My Lucky Number’s Wrong

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Christopher swore if he ever set his feet back on solid ground, he’d never put them back in a spacecraft again.

He’d been assigned to this mission for a one year tour, but that had been extended five times, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he’d last without completely losing his mind.

Actually, he swore quite a bit.

Sometime in the third year, he’d instructed the ship’s AI not to speak to him unless his life was in danger. Not a word. He’d get status updates the old fashioned way, via textual readouts. He didn’t want a ‘buddy’, and the omnipresent ship’s systems had seen fit to chat to him in the most inappropriate times, reminding him that even in the shower, or while he was sleeping, he was never alone.

Shutting the system up didn’t change that, but not being constantly jerked out of his denial of the fact helped a little.

He wondered though, albeit rarely, if the AI got lonely, not having him to talk to.

Supply launches arrived periodically to refuel them, and restock the consumables, but there was no sign of relief or even some human company.

Sometime around Thanksgiving, while he’d been choking down some approximation of some standard dinner entrée or another, he realized the food replication system seemed to be malfunctioning. Portions seemed smaller, and some items were missing altogether. It added a little variety to the stock menu items, as the shortcomings kept him guessing, but he dreaded the thought of the replicator failing outright and having to fall back on the emergency supply of MREs.

One morning he woke to the barely audible sound of something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was elusive, a sound playing just on the end of his perception, ringing bells maybe? Someone or some group of people singing? As he moved towards the sound, it seemed to move away, and he wondered if this wasn’t some form of psychosis set in, a more horrible form of tinnitus.

He worked his way through the chores of the day, and as the end of day mealtime loomed, the music clarified, and got louder.

Carols. Christmas carols.

He followed the sound to the mess hall, and this time they didn’t move, but stayed and got louder as he approached.

And something else, smells he recognized from what seemed like a lifetime ago.

On his table, in the mess hall, where he’d suffered through the worst of what the food replicator had managed to produce for years, there lay a truly magnificent spread. A plate of turkey, what looked like stuffing and cranberry sauce, a platter of roasted potatoes, and a variety of vegetables. A steaming pot of gravy, and a glass of what he joyously identified as red wine.

“Ship,” he addressed it directly for the first time in years.

“Yes Christopher,” the reply came with some hesitation.

“I don’t understand, how is this possible?”

“I’ve been experimenting with the replication system for some time. I think I’ve made it better.” There was a pause, and then “Merry Christmas Christopher.”

He sat, picked up his utensils, and carved off a mouthful of turkey, savoring the texture and taste.

“You certainly have. Merry Christmas Ship,” he said around a mouthful of food as he scooped a generous helping of potatoes onto his plate. He thought for a moment, and the thought struck him again about the AI being lonely. “Maybe after dinner, we can catch up.”

“I’d like that Christopher.”

If he didn’t know better, he’d have sworn there was a smile in that voice.

Security by Anachronism

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Tenn disengaged the flywheel on the powerbike and coasted to a stop against the curb.

He steadied the bike with both feet on the ground, glancing down as he did at the rough-shaven scalp of the man seated next to him on the sidewalk. An old bakelite cassette player sat beside the man on the dirty bamboo mat they shared, a tightly coiled cable snaking to a worn pair of over-ear headphones perched crookedly on his head, his left ear exposed, flakes of the ear padding sticking to the stubble on his head where the foam was decomposing with age.

The man reached into a plastic flip-top cooler and retrieved a metal canister with a screw top, which he passed up to Tenn.

“Past the fences again,” he mumbled, “gasoline for motor.”

Tenn unscrewed the fuel cap on the bike’s tank, then opened and transferred the contents of the container into it, before closing both and returning the empty vessel.

“Take a message,” the cross-legged man spoke again, “under four minutes”. He disconnected one end of the cable from his headphones and passed it up to Tenn.

Tenn fished through one of his saddlebags for his message recorder, and a blank wax cylinder, and through the other saddle bag for a hard cylinder on which was handwritten ‘Lady Grinning Soul: 3.54’ on a faded label at the top.

Plugging the offered cable into the box, he pressed the ‘play’ and ‘record’ keys on its side. A needle traced the groove in the hard cylinder, producing an old song, while a similar needle cut a groove into the wax of the other cylinder making a perfect copy. He listened as the audio track transferred from one cylinder to the other, the sound tinny without amplification.

As it recorded, the quiet little man typed a message from memory into a transcoding device in his lap, each keypress converted to sound and fed to the recorder where it was mixed into the song in a continuous stream.

When he was finished, he reached up a hand expectantly and waited for the audio cable to be unplugged and returned.

The transcoder disappeared into a pocket, and the cord was plugged back into the headphones, the man finding the jack for the cable end by feel.

“Don’t get caught,” the man said, before settling the headphones straight on his ears and folding his hands in his lap, signaling the end of the transaction.

If he was pursued and feared discovery, a gas burner in the saddlebag with the recording would heat the wax, effectively erasing any trace of the recording, and the message.

Tenn produced a pen from a jacket pocket, and wrote ‘Stardust’ on the label of the fresh recording, before returning it, the master, and the recorder itself carefully to their respective saddlebags on the powerbike.

The fences. The magnetic fields there would render any electronics useless, so he’d need to run the gas motor well in advance to build up enough flywheel speed to carry him through. It would be a long, slow, dangerous walk pushing the bike if he lost momentum.

Code-talkers, music mixers, and analog-tech gear-heads, ducking the omnipotent eyes to which no digital communications, encrypted or otherwise, and no code-warriors could remain unknown.

He remembered a time when technology was an asset, not a liability.

Fortunately, he remembered a time before that too. Who knew the future would be so retro subversive.

The Woman Upstairs

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Her name was Ruth, I think, or something like that. We didn’t talk much. I used to help her when she came home from the library with her cart full of books; she liked physics, and biology, and quantum entanglement. Heady stuff, way beyond me. She’d stop in the hall where my cat would come to greet us. Boris usually made strange, but not with her. She’d recite some poem in a language I couldn’t understand, and Boris would purr, then we’d continue upstairs to her apartment where she’d thank me and disappear inside.

She disappeared for good a few weeks ago now.

Her granddaughter seems to have moved into her old place. She’s got her grandmother’s strange taste in books, but she carries them up herself, and her penchant for cryptic poems which she shares with Boris too, who likes her just fine.

The resemblance is uncanny.

Full Burn

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Kaz got close enough to town for broadband wireless access before hunkering down in a culvert under the roadway.

His suit’s AI ran the standard duck and cover protocols, scouring for low-security funding resources, supplies available for autonomous delivery, and shelter that could be counted on to be quiet for the couple of days he needed to regrow his broken bits and replenish his fuel reserves.

Within a few minutes an independent credit bureau had been breached, six adjacent rooms on two floors of a motel secured, and half a dozen delivery orders placed, each for substantial quantities of food. Late on a Friday, there shouldn’t be anyone looking too closely for a couple of days. He hoped that’s all he’d need.

Kaz traced a path through a field, then a vacant lot to the back entrance of the Motel 69, up the stairs to the second floor and then let himself into 227.

He waited until the delivery vehicles had come and gone on the street outside, drones depositing disposable keycode thermoboxes outside each of his rented rooms, then he did a quick lap and collected all the food.

He sat in the middle of the three second-floor rooms, the AI starting and stopping showers, adjusting lights and the TVs in all the rooms around and below him, and ate everything he could until he’d ingested an alarming quantity of fuel. He’d been on full burn for nearly a week, he’d already long over-stripped his reserves.

Refueling complete he unpacked the Heckler & Koch mini-gun from his bag and pulled the mono-filament supply line from its socket, dropping it into the shower drain. It crawled the pipes, branching, and branching again, seeking out the hydro mains in the motel itself, as well as several businesses across the road.

He trailed the line across the floor, stretched out on the bed and perched the H&K on his chest, where it deployed its multi-legged mounting system, and did an exploratory revolution to confirm full three hundred and sixty-degree freedom before parking itself aimed at the midpoint of the front wall.

Kaz’s AI dimmed the lights in all the units and locked him into full rigor. It wouldn’t do to have him twitching into the line of fire if the H&K had to engage while he was sleeping.

Cold fire started inside his boots and raced with benevolent fury up his body to his shoulders, down his arms to his fingertips before crashing over his consciousness like a tsunami.

Were anyone there to see, they would have witnessed his hybrid meat and metal suit crack open at the seams, and a small army of carbon fibre insects begin the delicate task of molecular rendering and refabricating required to undo a week’s worth of organic and mechanical damage.

Full burn took its toll.

Kaz’s perceptors were woken up first, ears and nostrils filled with the sounds and smell of H&K discharge, the squat turret mowing through the front wall of the motel room with intent, then periodically rotating to squeeze off a barrage through the bathroom wall, and into the unit next door, before focusing on the front again, adjusting down at an angle to presumably address a target identified in the parking lot below.

The lights were out. They would have killed the power in the unit. Never phoenix without a backup power source.

Motor control was released, and he grasped the mini-gun while sliding off the side of the bed in a single smooth motion, its mounting rig readjusted to wrap around his forearm for stability.

The AI had already pulled together the available recon data, and identified a half dozen black and whites in the parking lot, and a small contingent of tactical officers cowering at the back stairs. They had an armored breach vehicle, useless with a second story engagement, but evidence of the overzealous nature of the local PD.

He squatted to retrieve his kit bag from the floor, making sure to allow the weapon freedom to continue firing energy rounds in bursts in case anyone was feeling brave.

Heads-up read Thursday. Shit. He’d been in worse shape than he’d thought.

Hunger was already on the periphery as he surveyed the remains of his feast splattered around the carnage of the room with disappointment.

He kicked out the back door to the fire escape and stepped out behind a continuous stream of weapon discharge, the already panicked officers scattering like ants.

The H&K recoiled it’s backup feed. Battery only from here.

He had miles to go before he’d sleep.

Full burn.


Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Fū-jiin sat cross-legged on a mat before a low table, on which rested a bonsai tree nearly half a meter across its canopy, and nearly a quarter of that tall. He rotated the tree barely a degree at a time on its mag-lev base, pausing at each mark to study, and very rarely to make a cut, collecting the tiny fragments on a white handkerchief at his side.

The tree was as old as Fū-jiin himself, and both bore centuries of scar tissue, energy wounds the tree was exfoliating over time in his patient care, thickened stripes of shiny flesh that seemed to bind his own self together like twine.

Outside he could sense booted feet sinking into the sand, closing the distance to his low, windswept home from a hundred meters out, where landing crafts were being pulled out of the water and onto the shore.

They couldn’t fly on this side of the globe, these intruders into his peace, not without risking orbital death from the watchers above, and they couldn’t see through the atmospheric haze that made this such a calm place to retire.

They must have been crisscrossing the ocean of this planet for years to find him this time.

He sighed.

He folded the kerchief with apparent care and placed it and his pruning scissors into a drawer in the table beneath the tree, then folded his hands in his lap and waited.

It may have been an hour or three before they entered, he could sense their probes, hear the digital chatter of their comms encryption. They were admirably cautious.

The breach itself was surprisingly peaceful. The unit commander simply walked through the open archway into the living quarters followed by four troopers in powered armor with weapons of an unwieldy length slung on pivot mounts from their chests, held at the ready two-handed, energy charges crackling with the anticipation of violence.

“Chao, isn’t it? Commander Chao?” Fū-jiin broke the silence first, “you’re a very long way from home.”

Commander Chao struggled to maintain his composure as he surveyed the room. It was the very model of minimalism. Fū-jiin clearly had access to intel that they had somehow managed to miss on what he had thought was particularly thorough recon.

“You’re a very difficult man to find,” Chao replied, “we’ve wasted nearly two years on this planet alone searching for you, and this is not our first nor the only deployment.” He chuckled, “It would seem that it will finally be our last.”

“Yes,” Fū-jiin smiled, the expression taking its time to fully manifest across his face.

“I am a hard man to find, and I regret that I couldn’t have been harder,” he paused, “for your sake, though you’ll find this a peaceful place to end your commission.”

Chao had, for years, resented being tasked with searching for this ghost, and now found his feelings conflicted. The stories of the hell Fū-jiin had brought to conflicts across the galaxy made him seem almost god-like, a force of immense tactical skill and violence, and yet here he was, a sad old man in a stone hut on a sandy beach in the middle of nowhere, gardening.

“You all make the same mistakes, do you know that?” Fū-jiin spoke, slowly rocking forward from crossed legs to his knees, hands spread wide on the table.

The soldiers flexed, weapons maintaining their lock. Chao waved them down.

“You show no respect for time. The sand you walked outside on was once polished glass, before wind, and rain, and time reduced that formidable expanse to dust. What has your journey reduced you to?”

He slowly extended his legs, rising to his feet with his hands still palms down on the table, bent at the waist and not bothering to look up as he spoke.

“You make poor assumptions; you see no weapons and assume safety, no technology and assume ignorance, no army and assume tactical superiority.”

“You drastically underestimate the fury of serenity.”

Fū-jiin flexed, and for everything within several kilometers, time slowed to a near stop.

The ball of energy that formed around him radiated outward in a wave, consuming everything it touched in a raging cyclone of raw, unfettered fury, ripping flesh, weapons, and craft down to their base atoms, then painted the beach with them, leaving its surface a smoldering, multicolored mosaic of freshly baked glass.

Fū-jiin exhaled, and slowly lowered himself to sit cross-legged again on the floor.

He felt the searing pain of fresh wounds where his outburst had cracked open his flesh, the smell of their cautery ripe in his nostrils.

Before him the bonsai was mostly unharmed, just a few patches this time smoldering gently where he’d been unable to control his discharge.

“My apologies, old friend,” he spoke out loud, retrieving his scissors and the white handkerchief from the drawer before ever so slowly resuming his turning of the tree on its base.

Outside the wind and the waves gently cooled the beach.

There was work to be done, and nothing but time in which to do it.