Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“What the hell you got there Jeb?”  The man spat into the dirt and jerked a thumb towards Jeb’s pickup truck.  A hairless mass of ribbed muscle was lashed across the hood, two thick legs splayed out over each of the fenders.

“What is it? Dead, that’s what it is Lou. Damn thing fell out of the sky, right in front of my truck.” Jeb pulled hard on his cigarette and blew smoke rings as he admired his prize.

“Right out of the sky eh? Sure Jeb, how many times did you have to swerve exactly before it landed right in front of your truck?”

Jeb grinned back. “Don’t know if the meat’s any good, but that ugly head’s gonna look mighty fine mounted on my living room wall.” He crouched down and grunted at the dent in his bumper. “Made a helluva mess of my truck though. You think we can pull that out Lou?”

His friend leaned down and pulled half heartedly at the mangled metal. “No way, that’s not going anywhere. Maybe get a new one from the wreckers.”

A violent rending sound followed by a dull thud brought both men to their feet.  The beast still appeared to be secured to the hood, but something was different.  Lou extended a finger and poked it tentatively.

“It’s just an empty shell Jeb. Where’d you put the insides?”

Jeb wasn’t listening. His eyes followed a trail of fluid as it oozed from the husk’s ruptured spine down to the dusty parking lot. A line of increasingly wider spaced spatter marks snaked away into the deepening shadows. “Four times.” He whispered to no one in particular, staring across the parking lot into the darkness. “I hit it four times before it stopped moving.”

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Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Jack smiled across the card table, and the newly bankrupt old man glared back with open hatred. Jack busied himself stuffing his winnings into his cavernous coat as the coin was collected by the dealer, counted, and after the house tax paid, credited to one of Jack’s many account cards. He’d compensate the dealer later for the extraordinary luck he’d had tonight.

The rest of the nights losers had already wandered off, a teacher, a housewife – beholden now to Jack for a fortnight, and the young ranger who’d lost his recoilless pistol to a low pair. Jack hefted the weapon for moment before it too was stuffed into a pocket. A chronometer, food ration tokens, several knives and a nice pair of long glasses all disappeared into the coat. As he picked up the old mans last offering of the game, a velvet bag full of beans, Jack paused.

“Beans?” he thought out loud “What the hell am I going to do with beans?”  Jack hadn’t wanted the old mans beans, but he had wanted the win. There was something special about cleaning someone out of everything they had, no matter how worthless the items themselves.

“Magic beans.” the old man spat at him, “You’d best be careful with those, you don’t respect ’em and they’ll bite you in the ass”

“Sorry about your luck, and thanks for these.. magic beans.” He spoke over his shoulder, turning towards the door “If you can muster up something else to bet with, I’d be happy to take it off you some other time”. He could feel the mans eyes burning into his back as he strode out the swinging doors into the night, twirling the bag of beans deliberately by its drawstring as he left.

He walked quickly, down the alley past Madame Harlots House of Whorers, over the canal bridge and down the path along the waters edge, still twirling the bag.  It was here that the straining drawstring broke, sending the bag and it’s beans skittering across the path into the shallow of the water.

Jack could have cared less about the beans, and had almost walked past them when the ground began to shake. The shallow water erupted with explosive force, and a thick vine began to claw its way skyward at an impossible rate, sending Jack staggering backward as he stumbled and fell. The vine thickened as it grew, strong roots visibly churning their way outward beneath the ground, some erupting in the canal proper, some unsetting the underbrush lining the edge of the forest that traced the shoreline.  Jack lay on his back, watching the vine rocket into the dense fog of the night sky, and for a moment, childhood stories filled his head.  The old peddler and his beans, a ladder to a dimensional rift in the clouds and a castle filled with riches beyond imagination. Jack’s eyes lit up at the thought, and he scrambled excitedly to his feet, rushed to the base of the towering vine and began climbing, feet and hands finding purchase on the shoots protruding from the vines’ spiny flesh.

He pulled himself skyward tirelessly, in and out of the fog, great boots tearing broad gashes in the plant flesh beneath them as he went. After some time, the fog cleared, and he could feel that the vine itself had stopped rising. Jack had stopped where the plant had taken a sharp perpendicular turn, snaking out sideways into the darkness.

‘This is it’ Jack ventured into the night ‘this must be it…’

Something stirred just on the edge of his sight, an area of blackness, growing, blotting out the stars peppering the darkness beyond.  Could this be the portal?  Jack strained to see as the patch of void moved towards him. The dark shape took form as the distance closed, revealing itself as the end of the vine itself, truncated in a misshapen clutch of petals. It paused, just a few meters away, and the petals peeled back, revealing row upon row of barbed and ribbed spines, bristling inward and foaming angrily.  Jack recoiled in horror, his feet slipping on the torn wet welts his boots had left behind in the haste of his climb. The words of the old man rang again with finality in his ears ‘Best be careful, treat em badly…’

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Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“Son of a bitch!”. The Station Chief cut off comms with his boss, dropping back heavily in his chair before planting two battered boots against the desk frame and propelling himself away from it in disgust.

“They want us to stop digging Tom?” The shorter of the two men spoke softly, stuffing bear paw hands deep into the pockets of his jumpsuit.

“Bastards!” Tom peeled off his helmet with one hand and tossed it at the desk, angrily scratching the cross hatch of scars in the stubble of his scalp. “Yeah, they want us to stop.” Pausing for a moment, he examined a fragment of skin peeled loose by a grimy fingernail. “Forty years we’ve been digging holes in these rocks, Skip, forty bloody years and no one’s ever had the balls to order us up short. This is bullshit. I’ll guarantee that if we dig shallow and this thing doesn’t stay standing, it’ll be our ass in a sling Skip, yours and mine, not theirs.”

The Crew Chief shuffled away from the wall, boots dragging on the alloy of the cabin floor. “What’s their problem? There’s no water down there, no gas pockets. The crust’s been as uniform as we’ve ever seen past five hundred meters.” His face an emotional vacancy, his tone a perfect match. “The only trouble may be a few hundred meters of high density rock. That’ll be tough to get through, sure, but it’s nothing we haven’t done before.”

“I know, I told them. Seems Corporate’s had a visit from some friggin’ General, an the military’s all up in their ass on this one. He says we stop at six hundred meters or else he’ll be up here to tear us a new one. Arrogant prick.” Locking one gnarled set of fingers into the other, he systematically cracked each knuckle in turn. “Wants us to make up the extra above the surface, pile and pack the rubble. They pay us to dig, not build. Bugger ’em. We’re so far out on the rim, nobody’s coming to check.”

“So, we keep goin’ down then’?” The Chief’s intonation was quizzical though he already had his answer.

“Keep diggin’. The drill spec says eight hundred, so we go eight hundred straight down.” Tom closed his eyes, trying to will his blood pressure back to normal as the cabin door whooshed open and sucked closed behind his Crew Chief.

Eleven days of drilling passed without incident, the huge Wormz boring into the crust, tearing holes into the depths of the planet and venting rock dust and shrapnel up the shafts and into the atmosphere. The Station Commander found himself sitting up in his bunk, rubbing sleep from bleary eyes, unsure for a moment what had woken him. The constant rhythmic thrumming of the giant bores had stopped, and an eerie silence blanketed everything, unfamiliar and disturbing. It took a moment for the lack of noise to register, and a while longer before he recognized that as a problem. He was slowly dragging himself out of the haze when the squawking of his comlink brought him fully back to consciousness

“What? What the hell’s going on? We can’t be at depth already.” His voice rasped and rattled, coarse with fatigue and dry from the ever-present dust that sifted past even the scrubbers.

“You’d better get down to seven Tom, you’re going to want to see this.” The Crew Chief’s voice rang with unfamiliar urgency, and an unmistakable tremor of fear.

“What the hell’s gone wrong? I’m coming, give me a minute.” He stumbled pulling his boots on, hurrying. “Why aren’t we digging?”

Skip’s voice reached up from an obvious distance. “Turk took rig seven down past seven hundred meters, and he punched clear on through.” The comlink sputtered as Tom half jogged down the barracks hall. “The whole rig, everything, it just fell into the planet. We’ve still got coms, but he figures he tore through almost a kilometer of scaffold before he could shut down the bore, and he’s caught up now in some sort of cable mass.”

“Scaffold? Cable? What the hell…?” He was at the lift now, maniacally pounding the call button.

“Tom. You might want to start thinking of something to tell that General when he gets here.”

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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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