Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Manik pulled up to the curb, powered down the engine and looked across the dusty roadway at the diner.
As if on command, the neon sign over the doorway sputtered to life, strobing weakly at first before coming on strong, ‘Starlight’ in deep blue over ‘Restaurant’ in brilliant orange, with a sky-blue arrow underlining both before turning up toward the night sky.
Reflexively he looked up and down the roadway before crossing, a precaution hardwired from youth, wasted for more years than he cared to count.
The door put up a little resistance, the detritus of neglect drifting against it over time, but once he pulled it clear he was able to step inside, and the door closed easily behind him.
Inside it never changed.
The long low diner counter down the left side, stools topped in polished vinyl, the laminate surface trimmed in chrome, screwed neatly along the edge at regular intervals. Behind the counter, several dozen bottles filled a small, tiered back-bar, a black bottle of Hendricks Gin front and center.
As he made his way down the narrow aisle from the door to where the room widened, Rosie materialized behind the cash register, crisp blue short sleeved shirt, collar open and short hair wrapped up in a kerchief.
“Table for…,” she waited.
“Just me,” Manik replied, taking off his jacket and folding it over his arm.
Rosie slipped through the countertop, a menu appearing in one hand and a bundle of cutlery wrapped in a napkin in the other, and Manik followed her to a booth halfway down one side of the restaurant.
“Coffee?” Rosie asked.
“Please,” he answered, “just black.”
Rosie produced a mug and a steaming pot from which she poured him a measure.
He sat in silence, cradling the heavy vessel in both hands, feeling the warmth work its way through him.
The walls were the familiar old wood paneling, a string of tiny coloured lanterns was hung haphazardly along the walls just above eye level. The booths a rich burgundy, and the ceiling dissolved into a deep blue-black night sky, flecked with a million stars or more, winking in and out of existence as he watched.
“Will you be eating?” Rosie was back, waiting patiently. “The specials are on the board,” she pointed to one of the black chalk-paint sections of wall on which a series of dishes had been described by hand.
“Steak and eggs please, medium rare and over easy.”
She was gone again, and as Manik waited he closed his eyes, and for a moment lost himself in the sound of Santo & Johnny, and the murmur of remembered conversations.
“Here you go,” she was back in what felt like no time, slipping a large dinner plate heaped with steak, eggs, toast, and hashbrowns onto the table in front of him. “Enjoy!” she chirped before disappearing once more.
He ate in silence, the food every bit as tasty as he remembered, and when he’d finished, Rosie cleared the plate and refilled his coffee several times without him having to ask.
A wave of overwhelming nostalgia hit him, and for a long moment the room was filled with people eating, waitresses running plates, and drinks, and pots of coffee. The murmur of conversations grew to a roar, and Manik’s head spun. He put the mug down, closed his eyes and held onto the table.
As quickly as it came, it was gone, and when he opened his eyes once more, the room was empty.
He stood up slowly, knowing it was time to leave, but wanting to savour each remaining moment.
He collected his coat, waved at the typewriter style cash register and smiled at the familiar clunk and ring, as the transaction registered and the drawer popped open.
Rosie was there to push it back closed.
“Thanks,” she smiled, “see you again soon?”
“Absolutely,” he smiled back, shouldering into his coat and pushing open the door.
He almost made it out without looking back, but reflex got the better of him and he turned. The space was again empty, the lights slowly going out. In the kitchen, he knew, the replicator had already powered off and as the door closed cleaning machines would erase all trace of him. Rosie would be relegated once again to memory until some future time when he returned.
He looked up and down the street again, the windowless shop fronts and pot-holed asphalt all that remained of another time.
He wondered, as he turned to head back towards the city, what would become of Rosie when he could no longer make the trip.
Would she miss him too?
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Yosun blinked in the afternoon sun, the viewport on her hazmat suit filtering the harsh UV rays but doing little to reduce the glare.
Her shuttle had settled a few hundred meters from the blast site, the ground compressed into a large bowl almost thirty meters across. Ignition had been seconds before impact, the containment shell having been detonated above the ground to maximize its effect.
Nothing would have survived this.
The damage near ground zero was complete, there were no structures, no bodies, no signs of life. As Yosun walked away from what had been the center of the settlement, signs of what had been a self-sustaining research colony slowly began to appear. Shrapnel from the prefab structures the crew had been sent here with, vehicle debris, fragments of the familiar blue and yellow supply containers from what would have been the landing zone, the remains larger and more defined the further she went.
It was nearly twenty minutes walk before there was any biological detritus.
At first, there were just random fragments of the orange bioshell the containment system would have enveloped any living organism with. Close inspection would reveal body parts, or perhaps less recognizable remains sealed inside the biohazard polymer, but Yosun had no interest in seeing such things so soon after lunch.
Further out still, the flashes of colour on the ground became mounds, then recognizable human shapes, crumpled in heaps, stretched out prone or supine, and a few frozen in place, having been just far enough from the concussion of the blast not to have been knocked off their feet before they were enveloped in the highly discriminate cloud of vapourous biosealant that followed. It would have surrounded and encased any living thing before solidifying in an instant, sealing any contaminated material inside.
People. Contaminated people.
Yosun stopped, looking into the perfect reverse casting of what had been, only a few months ago a healthy colony researcher, someone who never would have known what was coming, or what had hit them.
There was nothing in the polymer shell now but topsoil.
She tried not to think of the panic those not mercifully killed in the blast would have endured as they suffocated, sealed inside a bright orange instant sarcophagus.
The containment protocol described the anesthetic effect of the containment system, assured the command crew there would be no suffering, but Yosun wasn’t fooled, it came in a high-velocity explosive delivery system, and the only mercy that afforded was the speed at which it killed.
She shuddered despite herself.
At the edge of the settlement, she could see the line where the colony prelim crews had scorched back the natural vegetation, drawing a line between what would be theirs, and what the planet would be allowed to retain.
She stood in uneasy silence on the clear side of that line, looking into the deep blues and reds of the jungle. Something had come from there, infected the colony and turned them savage. They didn’t know what that was, but they would be more careful in future. Next time they would isolate the weapon before it spread.
“CeeVee Orbital, this is EeeVee Ground.” She turned, heading back towards her shuttle.
“CeeVee Orbital here, what’s your status EeeVee Ground?” The response was low-rez as the comms system fought with the dense upper atmosphere to get the signal through intact.
“Containment complete to the perimeter. All the biomaterial appears composted. Drop the dozers and bury everything in the hole you made.” As she passed one huddled mass, she could see the cracks in the orange polymer where some particularly determined plant had squeezed out from inside, reaching for the sun. “Get the colony prelims on deck, we’ll need LV5 ready for deployment, and start the clock on thawing the next batch of colonysicles, we’ll want to get them on the ground as soon as the landing platform is ready, there’s much work to be done.”
Yosun shouldered her way back through her shuttle door and waited as the decon wash enveloped her.
Even inside the safety of her suit, she couldn’t push out the thoughts of those colonists trapped in those shells. She closed her eyes and held her breath. Maybe LV5 would get it right.
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.”