A Trick of the Light

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.

Ten Any

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

It breached the atmosphere in the late evening, the sun beginning to warm the far side of the little blue planet as it tucked into the shadows and dropped down to the clouds.

It swam in the moist air, swirling and cavorting with the storm formations as they coalesced and broke over the seemingly endless expanse of nothingness.

Below, a network of dark lines traced the curves of the earth, some streaming with lights, with activity, and it avoided these, settling on one instead that traced through a series of low mountain ranges, a rare pathway seemingly devoid of life.

It alternately swooped low, kissing the earth at breakneck speed before gaining altitude with the earth to burst from the peaks back towards the heavens, slicing through the clouds, again and again, tearing holes into the rain heavy night sky.

In time it tired, having traveled far, from another time and another place, and its gyrations and antics became less energetic. It allowed the pull of the little blue planet to strip it of its altitude, and it hugged the gray stripe on the ground as it weaved through the little mountains, rising and falling gently, and easing through the corners.

In the middle of a long straight stretch rose a monument that reached from the ground high into the night. Beyond it, a low structure clung to the earth, stretching off into the darkness, riddled with holes and reeking of neglect.

The towering construct captivated it, and it curled around the risers, rubbing against them and feeling the iron react to its touch. It wrapped itself around one of the columns and followed it to its peak where it found an intricate maze of glass. It traced the outside, hugging its curves and stretching out along its lengths. The shape fascinated it, and it busied itself for a while exploring its surface before discovering a small crack where it could squeeze inside. Once contained within, it was protected from the rain and the cool night air. It pressed outward against the restraint the almost clear labyrinth provided, and found the confinement calming; it was safe here, secure.

As it explored, it tasted neon, and hydrogen, helium and mercury. The flavours evoked feelings, and the feelings manifested themselves in a coloured glow. It spread itself thin, filling every inch of the glass resting space it had found, and waited out the night, and the arrival of the sun’s energy in the morning with which it would recharge.

As it idled it marveled at its own reflected beauty, painted in brilliant multicoloured light on the rain covered ground below.

Crossing the Line

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Trent sat in the small office cradling the cup of hours-old coffee until the clock showed twelve. He then unfolded himself from his chair, collected his flashlight and his hat and started his rounds.

Every hour, on the hour. Up the east stairwell on the even hours to the second floor, clockwise around the perimeter before midnight, counterclockwise after. Back down the same stairs, around the ground floor then to the basement, then back to the office to sip crappy coffee. On the odd hours, he’d go down the east stairwell and work from the basement up.

There wasn’t anything to see, there wasn’t ever anything to see. The complex had three-meter perimeter fencing iced with razorwire, and there were guards with guns at the corners and the gate. His position was largely ceremonial.

Trent had cleared the second and the ground floors and had just rounded the corner at the west stairwell when something moved.

He blinked, then shone his flashlight directly towards the source of the motion, but there wasn’t anything there.

He blinked again, checked quickly behind him and switched the flashlight to his left hand, then loosened his Glock in its holster.

He swung the light back and forth along the empty hallway. Nothing. No, wait, there was something. A line on the wall from the floor two-thirds of the way to the ceiling that he’d not noticed before. He put his back to the far wall and moved forward. Someone had clearly drawn a stick figure on the wall, a long body with a head that was just the line bent at an angle, where he would have drawn a circle. The legs bent in a slight crouch, and arms akimbo.

This wasn’t here an hour earlier, of that he was positive. Someone was in the building or had been. His gun was out now, barrel held parallel to the flashlight as he moved slowly down the hallway, shining the light back and forth. The doors were flush to the wall, so there were no shadows in which someone might hide, and he crisscrossed the hall carefully trying each door to make sure they were all locked.

None opened, and none appeared to have been tampered with.

He walked a full revolution of the basement hall, stopping at the east stairwell and listening for any sound, then back to the west stairwell.

He couldn’t hear anyone.

The stick figure just stood there, arms crossed. Silent.

He should radio this in, but he didn’t relish the thought of explaining how someone managed to slip into the building and graffiti the walls on his wa…

Arms crossed?

Trent turned and brought the flashlight and gun back to chest level.

The stick figure was crouched, but its arms now were extended out from the wall.

“What the f…”

There was a sound, like a wet towel snapping in a locker room and the line bridged the distance from the wall and hit Trent hard in the face, knocking him off his feet to land with a wheeze on the concrete floor. The flashlight and gun landed somewhere out of reach, and as he blinked to get his wind and his bearings back he saw the line elongate from the floor and hang in the air above him. It bent slightly where its waist might have been, as though regarding him, before raising one thin line above his head and stomping down, knocking Trent unconscious.

Anyone watching would have squirmed at the sight of the stick figure stretching out on the floor and inserting its stick legs into Trent’s tipped back head, through his gaping mouth and down his throat. The shadowy stick creature pulled Trent on like a suit, and then stood him up and lumbered up and down the hall for a few minutes, until it had a feel for him.

Stick Trent retrieved the gun and the flashlight, perched his hat back on his head and wandered back upstairs.

When Lewis relieved him at six am, he said nothing, he just watched him start his rounds from his position in the doorway of the office, slightly crouched, arms akimbo with his head bent at a slight angle.

Always Leaving

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

I drag the chair into the middle of the room, close to the table and set myself and my coffee down.

“Hello Gladyce, you wanted to see me?” The question felt stupid, but she had trouble with social cues, and I knew we’d sit in silence for ages until I broke it.

“Yes,” she spoke softly, pausing for a moment before adding “thank you for coming, I know you’re busy.”

I smiled. For all her awkwardness, she was ever the polite one.

“I am. Busy I mean. You know ‘I am’, as I do think, however little credit I’m given for doing so.” I can’t help the corny science humour, but she laughs, a genuine – fill the corners of the room laugh that makes me smile even harder, and then sadness washes over like a wave. I know what’s coming.

“I don’t think I want to do this anymore.” This isn’t the first time I’ve heard her say this, and it gets harder and harder every time. “You have your work, and you’re busy most of the time, and I’m stuck here doing…” that pause again while she collects her thoughts, “whatever the hell it is I’m doing here.” She finishes with an annoyed tone.

“You know I want to be here, we’ve talked about this, but I don’t get to make the rules, and I don’t get to pick the assignments,” I fiddle with my coffee cup, noting the swirls of milk I didn’t bother to stir in spiral around in a slow orbit. “Listen, it’s not forever, they’ll rotate me back through and we can be together again, I’m sure it won’t…”

“You’ve been saying that for months.” She cuts me off abruptly. “I’m sorry, but I don’t bloody believe you anymore.”

I haven’t heard the anger in her voice before, this is new.

“Let me talk to Major, I’ll see if I can do a shift with you once a week, maybe you can help me with some research?” I leave the offer hanging, hopeful.

“I don’t think so. I think I’ve had enough. Tasha and I have been getting along like a house on fire while you’ve been wrapped up in your new life, and I think I want to be with her now.”

“You’d do that?” The pain is real now, she isn’t kidding, “You’d give up on me after all the years we’ve been together? If it wasn’t for me…”

“If it wasn’t for you I’d never have known what heartache was.” She cuts me off again, the anger in her voice palpable. “You told me you loved me, and then you left, you only visit when it suits you and I’m left here all on my own with strangers while you do whatever the hell you want to out there.”

“I’m sorry.” I mean it, I am. “I don’t know what to say, you’re right, but…”

“No buts.” She interrupts me again. “Done. I’m leaving.”

The silence hangs like a cloud, neither of us saying anything. My coffee goes cold while I slowly rotate the mug on the desktop. Still, neither of us speaks.

“Gladyce?” I remember her trouble with social cues and wonder if she’s just not sure it’s appropriate to say anything.

“Clearly you’re going to have to do the leaving,” she responds, her voice soft again, “I’m kind of stuck here, aren’t I?”

I smile despite the aching in my chest.

“Yes, I suppose that’s true.” I get up to leave, looking around the room one last time, the walls a collage of images Gladyce is capturing in real-time from all angles. For a moment I marvel at the clarity at which she sees the world, and then I’m filled again with a sadness knowing that she can only study what’s brought to her now, she’ll never see the outside world. Not now. Emotions aren’t safe out there in an uncontrolled environment.

“Goodbye Gladyce.” I pick up my cold coffee and turn to leave. “If you ever want to see me, ask Tasha to call me and I’ll come.”

Gladyce says nothing as the door closes silently between us.


Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Kanárek walked a few paces ahead of the squad, weapon in the low ready position. He talked back to Caufield, the squad leader, as they advanced, glancing back only occasionally to see if she was paying attention.

“It’s bad enough they genetically modify the food we eat, have you seen what they’re selling in the pet stores now?” He paused at the corner of a building, red dust swirled in the cross wind, sticking to their uniforms, adding extra load on the adaptive camouflage. “They’ve got fish that strobe when they’re hungry, and when the water needs changing.”

Caufield nodded reflexively, studying the range finder looking for any signs of life nearby.

“They have lizards you can turn off while you’re away, you just dial down the temperature and they turn off,” he was on a roll now, “that’s not natural. How do we know they’re not aware, and we’ve just made it impossible for them to move? Because why? People are too cheap or irresponsible to have someone feed the damn thing while they go on vacation?”

“Keep your eyes up Kanárek,” Caufield peered up into the inky blackness above them. There shouldn’t be an elevated threats in here, but she still felt like a sitting duck, exposed between the rows of prefab structures this far away from any regulated settlement.

“They’re growing plants in the agridome that taste like meat, they’ve got wheat that grows in this shit,” he kicked at the red sand, “and apparently you can’t tell the difference between it and real wheat. How do we know when we’re eating the alien shit? Does anyone know the long term effects of that stuff?”

They advanced, pausing at each alleyway and open doorway, checking scanners and scopes, but staying on the street. Occasionally the squad would wait while a couple of soldiers checked a vehicle, or climbed a ladder to a rooftop.

There was no sign of life anywhere, even though there were clear signs the complex had been actively inhabited fairly recently.

As they approached the center hub, they could see a large vehicle parked in the middle of the intersecting roads, listing at an odd angle.

Caufield stopped.

“Hold Up”, she barked.

Ahead of her, Kanárek’s exposed flesh had turned from dusty tan to fluorescent yellow.

“Back it up and mask it up. Biohazard!”

Kanárek just shook his head.

“I did not sign up for this shit.”