A Song in the Static

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Dmitri shuffled through the crowd, his handler’s grip tight on his elbow. Someone had draped a jacket over his hands, tightly zip tied as they were in front of him, presumably to stop onlookers from becoming anxious.

“When you’re on the plane, we’ll release you,” a voice in his ear, “you’ll be a free man when you arrive on your home soil.”

He’d come to this country as a young man, recently wed, and with a young child not yet walking.

There were no opportunities in his country for people with his talent, and the intelligence community here paid well for what he could see.

He spent years in virtual, surfing the netstream, a constant flood of real-time information jacked right into his brain, sifting through raw data identifying patterns the AI’s could not see.

There had been complications from the ocular implants, and his optic nerves were burned out, leaving him blind in the real world, but he never noticed as he was constantly immersed in the vibrant colours of the virtual. He had been promised replacements when they could do without him long enough for the surgery.

Then his country was sanctioned, this country’s leader lashing out at a perceived slight from the leader of his own.

He saw the patterns in the data before it happened, but there was nothing he could do.

At first, he was just no longer able to send money home to his family, but then his security clearance was revoked, and he found himself here, in custody at an airport, no job, no assets, not even his personal belongings. From data analyst with the highest clearances to persona non grata in a matter of hours.

Without clearances, his implants became dead inputs, should he try to use them, his mind would fill with static. His life, as he knew it, was over.

“Mind your step,” the voice again. He shuffled his feet forward until a shoe caught the lip of a stair, and he tentatively climbed the steps.

“You’ll be seated, and the flight attendant will strap you in after I release you.”

He was guided into a seat, the weight of the jacket disappeared, and then so too did the pressure of the restraints.

Also gone was the guiding hand at his elbow, and for a panicked moment in the darkness, Dmitri realized he was completely alone.

“There are soldiers stationed at the end of the boarding tunnel, should you attempt to escape and remain in the country, you will be shot.”

There was a brief pause, then, almost as an afterthought, “Thank you for your service.”

Dmitri sat in silence. He listened as the plane filled with other passengers, apparently oblivious to his status. The flight crew was gracious, offering him food and beverages as they crossed the ocean.

On arrival, he was asked to wait until the other passengers deplaned so he could be afforded extra assistance.

On the ground again he was guided through customs without incident, and without so much as a ‘good luck’, left in the cacophony of what he could only hope was the airport of his homeland.

“Papa?”

That voice, although the first time he’d heard it without the artifacts of filtered digitization, was unmistakable.

“Europa, is that you?” He could feel pain in his cheeks where tears should flow.

She buried her head in his chest and wrapped her arms around him, and he held her tight.

When she finally stepped back a little, he reached out tentatively to trace her face with his fingertips, memorizing the contours of his child’s visage, one that had grown from an infant into a young woman without him.

“You’re more beautiful now than ever,” he beamed, “and I don’t need eyes to see that’s true.”

Illusion of Choice

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Dax found his usual seat in the back corner of the cafeteria and unpacked his lunch.

He laid out a sandwich, a can of iced coffee, and an orange on the table in front of him, then fished a lock-blade knife from his jacket pocket and set about peeling the orange.

“Hey, army kid!”

There were snickers, and Dax looked up to see a crowd of the school football team gathered behind their quarterback.

“I’m not an army kid,” Dax continued slicing the orange, drawing the knife blade from pole to pole, reducing it to equal sized wedges.

“Well, you lost your arms didn’t you?” Again the laughter and the boys exchanging high-fives and shoulder punches in amusement.

“It was an accident, just leave me alone.” Finished with the orange, he rested his hands on the table, still holding the knife.

“They look pretty real army kid, I heard they tore off at the shoulders, that must have been gross!”

Dax twitched visibly, the memory of a summer job cleaning metal fabricating equipment, and a machine that jolted to life when it should have been offline was burned forever into his brain. The sudden searing pain, the shock, the blood-loss, and waking up in a hospital feeling like his life was over.

“Can you punch really hard?” The quarterback was talking again. “Can you crush things with your bare hands?”

The company, to avoid a lawsuit, had flown Dax halfway around the world and had him fitted with the latest in prosthetic tech.

“They don’t work like that,” he glared, just wanting to be left to eat his lunch in peace, “I’m not like that.”

From a table nearby someone spoke over the crowd. “Show him the knife trick, the one from that Alien movie.”

There was a murmur through the group.

“What knife trick?”, the boy was determined now, “Show me!”

Dax slouched, staring at his untouched lunch before pushing his seat back, standing up and walking around the table. He stopped in front of his tormentor who, wary of the knife, took an involuntary step back.

Dax turned and put his left-hand flat on the table, fingers slightly apart.

“Put your hand on top of mine, just like this.”

There was a moment of hesitation before the rising chatter of the crowd forced him, and the boy placed his hand on top of Dax’s.

Dax yanked his hand out from under, and slammed it down on top again, pinning the boy’s hand beneath his.

“What the…?” he started.

“Don’t move, or this will hurt,” Dax instructed, not looking up.

With his right hand, he tapped the table with the tip of the knife blade in a downward stabbing motion between the thumb and first finger, then lifted the knife to bring it down again between the first and second.

He repeated this, slowly from one end of their hands to the other, tapping the table lightly each time with the blade between the fingers, close but not touching flesh. He paused for a moment, looked sideways at the boy. The growing silence was suddenly replaced with a deafening staccato as he repeated the stabbing circuit, moving back and forth between their fingers with blazing speed and uncanny accuracy, tearing holes in the tabletop but never once looking down.

After what seemed like an eternity, he raised the knife to eye level and drove it down with as much force as he could muster, aiming for the thickest part of the back of his hand.

His prosthetics engaged full safeties, stopping the knife blade mere millimeters before breaking his skin, and freezing his arms in place.

The boy yanked his hand away, staggering backward.

“You’re fucking crazy man, you stay away from me you fucking freak!”

The rest of the group backed away, and Dax closed his eyes and waited for them to fade from his awareness, and for his arms to unlock.

After a few moments, he sat down, closed the lock blade and put it back into his coat pocket and stared, no longer interested, at his untouched lunch.

He didn’t want to hurt himself, he didn’t want to hurt anyone at all, not really. He just wanted that to be his choice.

Eternal Vacancy

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

She placed the order online, as she had done before. No credit checks anymore, no profiling questions, just pick a time and a place, and the service guaranteed her date would be on-time and appropriate.

She showered and partially dressed before curling her hair and applying makeup, poured a drink, then another while watching the clock grind slowly towards seven. With just a few minutes to spare, she slipped on her dress, stepped into her shoes and opened the door on the third knock, holding the handle through the first two.

She was sure he was handsome, though she didn’t pay much attention as she stepped onto the front landing, closing the door behind her. She let him guide her by her elbow down the steps to the curb where what she was sure passed for an impressive sedan waited. He opened the door, waited while she lowered herself into the passenger seat, then closed it behind her.

There was chatter while he navigated into the city, opting to pilot the vehicle himself rather than rely on the autopilot. No doubt he’d be counting on that getting them back again after dinner and drinks, but for now, he was in control.

The restaurant came and went in a blur, dark wood and blue backlit glass, accents of gunmetal grey and granite. Without question one of the most prestigious spots on the social circuit at the moment, at a price that would make most mortals vomit. She’d never see the cost, of course, there were systems in place to manage such things.

After dinner they had drinks at the table, then she let him coax her up to the rooftop patio to dance, and drink some more.

They left shortly before dawn.

The autopilot wouldn’t let him drive, he had been drinking after all, and as it wound out of the city on the coastal highway, they turned the seats to face inwards, the alcohol and energy of the night still coursing through their veins. He was clearly aroused, and she engaged him while they drove, hands to body, mouth to mouth.

When the car stopped, and the door opened he was too focused on the prize to pay much attention to where they were. She stepped out onto the asphalt and strode with purpose from the car into a room at the motel they were parked in front of. The door opened as if on command as she reached it, and he, laughing, followed her inside.

Here they shed their clothes, and expended what little of his energy he had left, she seeming to find more strength as his diminished, coaxing and riding him until his heart was ready to burst and the sheets were soaked in sweat.

Only then did she bear down on him for one last drive, hands clenched tightly around his throat as they convulsed together, her searching for a moment of satisfaction, of anything at all while he, slow to realize what was happening and too tired to put up much of a fight, struggled for his life.

In the end, neither got what they were hoping for.

She showered and partially dressed before pouring herself a drink and calling the cleaner. She poured another while watching the lifeless body on the bed, eyes wide and unseeing.

With just a few minutes to spare, she slipped her dress back on, stepped into her shoes and opened the door just as the cleaner arrived, walking past it without paying much attention. She was sure it was, like the others, efficient.

The car drove her back to her estate in silence, depositing her at the front door and waiting dutifully until she let herself in before returning to the service garage.

They promised her longevity, virtual immortality. They promised razor-sharp senses, smell, touch and taste with an uncanny fidelity. She would be gifted with an unfailing memory, and a perfect body, forever in its prime.

They delivered beyond reproach on every promise they made.

No one warned her she’d no longer feel.

Disassociation

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Darlene remained in her body through dinner, Jocelyn having prepared Osso Buco, and a strawberry flan for dessert, so it was worth listening to Arnold’s self-indulgent rantings about his business to enjoy the food in person.

She uplifted somewhere between coffee and his fifth or sixth scotch in the study, leaving the auto-assistant she’d configured to drive her flesh while she occupied herself with other things.

Once she was fully present in the estate system, the fog of too much wine evaporated, and she stretched out to monitor all the tasks she’d been spawning since she first figured out how to circumvent Arnold’s security systems.

She checked in periodically on her flesh, watching through the surveillance cameras as her husband’s motor functions became less controlled, and admiring with perhaps a little too much pleasure how natural the reactions of her flesh were without her, the nods, and smiles, and occasionally murmured phrases when a question was asked to keep him talking and prolong the inevitable.

When he took her roughly by the arm and propelled her to the bedroom, she checked out completely. 

She was overwhelmed with guilt, knowing what he was going to put her flesh through as she abandoned her own body to endure him without her, then she steeled herself with purpose, and the feeling passed.

She’d feel the effects in the morning, there were always bruises, and pains in places one wished not to have pain, but at least she didn’t have to endure the indignities themselves, not directly.

Tuning into the kitchen, she found Jocelyn offline. She was a time-share and only worked while there were domestic duties to attend to. Arnold was a cheap bastard, and he refused to pay her to occupy that flesh for any more time than was absolutely necessary.

Darlene checked on the daemons she’d loaded into Jocelyn to confirm they hadn’t been tampered with and then left her where she’d been parked in the pantry at the end of her shift.

On the estate logs, there were a variety of new fragments of information that Jocelyn had been unknowingly uploading as she attended to her duties, snippets of subconsciously heard conversations, snapshots of screens seen but not processed as she delivered coffee or food while Arnold worked. The data was analyzed and summarized for her automatically, and Darlene reviewed the gestalt of the day’s progress with great satisfaction.

Arnold was worth a small fortune, but his money was tied up in places Darlene would never be able to touch, not directly. But what he didn’t know that she knew, was that years ago he had needed seed capital, and had taken out a mortgage on his own flesh, one that he had arrogantly neglected to buy back. Why give up any of his own working capital for something he could lease for such a low-interest rate? There wasn’t any chance that he would ever not be able to make the payments, so where was the liability?

Darlene had not only found out about the mortgage but had also been gradually buying the mortgage itself, transferring the ownership of the title over time from the Brazilian corporation that had underwritten the loan originally to a shell company she’d created some years ago.

It wouldn’t be long now before she owned the entire mortgage on his flesh, and while there were restrictions to prevent unfair treatment of any tenant in occupancy while in good standing, there was an unconditional eviction clause should the leasee fall behind on payments, provided the owner intended to occupy the property itself.

The estate had been, by way of a very specific injected redirect in the financial routines, paying for hookers in Amsterdam with the funds earmarked for his flesh, a diversion of funds Darlene delighted in the irony of.

Soon she would own the entire lease, he would be in default and she would evict him with extreme prejudice and without notice. 

The arrogant little shit had never bothered with backup, and while he would be relegated to storage in the estate system she would turn his flesh into a timeshare of her own, alternately taking it to his financial institutions to transfer his assets to her own corporations, and when she wasn’t using it for business, perhaps rent it by the hour to the local bdsm houses, on the condition they didn’t leave him in an unpresentable state.

She smiled and checked back into the bedroom to find the degenerate passed out, and her own flesh curled up in the fetal position beside him.

Tentatively, she slipped back into her body, cringing as the evening’s damage made itself known.

She pulled the covers over herself.

“Not long now,” she whispered to herself, as she drifted into a determined sleep.

ReMax, Some Conditions Apply

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Max had started the day with anti-anxiety medication, some painkillers, and a mild sedative. He was so relaxed that the nurse had to practically pour him into a wheelchair to get him down to the transfer station for the procedure.

“Morning Maxwell”, one of the gowned and masked personnel in the brightly lit room spoke. Nobody was looking at him, so he had no idea who was speaking.

The nurse coaxed him to his feet, stripped off his gown and eased him back onto a slightly reclined board that softened and molded to his body as he was leaned into it. The nurse applied pressure with both hands on his shoulders until he had sunk halfway into the warm, enveloping material, then he did the same with his hips, arms, and legs, turning away only when Max was held firmly in place.

There was a flurry of activity just beyond his peripheral vision, and then another person similarly entrapped in a wall of black goo was swung around to face Max, their bodies just a few feet apart.

Max started as he recognized the face as his own, an unblinking mirror image of himself. 

Not a mirror though, this other face was a little softer. Gone were the frown lines, and the bags beneath the eyes, and the hairline wasn’t nearly as receding. This was a younger version of himself, not worn so heavily by the ravages of time.

“It’s not the years,” he heard himself say, “it’s the mileage.”

There was a chuckle from somewhere nearby.

“You’re going to feel a little disoriented, but it’s important that you focus as though looking in a mirror; it helps the reassociation with your self when the transfer is complete.”

A hum started somewhere, a sensation he could feel through the material molded to his flesh, the vibration of a sound he could hear in his bones more clearly than in his ears.

Then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone.

He studied the face before him again, looking for some reaction, some sense that the other Max had felt it too, but there was nothing, just the frown lines and bagged eyes he’d grown so accustomed to…

He stopped mid-thought as the realization struck him.

“Was that it? Are we done?”

The older, worn out Max was swung out of view, and a pair of nurses stepped up to help him down to stand on the floor.

“That’s it, we’re done.”

Gone was the fog of medication, gone too was the ache in the knees and the persistent throbbing from a shoulder separation that had never really healed.

He squatted, and launched himself into the air, nearly cracking his head on the ceiling before landing awkwardly, the nurses reaching out to steady him.

“We’ll need to adjust that…”, a voice behind one of the masks spoke as he made changes on a console.

“Wait”, Max felt a familiar anxiety begin to rise, “what do you mean ‘adjust that’?”  His voice started to shake as his mind raced. “Are you telling me you can make changes to me? What else can you do? Who has access to me? How do I know you’re not going to make…”

His voice trailed off, and a feeling of calm washed over him.

“There, that’s better, what was that you were saying, Max?”

Max squatted, springing back up to full height without the slightest ache in his knees, and the pain in his shoulder was a distant memory.

So to was some nagging thought, something just at the edge of his recollection. 

Mustn’t have been important, he thought.