Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Erik heard them in the lobby, dividing up the elevators and the stairwells. He owned the building’s cameras and their audio.
The Situation Commander barked orders. Under no circumstances was the hacker known as ‘HvnSvn’ to be allowed to escape. Under no circumstances was he to be killed.
He was safe.
A streaming waterfall of data cascaded over the displays before him. This was old school. Nobody appreciated the living artwork that was other peoples’ lives being stolen from one place and delivered to another in a sea of glyphs even a child could see the beauty of.
This was a personal piece of performance art, in the stolen vacation property of a media mogul.
As the last bit crossed the threshold, the system began to eat itself. Portals forced open collapsed, tunnels caved in, pathways of light dissolved into darkness.
They were in the hall now. He could feel the thunder of boots through the soles of his bare feet on the polished granite floor.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”
A line, from a poem, immortalized in a movie.
“But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
Somewhere in Erik’s brain, a series of bits flipped. Old pathways disconnected and new ones formed. Parts of his mind were closed off behind doors, the bolts on heavy neural locks slammed into place, memories locked away in boxes without apparent keys or lids.
There was a hammering at the door, then it shattered off its hinges. Police with guns drawn stormed the room in a line, fanning out around the man in pajamas sitting cross-legged on the floor, as he rocked back and forth, keening.
“Kitchen clear.” Voices sounded off as the uniformed figures swept the apartment. “Bedroom clear.”
An armored faceless suit was waving a wand around him.
“He’s a no-mech. No mods. No tech. He’s clean.”
A teary-eyed Erik looked up into the face of the Sit. Comm. and stuttered, “I want my mom.”
He was handcuffed and his ankles shackled, then dragged by two faceless figures down the hall and elevator, out into a waiting van where he would disappear into the system for months without a trace.
There were tests. Physical intimidation bordering on torture.
“He’s got the mind of a child,” the psychologists reported.
They brought in new psychologists. They administered drugs, polygraphs.
The middle-aged man named Erik was clearly stuck at a fourth-grade developmental level. He cried a lot, called out for his mother day and night, anytime he was allowed to believe he was alone before the beatings and the questions began again.
“We’ve been set up.” The task force leader poured himself a whiskey, not offering one to his subordinate. “You,” he corrected himself, thinking on his feet, “you have been set up.” He downed half the glass in a single gulp. “He knew we were coming, and he skipped out. Or she, Christ, we don’t know anything, do we? We’re back to square one here.” He waved off a half-hearted defense from the belittled agent before him. “He left this bloody half-wit sitting there, knowing what we’d do to him. That’s cold. If this ever gets out…”
He left the thought hanging in the air.
“Get him out of here. Take him home. Get relations on this, flag it up code black to legal, make sure nobody knows this was our op. Set him up so he doesn’t want to start looking, but make sure he understands we’ll come back if we need to. See if you can get that through his thick skull.”
Erik was back in his own bedroom by dinnertime, in the apartment listed on his guardianship file. They had stocked the kitchen with groceries, and someone had clearly cleaned the place before giving him a stern warning and closing the door behind them.
He was alone. Finally. Safe and once again on his own.
He lay on his bed staring at the ceiling, counting the glow-in-the-dark plastic stars that had been stuck there when he was a child, right next to the smiling cartoon moon.
“Goodnight Moon,” he spoke out loud.
Somewhere in Erik’s brain, a chemical bootstrap loaded.
“Goodnight light, and the red balloon,” he continued after a moment, having run through some almost forgotten mental checklist of things to do to be sure he was safe.
Pathways reconnected, and doorways to his memories unlocked.
Erik sat up, put his feet on the floor and looked around. Clearly, he’d lost time, but the memories of whatever had happened between the data breach and his reboot were safely tucked away for him to review later.
At the moment, HvnSvn needed to get dressed and slip whatever surveillance he’d been assigned.
He’d finished the job, and he was long overdue to get paid.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Felix rolled out of his bunk and immediately regretted every decision he’d ever made.
Well, at least those of the last dozen hours or so.
The steel deck plate was cold against his feet, and he considered pressing his head against it on the off chance the cool would relieve the pounding in his skull.
Alcohol he could synthesize up here, but effective painkillers for the migraine it had brought on he could not.
He stuffed his feet into his boots, zipped up the front of his coveralls and forced himself to a standing position, regretting doing so immediately.
He braced himself against his bunk with one hand and waited for the blackness to fade and his vision to return, then he slowly worked his way up from the subterranean sleeping quarters to the galley where he brewed himself a mug of coffee.
His reserves were dwindling, but it was the start of a new quarter, so a supply launch would be commencing shortly.
Not just a quarter, but the start of a new year. That was his excuse for celebrating the night before. He couldn’t remember the excuse he’d used three nights previous.
Cradling the steaming mug in both hands, and emboldened by the warmth and the caffeine, Felix wandered out through the connecting tunnels towards the greenhouses to survey his crops.
The hardier food-stock plants grew without issue, once the soil mix was dialed in, and the air and water levels settled down, and as a result, he had a fairly steady supply of boring but edible plants.
Flowers, however, had proved to be much more difficult.
He worked his way around the perimeter between the rows of planters, avoiding the hanging drip lines. The sun’s heat beat through the windows, highly opaqued though they were as this was the hottest point of the day. The delicate plant life would be scorched this close to the full power of the sun’s rays, as would he be.
At the end of the rows, beyond the regulation planters, were his experimental ones. Planters he’d tended with far more care and concern than those on which he was dependent for giving him life, as those he took for granted.
In these, he’d been planting the seeds of a dozen varieties of flowers, all approved by the scientists at mission control, but none of which had developed. An entire year he’d spent, doing nothing but planting seeds, nurturing them and waiting for something to grow.
This morning, to his delight, there were tiny tendrils of green reaching up from the dark soil towards the light, little threads of life reaching hopefully from the dirt.
Maybe the year’s effort hadn’t been wasted after all.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Peck met Richards at the door of the diner. They stood staring at each other without speaking for a long minute before Peck opened the door and ushered his partner inside.
Gwynne was at a booth in the very back corner. There was a halo of empty seats surrounding her that was too noticeable in the busy restaurant not to be deliberate.
“Gwynne Yones?” Richards asked the question. The woman in the booth looked up at each of their faces before waving them into seats across from her at the table.
“You’re the men from, where was it again?” Gwynne returned to cutting slices of what appeared to be natural bacon with a vibrablade, the instrument slicing effortlessly through the meat and causing the plate to hum gently on the table.
“New New York,” Peck answered, “we understand you’re in the printing business.” Two statements, the second wasn’t a question.
She skewered a slice of fried potato and a piece of bacon. “I may be. What exactly are you looking for?” She put the forkful of food in her mouth, then chewed slowly as she continued to study the two men.
“One hundred packages, one hundred kilos each. Unique serial numbers. Mixed” Richards leaned into the table as he spoke, hands folded in front of him.
Yones pushed a piece of fried egg around the plate, chasing it into what was left of the pile of home fries before scooping both into her mouth. She chewed thoughtfully and swallowed before answering.
“Unique serial numbers are a bitch. That will cost extra.” Peck flinched noticeably. “Where are you circulating?”
“What business is that of yours?” Peck snapped. “As long as you get paid real money, what do you care what we do with the product?” His nerves were visibly frayed, his voice raised. There was something here, something…
“I’m an artist, and a connoisseur, and a businesswoman Mr. Peck,” she placed the fork on the nearly empty plate, the blade disappearing into a pocket. “I need to know where my product is in circulation so that we can, all of us, avoid the dangers of oversaturation and the increased likelihood of discovery that brings.” She smiled almost imperceptibly. “I’m the best because my work goes undetected, and that’s good for me, and good for you.” She straightened her shirt sleeves, and then very deliberately checked her watch, an old analog affair. The large, man’s sized timepiece conspicuous on her thin olive wrists.
Richards shot Peck a sidelong glare before catching himself and answering. “Nothing around here, we’ll be distributing in New New York, and over several months.”
She folded her hands on the table, strummed her nails on the polished surface one single time.
“Thirty percent up front, the balance when you collect the merchandise.”
She watched as a vein started to pulse in Peck’s temple.
“Ten percent.” Richards was notably more collected than his partner.
“If you knew me, you would know I don’t negotiate. I don’t print until I have thirty percent up front in hard, real currency.”
“Twenty.” He tried again.
“Do you know how much work it is to secure unique serial numbers? Ones that will pass close scrutiny? And there are very complex anti-counterfeiting measures woven into the genuine article minted by the state, none of that is easy to reproduce.
“Fine. But if you screw us–”
“If I wanted to screw you, there would be nothing you could do about it at any percentage,” she cut him off in mid-sentence, “and screwing is bad for business.” She finished, smiling. “I’m here every morning for breakfast. Come back when you have the front money.”
With that, Yones slipped out of the bench seat and to her feet in one fluid motion, and without looking back walked through the diner and out the front door.
“What the–” Peck started.
“Don’t.” Richards cut him off. “Not here.”
Outside Gwynne dialed as she walked, then spoke quietly, her voice encrypted at the voice box.
“Start combing the lost off-world database for viable serials. We’ll need male and female, fifty of each. Make sure we can get organic material and skeletal scaffolding to print on short notice. I think our new friends are cops, or private military, so they’re either trying to arrest me, or they’re buying a small private army.” At the end of the street, she turned the corner and descended into the subway. “So we get thirty percent and two potentially valuable serials, or one hundred percent and a little new world anarchy. Either way, a win.”
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
“Do you know what happens when a black star dies?” Tony asks, rhetorically, not waiting for an answer. “It collapses in upon itself, and in one last gasp, ejaculates a single burst of energy into the void.”
His assistant nods, numbly, pen to paper but motionless, unsure of whether this is something she should be writing down.
“Consider the size of the universe, think about the odds of such a burst of the purest concentration of energy hitting a planet with life on it, let alone this,” he pauses waving his hands about, searching for the appropriate words, “this shit hole,” he finishes.
She writes ‘shit hole’ on the notepad.
“And of all the forms it could have taken, cockroach, palm tree, a blade of fucking grass, but no, it coalesces into the form of a man, or mostly man, a kind of androgynous whoever.”
She writes ‘androgynous’, followed by a question mark.
“You can’t keep energy contained like that, not in a fleshy meatsuit, you have to let some of it out, obviously, and what more obvious a form of energy expression than music?” He walks to his desk and pushes piles of paper around recklessly until he uncovers a package of cigarettes, from which he extracts one and lights it, drawing deeply and waiting for the nicotine rush to wash over him and subside so he can speak again.
She writes ‘Hepafilter’.
“Have you ever heard a piece of music and been unaffected?” He waits until she shrugs. “I mean, not ‘get up and dance’ affected, but you either love it or hate it, or it makes your foot tap or stands your teeth on edge, but it affects you, right?”
“Imagine what a black star averting death can do, how that kind of energy worms its way into each and every body, tunes us to a common frequency and kind of weaves us all together.” He takes a long slow pull on the cigarette, watching its reflection in the window as the white paper tube is slowly consumed by the crawling orange glow against the blackness of the city outside.
She absently draws a row of stars across the page, each with a continuous stroke, crisscrossing lines without lifting the pen.
“And the crazy thing, we’re all so screwed up, nobody stops to consider that maybe, maybe this really is a star man, not just some crackerjack musician with a hypnotizing voice.” He plucks out another cigarette and lights it off the first before crushing the spent one out in the ashtray. “We’re all pointing our antennae to the sky, decoding static we’re getting from the great black nothingness looking for alien life, while we’re playing a real live star man’s music on our car stereo’s without a fucking clue what it really is.”
She starts filling in small parts of each star, where the crossing lines have created little shapes inside each one.
“And while we’re cluelessly consuming his energy, what happens? Booze, and drugs, and women, and pollution, and disease.” He takes another long pull of the cigarette, then blows the smoke out before fully inhaling. “And these bloody things,” he hollers, waving the half-smoked cigarette in the air for effect.
“And after we absorb all of his energy we’ve pretty much killed him again ourselves, haven’t we?” He stops speaking and stares at her.
“Do you know what a rare opportunity we had, and we blew it?” He turns back to the window, looking through the glass up into the darkness.
“You only have to turn on the news to realize how much of our world he must have been holding together.” Smoke drifts slowly against the glass, and he watches it roll off in waves. “I give us five years, tops.”
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Baxter found the fortune teller at the very back of the carnival grounds, as far away from the entrance as one could get without leaving the sprawling complex. It was either an afterthought or the origin point, which exactly was unclear.
The ancient tent canvas was greasy grey, the surface the texture of stiff leather, pulled tight over the center pole. The guide ropes stiff as iron keeping the walls at right angles to the ground.
The sign, carefully lettered in a bold calligraphic script, read simply ‘Futures Told, Inquire Within’, and hung beside a black tear of an entranceway which beckoned through the mist.
Baxter stepped into the darkness and followed a soft glow left, partway around the inside of the tent, until he emerged into the interior proper.
A low ceiling of sorts was composed of hundreds of light bulbs suspended by lengths of string stretching up into the darkness. Some were familiar incandescents of various shapes and sizes, some long skinny chandelier styles, and some large clear bulbous affairs, all unlit, having no apparent wiring. Each was tied by their metal base such that their bottom faces were at the same level and spaced equally about a shoulder’s width away from the next nearest in a grid that filled the room.
In the middle was a simple table, and on either side, there was a single straight back chair.
“Come, sit.” The voice came from everywhere and nowhere, and Baxter jumped despite himself, so focused on the decor he’d forgotten there would be someone else here.
From the darkness on the opposite side of the tent, perhaps fifteen meters away, the bulbs started to glow above a figure emerging from another entranceway.
He moved slowly and deliberately across the room to stand behind one of the chairs, and as he did so, a meter wide circle of light followed him, the hanging bulbs brightest at the point directly above his head.
Baxter walked to the table, hesitated for a moment, then pulled out one chair and sat. The parlour trick impressed him. The table had appeared weathered and worn as he approached, but he could see the top now was, in fact, a vivid green dressed in immaculate felt. The man remained standing for a long moment before sitting down himself, the lights above him dimming slightly as he did so.
Baxter cleared his throat, and then started “I’d like you to tell me–”
“I will look into your future, and I will tell you what I see,” the man interrupted as though Baxter himself hadn’t spoken at all, “what you do with what you learn is not my concern.”
Baxter sat back and crossed his arms, the man, in contrast, leaned forward, placing well-manicured hands flat on the table, crisp shirt-cuffs pinned with shining gold links. The light cast strange shadows, hiding the features of the man’s face, and when Baxter looked down, he would have sworn for a moment the man’s trousers were frayed at the edges, his shoes nearly worn through, but then the light changed and reflected back off highly polished oxfords below sharply creased slacks.
“Your hands,” the man said, turning his own palms up. Baxter paused, then leaned forward to place his hands on top of the man’s, and…
Jacob relaxed and sighed. The customer before him sat frozen in place, eyes fixed and pupils fully dilated. He took a deep breath, focused intently on the darkness inside the man’s barely visible irises, exhaled and then…
They were in a kitchen, seated at the table where Baxter was reading a letter in his shirtsleeves, a mug of coffee forgotten, a piece of toast in mid-flight between plate and mouth. Jacob stood and quickly scanned the letter over his shoulder, a ‘Dear John’ from a Vanessa expressing her frustration with his persistent indiscretions, informing him that she’d taken the kids, and he would hear from her lawyer.
Jacob filed the information away and looked cautiously out the kitchen window. They were here, too. Shadows of men staring back at him, unseeing at a distance, but here. Clearly, this wasn’t a viable exit either.
As he turned back to the kitchen table, he reached up and carefully unscrewed the light bulb from the hanging fixture, and then…
“You are going to lose Vanessa if you choose to womanize.” The man was sitting back now, and Baxter blinked twice before snatching his hands back from where they’d been suspended in the air over the empty table.
“Vanessa?” He said, his voice rising, uncertain. “From accounting?” Uncertainty turning to disbelief.
“There will be children, and happiness, a home, but you’ll throw it all away on frivolous affairs.”
The man stood, the lights overhead glowing with his ascent, and they followed as he walked back towards the edge of the tent, where he paused only for a moment to reach above and tie the new bulb to a dangling bit of string.
“See yourself out.”
And with that he was gone, leaving Baxter almost completely in the dark.