Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Jodi pushed open Jane’s door, knocking while it was already swinging inwards and waited until it had closed behind her before speaking.
“Next Tuesday at quarter past noon he’ll have stopped Bob McKibbon’s heart.” The announcement was followed by a left-handed flick of fingers down her right forearm towards Jane’s desktop, the bits of data that comprised the intel briefing making the leap across the office to the mid-air display where it hovered for review.
“Christ, that’s the third one of these this quarter,” Jane scanned the document top to bottom, making notes in an action plan as she went. “We’re going to have to go back a few years on this one too, increase junk food intake, sugar, closet alcohol consumption, we can’t bend the timeline in any way that will require affecting anyone else’s,” She pushed back from the desk, turning her attention to Jodi, “do you have any idea how much of a pain in the ass this guy’s becoming?”
“As long as he’s in the pole position, we retroactively justify his futures. That’s the gig, nobody said it was going to be easy.” Jodi softened. “Look, I know it’s a shitshow, but you’re the best at this, if anyone can restring his timelines so he doesn’t destroy himself and the party, you can.”
Jane pulled up a list of pending events, spinning the display around so Jodi could see.
“It was bad enough when he was firing intelligence staff,” she started, “re-engineering the history of spooks who are trained to recognize when their timelines have been distorted was an invitation for disaster, but that just needed to hold up to administrative review. Retroactively creating health conditions to cover deaths, that has to stand up to coroner scrutiny, and that’s an entirely different level of sophistication and detail.”
Jodi surveyed the office, noted the absence of anywhere to sit and so stood shifting her weight from foot to foot as she replied.
“This can’t go on forever, you know that. His term will expire, the mantle will be passed to someone else, hopefully, someone who isn’t just another petulant child, and we’ll get back to reworking foreign governments, and de-escalating conflicts in far-off countries, just like the good old days.” She smiled, not entirely confident he wouldn’t somehow secure another term before common sense and decency made an inevitable return to the administration.
An urgent action item popped to the top of the list on Jane’s display, and both women studied it in stunned silence.
“He can’t really think he can push this through,” Jane’s voice was clearly strained, “aren’t there safeguards on rewriting electorate laws? He can’t honestly think we can just eliminate the term limit without anyone noticing.”
Jodi stood silently for a long time before leaning close and whispering in Jane’s ear.
“You should go back a few years and increase his junk food intake, and sugar, he doesn’t drink publicly, so you’ll have to make him drink in private, excessively, maybe late at night. Nobody will notice if he’s drunk then, he doesn’t make much sense at the best of times.”
She straightened, fixed her suit jacket and read Jane’s face as the realization of what she was suggesting swept over her.
“If you prioritize this, you can save McKibbon’s life while you’re at it.” She smiled again, a genuine expression this time. “There’s already a death event on the timeline for next Tuesday at quarter past noon, maybe it’s time we reallocated that.”
Jane’s mouth tightened into a line. She held eye contact for a long minute, then nodded once and turned the display back and started working.
If she was successful, McKibbon might be just one of the millions of lives she’d save this week.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Rebecca stood in the middle of her little gallery and surveyed her work. She’d hoped her recent direction was going to be different, maybe spark some kind of reaction from this sleepy little town, but the series hadn’t gotten anything more than polite smiles.
Not one piece had sold. She should never have left Chicago.
Her mournful reverie was broken with a crash, as her boyfriend barreled through the front door struggling with the apparent weight of a large plastic bucket.
“Becc, you’ve gotta see this stuff,” he deposited the pail heavily at her feet, causing thick liquid to splash over the sides, “it’s from that meteorite we saw hit the woods.”
Rebecca surveyed the bucket of viscous, deep coloured liquid, and the splatters across the barnboard floor and her sandal-clad feet, a mix of anger and distaste brewing at the back of her throat.
“Lewis,” she started slowly, “what have…,” she paused, the sudden urge to touch the liquid replacing her annoyance, and she plunged one hand into the pail, pulling it back and studying the near luminescent swirling glove of colour that enveloped her to the wrist.
“It’s beautiful,” she turned and wiped a large stripe across one of the closest finished canvases on the wall. Using both hands, she began smearing the material, pushing out to the edges until the surface was covered completely. She was enthralled as she worked the material, at different thicknesses and stroke directions, it became many different colours, like gasoline on water.
“Get it all,” she turned, fixing Lewis with a stare, “I need all of it.”
Lewis simply nodded as he exited the same clumsy way he’d come in.
Rebecca dragged the bucket around the gallery, covering every canvas she could find with scenes that seemed to her to be almost alive; landscapes with people who seemed to sway of their own accord as the material shimmered in the light and shadow. She made portraits of figures with deep shadows where their eyes and mouths should be, featureless creatures whose gaze nevertheless seemed to follow her around the room as she worked.
Over the next few days, Lewis brought several more buckets into the gallery before he stopped coming at all.
Rebecca didn’t notice.
Someone came in and left with a painting, Rebecca too preoccupied to bother about taking money for it, and before long others came and left, each with a piece of her new found art. Word spread, and as quickly as she could finish the paintings, they were carried off to people’s homes, the surfaces not even dry.
When she ran out of her own canvases, she cannibalized other artwork she owned, and when they were gone she tore covers off the hardback books she’d collected and painted those.
Once she’d run completely out of the liquid, and lacking anything on which to paint anyways, she left the gallery for the first time in weeks.
Walking past her large front windows, she caught her own reflection in the glass. Branches had grown from her back and shoulders, pushing through the fabric of her shirt to reach skyward, gnarly and grotesque. Her face a spiderweb of bruised lines, undulating in waves beneath the surface. She paused to straighten her shirt collar before turning back to the sidewalk.
Across the street, she watched as one of the townsfolk sublimated while walking past the coffee shop. He turned to step off the curb into the street and, just as a sudden gust of wind blew past, he simply became smoke.
She made it perhaps twenty more steps towards the downtown before stopping, a desire stronger than any gale force wind forcing her back.
She turned and headed instead, unimpeded, towards the edge of town.
As the ‘Welcome to our community’ sign faded behind her, and the sound of the interstate was carried to her ears on the evening breeze, she knew it wouldn’t be long.
A city was calling.
We would like you to join us in welcoming our most recent Featured Writer, Hari Navarro, as our newest Staff Writer.
His short and flash fiction has been published here at 365 Tomorrows, Breach, and AntipodeanSF magazines. He has also succeeded in being a New Zealander who now lives in Northern Italy with not one single cat.
The work of Hari’s we’ve already published here has been some of our favorite, and we welcome his unique voice and vision to our creative team. We hope you look forward to reading his future works as much as we do.
Look for Hari’s regular contributions on the front page starting with today’s story, Suckle.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Bennett stood out on the sweeping plateau of rock a mile above the ocean and watched as the planet’s orange sun dipped below the horizon.
Beneath him, miles upon miles of tunnels and caverns carved out of the living rock by a hive of the planet’s indigenous flying insects. They hummed now with server equipment, quantum stores of data and wealth from across the charted and inhabited worlds, kept safe here for the rich from prying eyes, and the tax siphons of planetary governments.
As darkness descended, he strolled back inside, the massive glass doors rolling closed, sealing him inside for the night.
In the middle of the large lounge, on his way to the kitchen, he passed the feature reminder of his company’s conquest of this place. The once blistered, but now polished to a high shine ruby red shell of the presumable queen of the nest of insects that had once called this space home. Its multi-segmented torso curled into a tight ball, wings, legs, and all outer extremities burned off as they flooded the nest from low orbit with liquid fire, destroying everything that wasn’t part of the planet itself.
He’d found the shell in the ashes, the only thing to have remained even remotely intact from the inferno, and made it the centerpiece of a massive table. A slab of glass several inches thick, cut around the shell, such that its body provided the base holding the table aloft, and the crown of what must have been its head protruding through a hole cut in its near-center.
He dragged his fingers along the surface of the table as he passed it, then turned down the long hallway to his sleeping quarters.
That night he dreamt of the site’s acquisition, his dreams coming in fits and starts, waking almost from sleep only to be pulled back into the darkness, each time a little different, a little more disturbing.
At first, he was on one of the acquisition ships, staring down at the seething nest and feeling the heat rising up even through the craft’s shielding. He watched the flame pour out of the passages up and down the rock face from it’s peak to the waves breaking at its base, watched the fiery balls of the insects trying in vain to flee their home, the very air around them turning to fire as death rained down from the sky.
Then he was running through the tunnels, devoid of the hardware and networking equipment his company had installed, empty save for the scrambling racket of thousands of feet on the rock floor. The heat this time was closer, at his back, advancing.
Before he awoke, he was drowning, struggling through an icy, crushing force of water so oppressive he thought it would drive him insane.
The whole time, throughout his dreams, he felt a relentless driving need to move, to escape, and heard a high pitched keening sound, one that vibrated his teeth and stood his hair on end.
When he woke finally, the terror of drowning bringing him gasping, wide-eyed, and bolt upright in bed, he couldn’t get that noise out of his head.
He stood, ears still ringing and jaw still buzzing, and staggered down the hall through the lounge into the kitchen, wincing as he stepped on something sharp, and limping the rest of the way to the water dispenser.
As the lights came up, Bennett realized he’d cut his foot badly, leaving a trail of blood across the white stone floor of the kitchen.
Where the trail ended, and the lounge began, a sea of broken cubes of shattered glass covered the floor, and it was one of these that he’d stepped on.
The coffee machine jolted to life in the corner on its morning schedule, making him jump. Puzzled, he looked out across the lounge at the windows to the outside, the room still pitch dark.
By the time the coffee was brewing, the sun should be well into the sky.
Bennett took a few steps towards the lounge, confusion added to the inescapable noise grating at his nerves.
In the middle of the room, the ruby carapace was split neatly in two, its occupant having outgrown it. The queen spread out wet wings, slowly beating them dry, as it’s multifaceted eyes followed Bennett.
The noise grew louder, and Bennett’s knees gave out, sending him crumpled to the floor, clutching at his ears. He realized then the windows were a seething, crawling mass of insects, blocking out the sun, answering the call to come home.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Jodie climbed into the passenger seat of the big sedan, the door closing itself with enough force to remind her never to leave anything in its way too long.
Jacko was already behind the wheel, flipping switches and bringing the old turbine engine to life, mumbling the startup sequence under his breath.
She twisted the rearview mirror to make sure her facemask was still in place and caught a glimpse of B sitting in the back seat. She blinked, then reached and tried to hold the mirror steady, but everything was vibrating and trying to focus on him made her nearly vomit.
She pushed the mirror back towards Jacko and opened the window, breathing the cold morning air and the thick smell of aviation exhaust.
“What’s the deal with him?”, she waved a thumb back over her shoulder, not taking her eyes of the horizon, “he creeps me out.”
Jacko, having gotten the massive engine settled into a steady throbbing squared himself in the seat and pushed both throttle sticks forward before answering. The carbon fiber giant lurched into motion on a cushion of air towards the city.
“B’s not a he, it’s an it,” he corrected her, “just because it’s built on a bipedal biochassis, doesn’t mean it’s human.”
They reached the end of the long driveway, leaving the decrepit barns and old farmhouse behind. They drove in silence along the regional road, then the interstate, then finally exiting into the maze of inner city roadways that would lead them to the office tower they’d been studying for the last few weeks.
Jacko pulled along the curb at the intersection of Fifth and Twenty Seventh streets, stopping just long enough for B to climb out of the back seat before continuing to a midrise car park a half block further on.
Jodie risked a look in the side view as they glided away, watching as B disappeared into a crowd of pedestrians, a blur she could only almost see if she looked away from him. It. Looked away from It. When she tried to look directly at where B should be, she found it impossible to hold her gaze there.
She turned back, her eyes and head aching from the strain as they turned into the skyward cover offered by the old parking garage.
B followed the pack of pedestrians as it was programmed to do. Beside, never in front, and vibrating at a range of frequencies from head to foot so as to be virtually impossible to look directly at.
Cameras and sensors along the pedestrian walkways would pick B up as merely a blur, but with no electronic signature, no alarms would be raised. It would only be after, should they review the recordings, and only if it were to be flagged up for human attention that B may be noticed. By then it would be too late.
At the banking tower, B followed the lunch crowd through the detection panels without incident, lost in the flood of staff returning to their offices.
B resonated through every bandwidth, echolocating and triggering passkeys and code fobs, and storing the respondent code in memory cells grown just for this purpose within its chassis.
In the elevator, one fidgety intern looked B directly in the eyes for a moment, instantly regretting it as he convulsed into a mild seizure. The elevator cleared as his coworkers, concerned, hustled him back out into the lobby, leaving B alone.
This simplified things, as B now had the elevator car to itself. It thumbed the datacenter level, oscillated an extended digit in response to the passkey challenge, and the car descended without complaint.
The data center itself presented another series of doors, each unlocked with a previously stored key, vibrated through the hardware without contact.
Once inside, B walked slowly between the rows of racks, soaking up the electronic traffic as barely perceptible oscillations in the atoms around it until it located the specific server it was sent to find.
It then pinched the network cable between two fingers, synchronized with the host and uploaded its code payload directly into the wire.
Its job complete, B walked to one of the large exhaust vents at the end of the aisle, stood on top of the grating and vibrated itself into dust.
From Jacko’s vantage point at the garage up the street, he could see the sudden gust of black dust blow up from the sidewalk grating before it was lost in the early afternoon bustle.
“We’re done,” he turned and climbed back into the sedan, “Vatican dot local has chosen a new benefactor. Funds should be fully diverted by the time the markets close.”
“What about B?”, Jodie asked as they pulled back into the street, heading away from the bank.
“Don’t you worry, after today, I’ll grow you an army of Bs”