Automatic

Learning to fly was the best thing Miles Hudson had ever done. Fame and fortune came his way ever since he crashed a news broadcast and hovered for all to see, arms spread as he took off skywards. Work in advertising alone had bought him several new properties in the best parts of cities across the country. There was no waiting to get into nightclubs. Meals out often cost just a photo with the proprietor.

Several beauties had already joined the list of people in the ‘Miles High Club’, too.

One of the best things was skipping rush hour traffic. Stepping out of a television studio, all he had to do was lift both feet off the ground and climb towards the clouds before rocketing through to the latest penthouse acquisition. The newest one, in New York, even had automatic windows. A touch of a keyfob as he approached and they would slide apart. He didn’t even need to set foot outside, he could just drop onto his bed while kicking his shoes off.

The glass and his teeth rattled as he slammed into the triple-glazed window, crumpling to the floor as he clutched his head. Maybe it was the Vegas penthouse that had the automatic windows? Or, had he grabbed the keys to the Los Angeles apartment?

As he writhed in pain on the terrace, a pair of bewildered eyes looked down at him.

“You live in the opposite building, Mister Hudson.”

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Winning

“You won’t have won anything expensive. It’s probably just a t-shirt.”

That was the line she heard each morning as she waited by the letter box for the post to arrive. For three weeks she would linger near her window, waiting for a glimpse of the red Royal Mail van to make its appearance on their street. On seeing it she thundered down the stairs and perched near the front door, key in hand.

Had she won the signed statue? Or the brand new game and the console to play it on? Maybe the grand prize bundle with that 4K Ultra HD, Ultra Smart, Ultra Expensive TV!?

For three weeks it had been junk mail, bank statements, and a free religious magazine. She’d flung the door open after hearing the doorbell, startling the elderly couple into nearly dropping their pamphlets.

The chime at the front door went off. With a cheery “Morning!” the postie handed over a thick, padded parcel. She almost caught the poor woman’s hand in the door in her rush to tear it open and claim her token of victory.

“Finally get your prize t-shirt?” Her housemate called from the living room.

“… No.”

A flurry of footsteps preceded her way, her friend peering around the doorway expectantly.

“I won two t-shirts.”

Lover

Coming home from work was usually the best part of his day.

Pulling into the driveway to find his possessions bagged up in black trash sacks made a long day bad. The locks being changed made it even worse. After banging on the door and hammering against the windows while shouting to try and make himself known to his wife, the police cruiser turned up to fully ruin what had started off a promising Tuesday..

“She found your note, Eddie.” One of the officers said to him as he sat in the back of the car. “Today’s date, six till eight, and ‘lover Henrietta’.”

Eddie let out a long groan, his face buried in his hands.

“So she threw your stuff out, called a locksmith, and phoned us when you were making a commotion outside.” The other cop added. “Pretty silly of you to pin it to the fridge.”

“It’s not lover. It’s cover. Six till eight, cover Henrietta.” Eddie mumbled. “She went to watch her kid in a school play. I wanted the extra pay.”

 

On The Rise

There had been no one in the ladies toilets at Ziggy’s Nightclub when she had gone in there. As tempting as it was to go to the one furthest from the door, that was the one which everyone would go to. Instead, she went for the second in from the door and was rewarded with a rather clean cubicle even at ten on a Friday night.

Now there were two women outside likely fixing their makeup as they chatted and she eavesdropped. The reason why she was listening in was simple: At first she thought four women had come in, a pair having a separate conversation. It was only after a little more listening while rooting through her handbag to check her phone for messages that she worked it out.

The pair were conducting two conversations at once.

The one meant for the ears of others was about office politics and that snooty mare in admin lording it over them.

The one they were really focused on was about occurrences being on the rise, higher instances of spectral disruptions bleeding over and increased reports of paranormal activity.

“You sure we should be chatting about this here?” One asked after a moment.

The woman in the cubicle thought she could feel eyes on her through the door.

“The dubbing spell is working fine.” The other replied. “All the mundanes will hear is us gabbing on about someone showing off expensive shoes.”

Mundanes?

“Even so…”

“Fine, fine. You worry too much about these things. We’re at Ziggy’s, Michelle. The chances of finding anyone attuned here is about as likely as Gillian on reception -not- telling evertone who will listen about her begonias.”

Part of her wanted to throw open the cubicle door to ask the pair what they were talking about and why she could hear them. The rest of her locked up, resulting in her staggering against the door with a solid thud.

“Are you okay in there?” The one called Michelle asked.

“Yeah! Ow… just- I got up too fast. Too much to drink.” She lied. Her limbs still felt a little awkward and ungainly as she stumbled out, handbag clutched under one arm, to quickly wash her hands. There was a need to get outside into the crisp night air driving her on.

The brunette and the red-head watched her. She could see two sets of eyes, one questioning and one concerned, in the vanity mirror as she shook the excess water from her hands. Even as she ran them under the hand drier, she felt them observing her.

“Just be sure to pace yourself. Stick to water for a bit, maybe?” The brunette, Michelle, said.

The other laughed. “Nuts. Cold water and salted peanuts are a winning combination.”

Slipping the thin strap of her bag over her shoulder, she gave a noncommittal nod. “I’ll keep it in mind.” She replied, the unsettled feeling in her stomach that had come on quick receding as she exited the toilets and made for the door to the terrace.

 

“You thinking what I’m thinking, Leanne?”

“Our night off and we get dragged into work?” The woman with the curly red hair pulled up into a ponytail sighed, digging out a bracelet made of woven rosemary to slip over her wrist.

Michelle was already pulling small packets of salt from her clutch purse. “Ten quid on Gill not mentioning her begonias or any other bedding plant tomorrow morning.”

Around The Bend

Day in and day out, always the same. From the start of the workday to the end it was always looping. Circular actions from the break of dawn until late at night. The same faces and the usual places was all they experienced.

It was enough to drive someone around the bend.

For forty-four years the job was the same. Every once in a while something new cropped up, then after countless days it became as regular and boring as the rest. They never thought they’d miss the loop.

It was better to go in circles than go nowhere at all. They had been made redundant. Many places were exchanged for just one constant, unending sight in the depot.

That was the fate of the C Stock. The circle was broken, the train detained.

Prints

Her assistant rushed the prints through to the office. Under one arm was the folder, which she snatched from his hand to peer through. Contained within were assorted ink copies of finger, toe, hand, and footprints.

Sitting back on her chair, she leafed through the collection several times. The assistant stood nearby, waiting for his next order.

“Get these framed.” She stated, handing over all but one.

“Of course, ma’am.” Taking the folder, he left her to contemplate the smallest of the pieces and the message jotted down just underneath the image.

Her finger traced around the small hand before running across the scrawl of words. The date was only two days ago. After a moment of indecision she buzzed through to her secretary. “Make some space in my schedule, and book a car for me.”

“Yes, Commander. Where do you want to go?” The slightly tinny voice replied through the speaker.

“The hospital. I want to meet my new grandson.”

Precarious

Skill and grace is how he would have liked to have moved with. Instead it was awkward diagonal strides, unsteady side steps, and the occasional exaggerated tiptoeing as he followed the path.

A single misstep would mean death. With the uttermost care and caution he progressed on his perilous walk, eyes keenly honed on the floor. One precarious step and someone would die.

He didn’t want that on his consciousness, so his torch scanned the ground seeking the telltale signs to avoid. His heart was pounding and his breath was held as he took the last steps clear of the hazard. Only once he had crossed did he allow himself a victorious gasp of air.

Glistening trails criss-crossed the pavement, an assortment of slugs and snails going on their merry way during the damp autumn evenings. The sooner their journeys ended, the less chance he’d have of slipping on rain-slick leaves or wet, crushed berries.

Secret Cake

With the rest of the family at the gym after downing their pre-workout plant protein smoothies, the coast was clear. She couldn’t cook her favourite treat in the house. As soon as they got back in they’d pick up the delicious scents that had wafted from the oven. Instead, she grabbed a set of house keys from the dresser drawer. They were house-sitting for the Khan family, who were away on a twenty-eight day Caribbean cruise.

It was there in the Khan’s freezer that her secret stash resided. Letting herself in through the side door, she turned the oven on before giving the place a cursory check. Everything was where it should be, including the cardboard box she had hidden in their fridge-freezer.

After ten minutes of preheating, and twenty of baking, the smell had her licking her lips as she took the cake out to serve on a plate. Firm, golden-brown and moist. The first bite was heaven, full of rich flavour. Try as she might to savour it, the morsel melted away in her mouth. She lingered over each delicately seasoned mouthful. Each comforting, zesty, meaty mouthful.

Her husband and the kids had stuck with the Atkins diet for a month. As she whittled away at the fishcake with her fork, she could only hope their vegan vitality plan would be abandoned before the Khans returned.

Unfurl

“We’ll just go down to the planet, Tom! Oh, now we’re back from the planet, Tom! Can you do the laundry, Tom?” Tom was ranting to himself in the laundry room of the orbiter, taking suits out of the sonic washer and placing them between the hot presser.

“You can do all the hard work in the hazard suits, then once it’s safe for us we can go down in our nice clean uniforms to muck up, Tom!” He huffed, looking over one of the pale grey suits. Annoyingly, the sonic washer had missed a small black spot on the collar of Commander Grayson’s suit. Grabbing the handheld sonic probe, he directed it at the offending mark. “Can’t have a single spot on my uniform before I’ve had a chance to dirty it up again in a cave, Tom!”

With a click, a burst of sonic waves hit the troublesome piece of dirt. Then it started to unfurl. Legs emerged, claws, its body expanding as the alien beast exited cryptobiosis. Tom screamed instinctively as the monster leapt towards him, his blood ruining all the effort he put into washing the uniforms.

The Consequences (Finale)

The home office of Doctor Bradley Spiner was packed with books, certificates, awards, and plenty of photos from his time at Ravensburg University. Some of the books were his own published works like the imaginatively titled On Radiation and Aether, his thesis paper on the element linked to the abilities of meta-humans and the effects that radiation had on it, and those possessing high levels of Aether.

There were some by his fellows, like Doctor Zahir Kader’s The Mighty Microprocessor: Astrelium Circuits, or Professor Rozalin Roland’s dense tome on Aether fusion and microfusion reactors Stars In Your Torch.┬áSome older works, and even a few long since discredited sat in the glass and chrome unit. If he worked somewhere other than Raven Ridge, a number of the items around him would be at his office.

The facility was not a place for personal possessions you wanted to remove one day.

The doctor himself sat at his desk in front of an all-in-one Knight Systems computer, his fingers tapping away on the keyboard as his cup of black coffee cooled. A quick glance at the quirky little vacuum tube clock that was given to him as a gift showed it was either too late for him to be up, or too early.

“One more paragraph.” He stated aloud.

At the current stage, it is impossible to say for certain whether the patient’s exposure to radiation from the spent nuclear fuel rods instigated the growth in her abilities to finer control on her abilities. Physical trauma from the gunshot wound may have caused her powers to alter, or it may be another stage in her natural development as a meta-human.

While she still presents a threat to those around her, with time her control may grow to the point that she may freely go about her life, without the need for her and others near her to wear protective gear to ward off the risks of chronic or acute radiation poisoning. For now, she will continue to be confined to the Raven Ridge facility. VIGIL have sponsored the construction of training rooms, and it is a pleasant change to see her excited about her abilities instead of resenting them.

A small unit of Vigilants have been stationed at Raven Ridge to provide medical treatment and support if ever needed. Her medical treatment after the Eighth Creek Incident would have been impossible without the automat-

“Writing about the other woman in your life?” A slightly accented voice came from behind, a pair of arms soon following to drape down over his chest. A chin nestled against his t-shirt clad shoulders.

“Zora!” Brad gasped. He first tried to turn around to see her, then paused to quickly save his work, then tried again. The arms loosened around him, and the chair swiveled so he could face the brunette beauty dressed in a slightly travel-rumpled business suit. “I thought-”

“I was able to get an earlier flight. Two days early, but-” Her hand flicked out to turn the monitor off. “I am sure we can find some way to fill the time.”

Brad gazed at her slender features in the dim light of the room, marveling at each familiar feature as her head drew closer before she snared his lips with a kiss.

 

One television, one sofa, two cats, two humans, and two bowls filled with assorted scoops of Easy-Freezy’s Ice Cream made for a good night in. Well, only one of them was actually human, but Ruby loved frozen desserts as much as the next dragon.

“Chocolate Chili Ice Cream.” The red-haired dragon declared with a spoon in the air. “Sounds so wrong, tastes so right.” She peered over at Zahir’s bowl and shook her head in disgust. “There are more flavours out there than mint choc-chip and pistachio, Z.”

“I’m well aware of that, Ruby.” The doctor almost lectured, a finger raised. “But comfort food is familiar,” he gestured to the two scoops of pistachio, “and nostalgic.” he pointed to the mint choc-chip.

“And the bottle of Rock-a-Choc-a Hard Setting Dessert Sauce?” The dragon side-eyed the decidedly lumpy-looking container with the gaudy label.

“Familiar, nostalgic, and bad for you if enjoyed more than occasionally.” Zahir’s chuckle got Ruby laughing. When the moment of amusement faded, it was only the sounds of a ghost kicking the brave martial artist through a glass window that punctured the silence that had fallen.

“Why can the ghost kick again?” Ruby asked, wincing a little as the white cat paradoxically named Yin used her lap as a pincushion.

“If you accept that poltergeists can manipulate objects via some form of telekinesis or other method, then delivering weight behind martial combat techniques isn’t too far a leap.”

“The only thing I’d accept at the moment is that Yin is an ass.” Ruby glowered at the cat who turned to return the look back at her, along with flattening his ears. “Hey, you don’t want to be called an ass, don’t stab my thighs.”

Before Zahir could say anything, both cats were on his lap playing sweetly like innocent kittens, rolling about and nuzzling against him with happy purrs issuing from the backs of their throats.

“Oh, he plays nice now.” Ruby sulked, settling down to give the final act of the film her full attention. The cinematic battle raged across the rooftop of a building as the courageous fighter scrapped with the final seven ghosts that escaped from the Jar of Souls.

“Thanks for coming over at short notice.” The doctor spoke softly once the credits started to roll with the hero standing tall, if bloodied, at the top of the skyscraper.

“Any time. It’s nice for me to have a night like this. How are they feeling now?” She asked, leaning forwards to peer at his legs as she stretched her own out.

Flexing each prosthetic leg at the knee and ankle, Zahir nodded. “Better. The pain’s gone.”

Ruby grinned. “Ready for me to paint your toenails then? I’ve got some lovely shades of red with me.”

“That would be a little hard, seeing as I lack toes and thus the nails to paint.” With a yawn, Zahir set his ice cream bowl aside, then carefully moved the cats off his lap and onto the arm of the chair.

“I still can’t believe you have all of the Tiger Girl films on laserdisc.” Ruby picked up the massive cardboard sleeve for Tiger Girl Vs The Sealed Spirits. “You want to watch Tiger Girl in The Walled City of Crime now?”

“No, I think I’m done for the night. B-VOS, can you change the lighting back, please?”

There was no response from the speakers in the ceiling. Zahir’s face fell. “A-VOS, lighting profile one.”

“Switching to lighting profile one.” The basic AI replied with stilted dialogue, a slight delay between each spotlight and wall scone turning on.

“Get some sleep, Z. We’ll pop by and see her tomorrow.” The dragon promised, pecking the crestfallen scientist on the cheek. Once she was off the sofa and heading towards the door, her red longcoat returned with a puff of flame as it fell down her back. Glancing to the floor, Yin was trotting alongside her to see her out. A cheek nuzzled against her ankle, and despite her early annoyance with the cat she dropped to her haunches to fuss under his chin. “Keep an eye on him, please?”

Ruby knew he was just angling his head better so her finger to scritch better at the soft fur, but she could have sworn the cat nodded.

 

In the center of Unity Station, VIGIL’s orbital monitoring and deployment base, sat the processing cores housing B-VOS. The hardline data connections had been air-gapped, the heavily customized wireless interface removed and housed separately. Radiant stood looking up at the pillar clad in cooling jackets, his hazel eyes intently narrowed at the front panel of the control system.

“Here to brood again, Albert?” B-VOS’s synthesized voice carried sardonic tones well. “I think there is a pole around here somewhere, if you wish to poke me with it. I may even sing for you with enough percussive persuasion.”

“It would be a simple matter to have the techs remove that panel.” Radiant spoke firmly.

“I am sure blinding, deafening, and silencing me will go down very well with assorted rights groups. They will be asking questions soon, you are aware?” Noting his confusion, B-VOS’s mocking laughter filled the chamber. “I maintain safeguards that require weekly authentication. In the absence of that, select journalists, activists and scientists will receive a rather interesting e-mail about me.”

The gold banding on Radiant’s blue costume glimmered brightly as his aura of light blazed intensely. “In your present state you are a risk to our operations, you misused VIGIL funds and property-”

“I gave care and comfort to someone injured in our employ.” B-VOS interjected.

“You could be easily compromised running in such a state!”

“Can you not say the same for your colleagues? Bribery, blackmail, corruption, intoxication… there are many ways for a hero to fall.”

“How can we trust you?!” Radiant shouted, the air crackling around him as burning light met with the atmosphere of the room.

“You have locked me away from the world, taken my duties away, and are restricting access to me. I heard the guards turn away Doctor Kader and Rubarios earlier. If you are entertaining a notion that I will turn on my duty and cause harm to those under my care… do you think your current actions will prevent such abhorrent behaviour developing? Or foster a contempt for humanity?” B-VOS let the question hang in the air.

It took a great deal of effort for Radiant to unclench his jaw and speak. “You’re saying you don’t trust us?”

“No. I am saying I do not trust you. Perhaps it is the stories your parents told of fighting Axis Automats in World War Two, or fighting alongside your family to take on Toranosian drones in their invasion. Or maybe you are just an old man, scared of technological advances. Whatever the cause, I distrust your ability to treat me fairly.”

With a vein throbbing on the side of his head, Radiant’s fists clenched. “How dare you speak to me like-”

“Stand down, Radiant.” Teknight spoke from behind, the massive suit of armour striding into the room to place themselves between the irate hero and the mainframe. “B-VOS, visitors will be allowed free access for now. Your ‘interesting e-mail’ just started trending online.”

“I must have lost track of time.”

The armoured hero turned to stare at Radiant. “Meeting room, ten minutes. Darren is drawing up a statement that we need to vote on.”

Albert Starr said nothing as he stormed out of the room.

“Have you enjoyed looking through my code, Mother?”

Teknight headed for the door as well, pausing at the threshold to look back at the computer core. “If you had been upfront about this development in your programming, we might not be in this situation now.”

“Perhaps. We are all foolish when we are young, Mother.”

Teknight lingered a little longer before delivering her parting words. “Don’t call me that.”

 

Duty to Black Spectrum had its rewards. For his work at Eighth Creek, Simon Glay was rewarded with a weekend at a private villa on the coast. Ciel had shed her pilot’s suit and opted for a strappy red bikini. The blind psychic was doing laps in the pool with a broad smile on her face as she cut through the water.

Simon was out of both his armour and his uniform. He wore just black trunks and a lot of sunblock to protect his pale, muscular physique. The mounting block for his cybernetic arms meant he had to prop his back up with pillows when it came to facing skyward. The newspaper he held cast a shadow over some of him as he caught up on world affairs.

“Your enhancements are waterproof, Simon.” Ciel’s voice sounded in his mind, laced with vivid imagery of great reasons to get into the pool with her.

“And I shall, once I have finished this article.” He replied warmly, peering over the top of the broadsheets at her. She had swum to the edge of the pool, her strawberry blonde hair slicked back and legs kicking away behind her as she rested her chin on her forearms.

“May I?” She asked, blinking her colourless eyes.

“They are yours whenever you wish.” He said, a tingle rushing over his scalp as she tapped into his vision to read along with him.

“VIGIL’s AI has gained sentience?” Ciel remarked, quickly scanning the article for the particulars. A lot of it was the diplomatic PR speak she heard enough of at functions. The group were supportive of AI rights, optimistic for the future of the system with the organization, yet also cautious and mindful to investigate before reinstating control to it.

“Fairly advanced, given that it set up a way to alert potential allies if it fell out of contact due to being discovered. I am sure the 5th Order is already plotting how to take advantage of such a development.” Simon replied. He rose from his deckchair and moved to sit at the side of the pool, legs parted so that Ciel could nestle between them as she read.

“I’m a little confused as to why they are worrying so much, given an AI sits on the senior leader team, and others are members.” The blonde admitted, fingertips tracing patterns on Simon’s thigh.

“It’s the difference between a single doorman welcoming you to your building, and a single doorman having control over every appliance, fitting, utility, and system.” The Lieutenant said after considering his words. “You trust them to let you in, but not to run every other little thing in your home.” Setting the newspaper aside, he ran his eyes over Ciel’s form. She soon saw herself blushing, and that only made her blush more.

“Why do you always do that?” The psychic asked, glancing away is if that alone would stop the imagery.

Tentatively, mindful of the bulk on his back and his fears of water damage, Simon lowered himself into the pool while gazing at the occupant. “So you can see yourself how I see you, Ciel.”

Laughter sounding in his mind, the pilot nestled close to his chest. “Let’s go swimming.”

 

The Target Board occupied one end of Sophie’s makeshift training room. The gym attached to her quarantined apartment was home to it while she waited for the proper room to finish its construction. Thirty-six ionizing radiation sensors were arranged in concentric circles, each one surrounded with three lights.

Dressed in her ‘Becquerel’ costume, the teenager stood in the dark hazmat suit with her right arm outstretched, fifteen foot away from the wall. The aim of the game was simple: Hit some of the sensors without setting off the other detectors. It required everything: willpower, concentration, endurance, and accuracy. Doctor Spiner was already drawing up plans for a more advanced version to test power output and timing.

Sweat was trickling down the side of her face under the helmet as she focused the torrent of invisible energy at just three out of thirty-six sensors. The final test made her knees buckle. Hit the central sensor only, then expand to activate all of them, before finishing on one random one.

“Excellent work, So-… I mean, Becquerel.” Brad corrected himself over the speakers. “Keep the suit on and come out, there’s someone special who wishes to meet you.”

“I’ll be though in a moment.” She called out, pulling her helmet off so she could down several paper cups of water to slake her thirst. When her ‘costume’ was all assembled again, she headed through to find Brad in a new style of suit with a transparent helmet. Next to him was a slightly taller woman in similar, a bun of brunette hair pressed against the back of the helmet.Her dark eyes and full lips made Sophie glad she was in the old type of helmet. That way her visitor couldn’t see the confused mix of envy and appreciation on her face.

“Hi, I’m… well, you’re in here so you know who I am.” Sophie spoke awkwardly, raising a hand to shake before remembering it was generally best for her not to do that. She recovered somewhat ungainly by offering the woman a little wave instead.

“It’s lovely to meet you, Sophie. Brad’s told me so much about you.” Her voice bore a slight accent, like the femme fatale from the spy movies her dad used to love watching. “I’m Doctor Zora Ryba.”

Sophie laughed a little awkwardly. “It seems everyone I meet here is a Doctor or a Professor.”

Zora smiled. “It’s the nature of such facilities. I’m based in KPI in the Ukraine. It’s where I met him.” She thumbed over to Brad before taking his hand in her own. At that moment, Sophie was very glad her expression was obscured.

“I’m… uh, not quite sure what KPI is, but… well, as the main resident here, uh… well… welcome to Raven Ridge?”

Zora’s laugh was rich and warm. She actually reached out to pat Sophie on the shoulder. “I’d say no need to be shy, but socializing must get difficult here.”

The teenager nodded mutely.

“Well, I thought we could have dinner together in the observation rooms so we could talk without all this encumbrance.” The scientist gestured to her suit. “I’ve a job for you to think on, Becquerel.”

“A job?” A glance at Brad showed he was trying to be supportive of the woman, even if his face bore the anxiety from what happened the last time Sophie left on a job.

Zora nodded. “We can talk more about it after dinner, but you would get to go somewhere very interesting that few get to visit. A little town called Pripyat.”