Like Mist in the Sun

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Another cold coffee. It’s the last one I’ll have for a while. Tigerhouse closes tonight and affording bean coffee will go back on the luxuries list.
“Last one?”
Elena slides into the seat opposite, looking like a pinup from the side of someone else’s bomber. Her coffee is steaming and she’s got a double-stack bacon and stilton sandwich. It’s amazing what being pretty and having no truck with overbearing bosses will do for the punctuality and quality of your mealtimes.
She spins the plate so half of the pile is facing me.
“That’s yours. Since you haven’t had a break.”
I examine her expression to see if it’s a wind-up.
“Not joking, Doug. Get some while it’s hot.”
The lady watches without comment as I go face down in hot food. Minutes later, I come up for air, followed by cold coffee, then carefully wipe the wreckage from my face.
She grins: “That didn’t touch the sides, did it?”
Looking at the crumbs that remain, I shrug: “Good food doesn’t come along often.”
“How’d you like to afford good food every day?”
I wave toward the Sunny Chino across the road: “They’ve done recruiting.”
“I don’t want you to make coffee. Anyone can do that. I want you to kill. You know: do what you’re good at?”
They always say the one that’ll get you is the one you don’t expect. This pretty lady has obviously been paying way too much attention to me.
“Tell me my service number.”
She raises her eyebrows: “What, no disbelief? 16443790.”
The quickest check is asking for something that’s not on open- or restricted-access records. If answered correctly, the leverage is implicit and most other questions can wait.
“How much? Paid how? Who dies?”
“Five thousand sterling. Banded pack of one hundred B of E fifties. The owner of Tigerhouse.”
“Pay me.”
Her studied calm slips a little. Then, after taking a deep breath, she brings her handbag up and extracts the block of money. I take it, drop it below the edge of the table and fan it. While out of her view, I vet it for tracers and chemicals using the sensors built into my thumbs. It’s clean and genuine.
With a nod, I rise and walk across to the counter. Emilio, the owner, is conferring with Toni, the manager. I lift the leaf and step behind Emilio. He starts to turn and I snap his neck, then collapse her windpipe. Moving out from behind the counter, I close the panel, drop the leaf and reach over to latch it.
Elena’s halfway across the room, an eager look on her face.
I point a thumb back over the counter: “You’ll need to arrange disposal.”
She keys her datapad. As the contacts come up, she looks down, her mouth opening to talk. I take her down in a cybergrip stranglehold and relieve her of datapad and jewellery while she thrashes and dies.
Going back behind the counter, I loot bodies and till before lighting the serviettes, uniforms, and menus. Might go up, might not. Gives the right amateur flavour: a cue for the incident obfuscation mob.
I exit Tigerhouse and call a number using Elena’s datapad.
“Compromised. Vet this datapad and expunge anyone who flags as even remotely suspicious. Demise Doug Chaffin. Who am I?”
“Ian Valent. Chauffeur for Advocate Limousines of Stoke-on-Trent, holidaying in London. Your datapad will be updated by the time you catch your 00:05 train home from Euston. Her datapad is cloned. You may dispose.”
“Thank you.”
A cover where I’m allowed decent food. Just the ticket.

Root Cause

Author: Rick Tobin

Pressing slick walls within Perri’s briefing center opened gigantic multi-verse mapping systems across a great briefing hall aboard Haven’s interstellar spacecraft. The Order’s enclosure pulsated with its anthem, rising to crescendos oscillating beneath gathered crews’ blue slippers. White-robed acolytes raised covered heads to view Perri’s guidance for their next voyage.

“We will traverse Channel Aluhayo near Braxis Egua. It is tricky, but our passenger has little time. It is the essence of our charge to bring each seeker to final rest. We must submit ourselves to any challenge to support their trust in Haven.”

“May Haven await us all,” a confirmation returned in one voice from the Order, resting in their robes upon red floor cushions.

“With our pilot’s blessing, may we bring this being to ultimate contentment and joy. Mahuya Ho.”

“Mahuya Ho,” echoed the audience, just before standing and leaving for assigned posts. One remained to address Perri privately.

“You are Jardin Co, are you not?” Perri asked, surprised at an unscheduled conversation.

“Yes, Father, I have that honor of my House.” Jardin Co bowed in respect before speaking.

“Proceed.” Perri waved one of his many arms indicating consent.

“May Haven find us all, dear Father…but I have concerns about repercussions for returning Crax to Haven when its planet’s government warned us away. If Crax is a terrorist, do we risk initiating a conflict on this world? Does that create an imbalance in our core belief in Haven?”

“Your youth speaks loudly, Jardin Co. Let me explain.” Perri displayed no facial indications of anger or retribution. His golden robes continued to glisten under lights above the dais where he stood elevated over Jardin Co.

“I did not mean to offend,” Jardin Co replied, flustered.

“It’s a fair question for one new to our Order. Let my experience provide evidence that we are honorable in our cause. Every being has an inherent right to pass to their judgment while in the Haven of their home world– to touch their native soil, drink liquids of their home and dine on foods that return memories of youth long forgotten. Their passing, through our provision, prepares them for the greater journey beyond. It is our deepest calling to bring them to Haven.”

“But threats of war…the balance of our creed?” Jardin Co stared down as he dared question.

“Surprising… such considerations from youth. But, you have asked, and we maintain that all your questions be addressed. Crax is near death, posing no threat to this colony. War has been their way for millennia. Its presence will not change their ill-tempered breed. Our only focus is for a creature’s soul to journey peacefully beyond. We offer a bridge, no matter a species history, to their origination before ending life’s moments. Nothing is more frightening than taking one’s first step from the physical world while exploring voids of space, away from one’s like species and familiar surroundings. The Order has existed beyond time to serve all requests to seek Haven when nearing transition, especially for those at untold distances from their roots. Haven means something to them all, no matter their faults or glory, so we submit to this quest, regardless of threats from those who misunderstand this primal derivation of existence.”

“Have I acted poorly in my concern, Father?”

“No, Jardin Co. All who serve Haven are free to know by asking…and blessed to serve in trust. Our only continuance price is a client offering one offspring to our order. Your previous father’s house honored us with you. You will now serve honorably with the issue of Crax.”

The Explorers

Author: Bryan Pastor

“We should have listened to your father and stayed out of this place.”
“Nonsense… Woo what is that?”
Neil and Toby paused to examine their find. It stood twice as tall as than them, reminding Neil of the holoart of Michelangelo’s David, they had viewed in class last term. The form was manlike, an approximation of the skeletal form, without all the human flesh.
They stood marveling for a few minutes at what they had discovered, before Neil punched Toby in the arm.
“See this is the kind of stuff I told you we would find. Cool isn’t it?”
Neil moved forward into a shaft of light that streaked down through the broken roof above.
“Yeah cool, whatever it is.” Toby snarked.
“There looks to be some kind of controls on it. Maybe I should push the green button.”
Toby yelled, a carnal instinctual, that-is-a-bad-idea scream. The thing awoke instantly. Neil stepped back, when it began to jerk. There was a high-pitched whirring noise, but they couldn’t see any moving parts. It began to make different sounds, which could have been a foreign language.
“You get that?” Neil asked.
“Nothing I ever heard,” responded Toby.
This commotion continued on for a few minutes, then stopped. Whatever life the thing may have had, it looked like it was gone.
“Broken I guess.” Neil grimaced in disappointment. “Maybe there are some parts around here that fell off.”
“How would you know what they looked like from the trash?” Toby asked, stepping closer to inspect the mechanical giant.
An articulated arm shot out, wrapping its steely fingers easily around Toby’s waist. Hoisting him up, it began to examine Toby, rapidly twisting and turning him as it studied its catch from every angle. The movement stopped. With its free hand, it poked Toby’s chest once gently, before jabbing a metallic finger through the soft flesh. Digging around for a moment, it removed the android’s central processing core.
“Toby,” Neil screamed. Everything had happened so fast, he had no time to react.
“Run.” Toby hissed, its voices fading to a faint crackle.
The machine tossed Toby’s lifeless shell aside. It spent some time trying to interface with the powerful computer it had acquired. It was baffled by the lack of connectors or ports. When it finally became apparent that it couldn’t harness this processor, it went to the body where it did find a way to harvest the automaton’s power source.
Maybe if it caught the one that ran off, it would have a better chance of connecting to the processor it sensed in its head.

Scenes from the End

Author: J. Edward Hamilton

Fragments of shattered glass float elegantly before him, and as Cameron imagines the glittering specs are stars in a little microcosm galaxy, he realizes this scene is the last beautiful thing he’ll ever see.
It’s growing warmer now as their ship plummets into a foreign atmosphere. The railgun projectile that tore through their ship had left them in reduced electrical, and for a while, Cameron had been freezing, but no longer. To some extent, the warmth is comforting, but Cameron knows it’s only a sign that death draws near. “But that’s how we live,” he thinks, “knowing we are going to die…”
Cameron sees her in his mind, in alternating scenes. In one, they embrace and he doesn’t hold back like he always does, he holds her with everything he’s got, and she does the same. And he can hear her breath, delicate and fragile, like she might cry, and he can feel her heartbeat against his chest. They are surrounded by people they know, all talking and celebrating around them, but for that one moment, it as though everything else goes quiet, and in the darkness of the world, they are alone.
In the second scene, he leads her outside away from another party, and he tells her everything he felt in the first scene. He tells her how much he’s loved her and for how long. He tells her that she’s the only one he’s ever loved. That he feels it burning inside him. That her smile is the only thing that’s gotten him through each day for the last year. He tells her how smart and talented and brave and funny he thinks she is and how beautiful her eyes are and how he’ll love her forever whether she loves him back or not.
The first scene is a memory. The second is a fantasy.
The ship is vibrating now. He can see it in the walls. Drops of sweat roll down his face. And soon tears join them.
Cameron sticks his hand out and scoops up some of the tiny glass shards so that they pool gently in his palm. “If I could have altered the universe,” he thinks. “I’d have talked to her every day. I’d have seen her smile every day. I’d have never served on an orbital intelligence collection ship with no windows and no contact with the outside world, ultimately sacrificed for the furtherance of some asinine cold war about to go hot. I’d have said the words. I’d have told her…”
His body grows heavy. He pulls himself into a chair and straps in.
They could have surrendered instead. They would have been held captive, maybe tortured. But at least there would have been a chance, however remote, of seeing her again. Of making that second scene come to life. Or at least of sending a message. But it was the captain’s call. Now their ship is burning up in the atmosphere, and everything on board will burn with it. There will be no record left. Not even a scrap of paper.
The air around him feels like it is boiling now. The sound of tearing metal resonates through the hull. He isn’t ready to die. He closes his eyes and sees her smile, and the pain of knowing he’ll never see it again is even worse than the burning sensation he’s about to feel. “But this is how we live each day,” he thinks again. “Knowing we are going to die…” and yet somehow he’s arrived at the end, hounded by regret, consumed by a timeless and horrifying question–what if?

Poker Night

Author: David Barber

It was an old silver Zippo lighter. You had to hunt down little squirty tins of fluid for it. After his dad quit smoking, it had banged around a kitchen drawer until finally claimed by Max.

He inhaled the heady smell of naphtha.

“Hurry up, Max.”

He shoved forward his few remaining chips, the lighter, his cigarettes, two loose dollar bills, and his coaster. He tabled three jacks and there were hoots of anticipation until Pete turned over a flush.

“Where you going, Max?” asked Dave over the laughter.

“Outside for a smoke.”

“Not with my new lighter you’re not,” Pete called after him.

Dave stood too close in the dark. “Here’s your Zippo.”

“Driving over, passed a newt hive down the canyon. Don’t remember it before.”

“They call it a nest,” said Dave. He taught a class about the newcomers.

“And that new biotech plant in town.”

“What’s your problem with newts, Max? They’ve boosted the economy. All that new biogen, those cures.”

“Ship only arrived five years ago, now there are newts everywhere.”

Dave was surprised at Max, disappointed in him.

With everyone so busy it took a while to organise another poker night.

“Pete, our Pete, got arrested?”

Dave finished dealing. “Emptied his handgun into a newt.”

“Why’d he do it?” Max hadn’t touched his cards.

Something about his wife, said Dave. They sat in awkward silence.

Phil asked Jess if that was murder.

“Chandler-Wright Act,” Jess confirmed, though he did divorce law mainly. “Same as homicide.”

“I’d have shot her as well,” said Max finally.

Were they playing or what? Phil wanted to know.

Poker night folded after Jess relocated to San Diego. After his wife had left him. These days you didn’t ask. Max and Phil still came round sometimes.

Dave was doing his annoying teacher thing, explaining to Phil about newts, how they could control their own development.

“You’re right,” Max interrupted. “Getting so they look more human. Apart from the hair. That’s the tell. Can’t do hair.”

Dave wondered where Max heard all this stuff. Wondered who his new friends were.

“Yeh, that and being only four foot tall,” Phil hooted. He’d drunk more than usual.

“And they think women are wonderful,” said Max, coming back with more beer. “Fat and ugly must mean something different to them.”

“Still one thing we do best,” laughed Phil.

Max lowered his voice. “I heard the new ones…”

Phil’s grin faded. “Can’t have kids though.”

“Easy to get pregnant. Guess who’d love changing diapers?”

It was the way newts liked kids that had decided Dave to vote for them to stay.

“Christ, Max,” breathed Phil, appalled.

“They just want to be more like us,” said Dave, to no one in particular.

Phil stopped coming round after that. Have to make an effort these days, he said.

Max heard he was taking his wife on a cruise, a second honeymoon. “Bet she can’t believe her luck. Phil never lifted a finger at home.”

“Still, all those women playing the field now, eh?” Dave punched Max on the arm. He forgot Max had told him to stop doing that.

The day had gone completely. In the dark, Max was flicking his old Zippo, his face alight, then gone. “How’s it going to end?”

“Men can change.” Dave couldn’t help it. Liberals said things like that.

“Like newts you mean?”

Max seemed to be watching for something, and as Dave turned to look, there was a flash, then the thud of a detonation from the newt nest down the canyon.

Max breathed in the smell of his lighter, savouring it, like the past.

Bot and the Beast

Author: Suzanne Borchers

The rain pelted his metallic covering while his smooth rollers skidded on the sidewalk. How far to the warehouse now? Too far to go before the cracked seams allowed moisture into his circuits. Cyrus3 pushed up his speed, careening wildly, his vision clouded from the condensation inside his lens compartment. Cyrus3 collided into a small, black, furry creature and both tumbled into the puddled street.
The creature hissed and scratched Cyrus3’s side until it pushed itself out from under the bot. It bolted toward a nearby doorway.

Cyrus3 rolled away from the creature but couldn’t get back onto his rollers. He rocked frantically in the rain, more and more water seeping through his skin. What could he do?

Was it fair that he, who had left the safety of his fellow bots to find fortune, would short-out and die in this dismal rain, alone and jobless? Where was justice? Where was the reward for initiative?

Probably this was the consequence of stupidity. Cyrus3 wished he could kick himself.

His vision cleared enough to see. Nearby the creature rubbed against a door. That creature was out of the rain! Maybe he, too, could find a dry place to wait for the rain to stop. The warehouse was absolutely too far away for safety. Besides, what awaited him there except a dry spot by other obsolete Cyrus3s endlessly waiting for employment in a world of Cyrus5s?

All right, he needed to take care of himself and that meant getting dry. And that meant being with that mean-spirited creature again. Cyrus3 wished he could sigh. He rolled on his side toward the door.

He stopped next to the creature screeching and scratching at the metal door. Cyrus3 wished he could cover his ears. But it was dry there and he stayed.

A spray of liquid splattered from the creature! Cyrus3 wished he could hold his nose. That creature was totally without exception the most evil contraption ever conceived!

The door opened and a human stood back to allow the despicable creature entrance.

Cyrus3 wished he could speak human. He needed help! And he smelled awful. The human must only see a metal bit of trash that reeked. If Cyrus3 could get the human to notice that his rollers were in the air, maybe the human would set Cyrus3 upright again. Cyrus3 rolled his body back and forth.

“Hey, buddy,” the human said. “You’ve got a problem.”

Cyrus3 felt himself lifted up and settled upon his rollers again.

“Wait a minute.” The human left, closing the door behind him.

Cyrus3 waited. He was out of the rain. He was on his rollers again. Cyrus3 wished he could jump for joy.

But would the human return? No. Well, Cyrus3 would wait until the rain stopped and then return to the warehouse. Even the sarcastic clicks from his fellow bots would be better than Outside. He had been defective to leave the warehouse.

The door opened. The human came out and cleaned off Cyus3’s covering.

“I could use an interface Cyrus to control my electronics. What do you think?”

What did he think? Yes! Cyrus3 wished he could shout but only rocked forward.

The human stepped back and Cyrus3 rolled into the house, careful to miss the human’s feet.

The creature eyed him from a perch high on the wall. Its ears were pinned back and it showed him white pointed teeth. It hissed and spit.

Cyrus3 clicked back at it. Cyrus3 wished he could laugh.