scrub the air, he realized that large portions of the bridge were dark also.   Around him restraints eased, and tired bodies released themselves into the slack tethers.  The immediate danger, at least, had passed.

‘Django, damage report.’ The captain’s voice carried easily across the cramped space, and he waited as the engineer struggled to coax a console to life. Reams of text chased themselves across the screen before flickering out only to begin again.

‘Engines are up, warp drive is down.’ Yellow fluid oozed from a crack in the engineers craggy forehead which he dabbed at absently with a sleeve as he continued. ‘We’ve all but lost the recyclers, the atmosphere reserve is online but degraded, estimated hours of breathable air – thirty seven.’ The captain instinctively began to slow his breathing. ‘The storms knocked out our eyes and ears sir, we’ve got instruments for navigation, but no visual.  Our distress beacon is broadcasting, but only from the bow, and the long range sensor on the bow is alight, but it’s the only one.’

The captain slumped back into his chair, pushing the hair back from his sweating forehead. His eyes tried to focus on a point beyond the blackened display, as though expecting to see somehow through it into the void of space.

‘Weapons Django?’

‘Ballistics are offline sir, the light spear appears intact’

‘Direct whatever energy we’ve got to the beacon and sensors, we need to find a ship.’ The crew began to execute his commands even before he’d finished speaking them.

Nearly a dozen hours passed before the long range sensor panel lit up and the comms officer, Sharak, broke the silence. ‘Sir, there’s a ship straight off the bow, quite some distance, but she’s parked and in our line of sight.  She’s in a line to receive our beacon sir.’

‘Django’ The captains voice boomed with new found purpose ‘All ahead full, let’s catch up to that ship’

The engines wound valiantly to life, shaking loose bits of the bridge that had been tenaciously holding on while they’d sat at idle, filling the cabin with the clatter and dull thuds of falling alloys and polymer composites.

‘Sir – the ship ahead is in motion sir.’ Django struggled to read the flickering display in front of him. ‘We’re accelerating sir, and they’re matching our speed.’

‘We need to catch that ship and we’re a little low on options right now’ The captain knew it was pure luck a ship happened across their path and he wasn’t going to let it get away. ‘Bring the light spear up, fire a volley up his ass and see if we can’t take his engines offline.  Mobility we’ve got, it’s his atmospherics I want. If he’s ignoring our beacon he’s brought this on himself…’

Sharak spoke over her shoulder ‘Captain, the aft transceiver array’s come back online, and there’s a ship back there, it’s broadcasting on the emergency channel but it appears encrypted sir, I can’t make out a message.’

‘Forget them, we’ve got our own problems, we’re in no position to help anyone else right now.  If we can catch this ship and make repairs, we can think about going back later.’ The captain was leaning forward now, straining his eyes at the void of the view screen for some glimpse of the space outside, an image that wouldn’t come.

‘Sir… the ship behind us, it’s fired on us…’ Sharak was afraid, and her voice could do nothing to hide the fact.

‘Fired?  Fired!  We’re broadcasting a distress signal, what kind of bastard fires on a ship in distress?’ The captain, giving up on the dead display stood and wheeled on the comms officer, gripping his seat back to steady himself against the surging of the wounded engines.

‘Sir… the signal from the ship behind us.  It’s not encrypted sir, I don’t know how I missed it, it’s inverted and sir,’ The comms officer’s voice dropped almost to a whisper. ‘Sir, it’s from our bow beacon.’

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Water of Life

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

It had been eighteen years since they’d seen their home world.  Eighteen years since the earth had lain before them vibrant and blue. They had come home, and brought with them the water of life, salvation for a world in need. They’d left a desperate band of men with a mission, journeyed the stars as beggars, then thieves, and ultimately destroyers to return home to be heroes.

‘Orbital control, this is the Lazarus on return approach, we’re inbound heavy looking for our vector, over’

Nothing but silence greeted their request.

Earth was being consumed by a terrible plague when they had left, a plague that destroyed the infected from the inside.  The doctors needed fresh blood, in great quantities in order to transfuse, and to synthesize the antibodies that had been cleaned from their blood through the generations. They had dug up a horrific judgement of a great many years ago, and no one was immune anymore. A disease their ancestors would have thought nothing of now stood to annihilate them to a man.  How far they’d come, and how quickly they’d fallen.

The mission of the Lazarus was to visit the worlds colonized over the generations, to collect blood from the inhabitants of these civilizations the earth had birthed amongst the stars, and to bring it back to save their ancestral home world. The people on these worlds had forgotten who had given them life, and they were reluctant to help when asked to share their blood.  Maybe one in twenty would offer up a litre willingly, but the men on the Lazarus found that everyone had 5 litres to spare if they weren’t given the choice. These roving collectors of the water of life were prepared to sacrifice these insignificant worlds in order to save their home.  They could be colonized again, but the survival of their planet of origin must be assured.

Almost four million litres of blood filled the belly of their ship on its return voyage, three quarter of a million lives sacrificed for the sake of the human race. They had become masters of its retrieval, machines of exsanguination gone mad, but justified in doing gods work, and now they were home.

‘Orbital control, this is the Lazarus, are you reading us?’

The silence mocked the heros return.

‘Orbital control, we’re on an urgent approach, we have no sensory data on proximal traffic, we’re bypassing your authority and dropping into lower earth orbit.’

The Lazarus rolled into its approach, the crew fastened safely in their harnesses as the giant craft burned through the upper atmosphere in a red hot blaze of glory before leveling off to cruise above the planet in the direction of its home landing field.

‘Cheyenne control, this is the Lazarus on return approach.  We’ve cleared the atmosphere and are requesting an airway inbound. Over.’

No signal greeted the pilot, nothing at all.

They slowed and gave up altitude gradually, straining to see through the view ports and scrutinizing the sensors to see what would greet them below. Across Iowa and Nebraska they saw nothing, no life signs, no radio signals, no navigational beacons, nothing but barren ground and silence.

As they reached the border of Wyoming, the radio crackled to life first, followed by a video transmission that filled the view screen.  The crew turned from their tasks and windows to watch a shrunken man, gaunt and lesioned as he cleared his throat and spoke.

‘Lazarus crew. If you are receiving this transmission, I’m afraid you are too late.  The disease has accelerated beyond our ability to contain it, and most of the population of this earth has succumbed. Do not land your craft. Do not take on any material from this earth. The planet must remain in quarantine. This planet has survived the loss of its inhabitants before, it will rise again without us.’

The man paused, eyes closing for moment before taking a breath and continuing.

‘Lazarus crew, the only hope for humanity lies now with the colonies.  You must go to them, help them, protect them, provide transport between them that they may share knowledge and resources and assure the future of the human race. If you are here, then it’s because these colonists gave freely of themselves in order to save us, you must now give back to them in order to save us all. The future of the human race lies in your hands, good luck, and god speed’

As the transmission ended, silence once again filled the cabin. Through this silence everyone onboard could feel the cries of the lives they carried, litre by litre in the belly of the beast that was all that was left of the human race.
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Stop

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

He drifted his coupe into the corner from the feeder street onto Avenue E at an easy pace, climbing from the lower flats in a series of calculated upturns before slipping into the relative obscurity of the middle tiers.

Commuters and couriers flitted about below, dodging in and out of traffic to make deliveries or dropping into the parking slips below the pedestrian levels.  Above were the lumbering giants, observing the altitude restrictions that kept the transports from entering the city streets as they hauled cargo between the industrial zones.  There was no traffic in the middle flats, and the slick little sportster begged to be let out to run. Always ready to oblige the adrenaline pull, Max pushed the throttle up, feeling his seat stiffen behind his back as the little craft flung itself uptown.

Two more lane changes towards the clouds put him in the upper levels of the Atriums at Avenue E and 133rd Street. Six levels of open space and greenery  occupied both corner buildings, with the upper two levels offering a clear view of 133rd in both directions.  Easing the throttle back only slightly, Max scanned up and down the street before rolling into a sharp left bank and powering through the corner, rising up a flat in the process.  Heart racing he pushed the throttle again, picking up speed as 133rd Street slipped by like liquid beneath his seat.

A sudden flashing of blue and red light filled the interior, erasing the thrill of the moment and replacing it instead with sudden and intense anxiety.  He hadn’t seen the cruiser, it must have been higher up, but there was no doubt that it had seen him.  Following the expected protocol, Max pulled up to a stationary platform at the side of an office tower, and watched as the uniformed figure climbed out of the cruiser behind him and approached.  He lowered his window, hanging one arm down the door while resting the other over the steering column.  A helmeted face appeared before him, a uniformed body reflected in the surface of the featureless office tower behind her.  Max listened to the voice from the helmet, but couldn’t help watching the reflection of her uniform pants in the mirrored window.

‘Do you know why I pulled you over today Mr. Sidenham?’

Max wasn’t used to strangers calling him by name, but he knew she’d had every trivial detail about him at her fingertips the moment she’d tagged him with the violation.

‘Lonely?’ he smiled up at her charmingly, but quickly followed with ‘No, I’m sure I’ve got no idea why you’d want to stop me, officer’ It was clear she wasn’t amused.

‘You failed to stop your vehicle before turning from the Avenue onto 133rd.  That’s a violation of your transit agreement.’

‘I’m sure you’re mistaken, I’m positive I stopped there…’ again the smile, maybe he couldn’t joke with her, but he could sure as hell charm her, chicks dug him, he could tell.

‘I think you’ll find if we subpoena your nav, you did not stop at that intersection Mr. Sidenham.  Are you going to argue with me?’  The tone of her voice should have warned him to stop there, but Max wasn’t one to listen to how a woman talked to him.

‘Oh, come on now, I’m sure I slowed down at least, there was no one else for 10 flats up or down.  I’m a busy guy, what do you say we just let me off with a warning.’ His white teeth shone from ear to ear. ‘Can’t we just forget about this sweetheart?’

‘You may have slowed down, but you didn’t stop.  You are required to stop at all intersections, that’s in your transit agreement.’  Her tone was icy, she wasn’t anyone’s ‘sweetheart’, least of all this disrespectful little shit.

‘Stop, slow down, what’s the difference?’ Max continued to smile what he was sure was his most disarming smile.  He was still smiling that smile, at least for a moment, when she pinned his forearm against the door of his coupe with her shock baton.  He only had a moment to see her thumb the trigger before his arm exploded in a white hot jolt of pain, his fist clenching without conscious input, then slowly opening as the energy left his arm.

‘What the hell was…ugh…’.  Again she thumbed the trigger, and again he writhed in agony, his arm pinned firmly as the rest of him twitched in his seat.

‘You can’t fu…aargg…’. Another blast of pain cut him off in mid sentence, and he was only momentarily aware of spit dripping from his open mouth before he was blinded by another white hot blast.

He slumped in his seat, hearing her words drift in through the post-electric haze.

‘Now, sweetheart, would you like me to stop, or slow down?’

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Time, 101

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“Paxton – Porterhaus – Pratt.” The name was enunciated with venomous care, as though each word were an expletive of a most unpleasant nature.  The professor spoke across a desk cluttered with piles of documents, large texts and time keeping and measuring devices, to the youth lounging lazily in the chair opposite him. “I fear you have run afoul one too many times of this institution, Pratt, and this time you’ve gone too far. Beyond disrupting my classroom, you have stained my reputation, and this” he paused to push his glasses up the crooked bridge of his nose “this I will not tolerate.”

The youth shifted only slightly in his chair, gazing smugly through a sea of clocks and whirling planetary models at his agitated teacher. He made a show of straightening his tie, a striped affair with the backside facing, the fat end terminating at his breast pocket, while the tail hung between his legs.

“It was bad enough your turning in a summary of text so obviously penned by another, and someone that had either himself never laid eyes upon the assigned text, or harbors you no amount of goodwill.” The professor paused a moment, moving carefully aside the student record labeled ‘Pratt, Paxton P., III’, the cover of which sporting an equally disheveled version of the student now before him, similarly smug, and gazing idly from side to side inside the holo’d cover. He lifted a textbook from beneath it, and turning it towards his student poked angrily at it. “That was bad enough, but you, you had the unmitigated audacity to accuse me of ‘gross and libelous conduct’ and ‘harboring a clear prejudice against you’ for my failing grade.” At this, he leaned forward, rising slightly out of his chair. “I had to actually defend myself to the Dean Construct against your charge that I ‘clearly did not understand the author’s theories or proofs sufficiently to grade your exceptional paper’. Mr. Pratt, read for me the author of the text I’m holding.” He held the book as far as his reach would allow, and glared past it as the reluctant Paxton Pratt eyed the title without speaking. “You’ll notice, Mr. Pratt, that is my name on the cover.”  At this, Paxton shifted uncomfortably in his chair, his smug look softening ever so slightly.

The professor dropped the textbook loudly in the middle of his desk, and slumped back into his chair, a tense silence taking hold as various units of measurement ticked on the various time keeping devices around the room. Somewhere, something clicked audibly, the noise setting the professor back in motion.

“Mr. Pratt. I would have expelled you at once, however your father assured me that were I to make you his burden again, his generous funding for the ‘Pratt Faculty of Time Studies’ would immediately, and with great prejudice run dry.” The professor picked up Paxton’s file from his desk and tossed at the student, who caught it in surprise. “Keep that, will you. I shan’t be needing it in a moment. You see, if you had listened in any of my classes, you’d know that manipulating the past is strictly prohibited. However, if you had bothered to read the textbook you were assigned, you may have taken an interest in the appendices, specifically the one titled ‘Exceptions to the Timeline Rule’. You see, Mr. Pratt, arranging for a house to drop on your head as a child, while enormously gratifying, would constitute a gross variation in the Timeline, and as such is prohibited. It would seem, however, that your parents, as your father was so kind to enlighten me, never wanted another child. You were apparently an accident brought about by a failed vasectomy, and as you were already so very close to not existing, a subtle manipulation to the Timeline where you are concerned is perfectly acceptable.”

At this, the professor paused a moment to straighten several piles of documents on his desk before speaking pointedly at the shrinking and confused looking youth now almost cowering in his chair.

“Mr Pratt – I’ve taken the liberty of scheduling a tubal ligation after the birth of your older brother Weston.  In a moment, the Continuum will refresh, and the displeasure of your existence…” he paused for a brief moment “…will have been all mine.” These last five words he spoke to an empty chair.

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