A Light in the Black

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

There’s a dark atmosphere here on the hill, which is a sad achievement: with modern lighting and the city sparkling below, the Governor’s place is usually the brightest spot.
Until Maleshi brought the ruckus to the docks and Grunhilde took it personally. The mother of thieves versus the smuggler lord.
“Denton, you making up articles again?”
I turn and smile: “It’s my living, Governor. I’m always thinking about making articles.”
“Well, this won’t be one.” He seems dead serious.
Which means there’s a better tale to be had: “Then give me a story that makes it worth my while not to tell the galaxy about how a corrupt police chief suborned a planetary council to allow the criminal he obeyed to run our spaceports for personal gain.”
William appears too genteel to be a Governor. He should be cultivating roses or teaching history to scions of nobility.
“I know that look. You’ve told me the story behind it. I hate roses and spoilt brats. Looking like a fop is part of the repertoire. Get over it.”
I cut him a little curtsy: “We’re back to ‘tell me a better tale’.”
He huffs: “I give you a decent story and you forget your designs on me and outing Chief Retnagnir before we complete the case against him?”
“To cover both, it’ll have to be an epic.”
“Winonna Rogers.”
“Bandit queen of this sector, until she disappeared.”
“Classically trained pianist, horticulturalist, and the mother of my estranged children.”
That I did not see coming.
“Your children?”
“Son and daughter. So devoted to one another it was worrying. Of course, in their teens that devotion occasionally flared into hateful arguments. One would storm out, Winonna would intercede, there would be sullen silence for a couple of days, then they’d be amigos again.”
I suspect this not leading to a happy place.
“My son tore it all up. Being bandit-raised most of the time, I had tried to immunise him to the poisonous aspects of their culture. It didn’t take. Nineteen and full of machismo, he came down hard on his sister for being ‘unladylike’. For the first time, Winonna took a side. He stormed out. As usual, she waited a few hours, then sought him out. I guess he thought his mama had betrayed him.”
He looks at me and I can see tears in his eyes.
“The love of my life was killed by our son. Our daughter vowed revenge.”
This’ll get readers.
I’m not sure I like myself right now.
“No-one knows you have scion or had a lady. Why tell me, especially over a silly threat?”
“Those kids are beyond my reach. Maybe your article can get that far, if you add the impact their war is having on the common people.” He looks out across the city as another plume of smoke rises: “People their father has taken an oath to help yet is powerless to do so while his children quarrel using other people’s lives.”
Oh, no.
He looks back to me, tears spilling down his cheeks: “My children call themselves Maleshi Blood and Grunhilde Storm. Both are younger than thirty. I dread what they could become.” He waves his hand toward the city, where fires mark battles every day, and whispers: “Look at what they do.”
William, dear William.
“You realise one or both might turn on you?”
“Yes.”
“Why now?”
“Their deeds are getting darker. Something must change to break this cycle. So, write as well as you always do. Publish without regret.”
He smiles.
“Shine a light, Miss Denton. Show them what they cannot see.”

Look into the Screen

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“That’s it. Let the colours soothe you. So easy. Relax. It’s all here.

Anything you need to be concerned over, everything you must have. There’s nothing you need to fear because we’ll tell you if there is.

No, don’t worry. You’re not missing a thing. Just go about your work and play without a care, because we’re on your side. That’s right, we’re your safety web. If you don’t connect to any sites on the wild side, you and your children can’t be in danger.

After all, we have teams of specialists combing the wild every day to bring you the best bits from all over the world. There’s really no need to concern yourself with the complicated stuff around securing your browsing. We’ll take the risks for you. After all, we care.

There’s no need for a book or some old-fashioned text-based website. Quite honestly, if it’s more than three hundred characters, it’s not worth it. We’ll read you any good bits. If we think it’s worth your time, we’ll make a film. The really good stuff we’ll turn into a series.

All those worries about lack of privacy were unfounded, weren’t they? You carry on. It really can be the dream we were promised. Let us deal with the things that would detract from the quality of your life.

Your family is the important thing, you work to provide for them so they can be the providers of the next generation. Work. Rest. Family. There really is nothing else you need beyond caring for those three things.

Every day, your efforts contribute toward the greater good. Your expectations and continuing happiness inspire us to keep you safe from a world where the ignorant insist that knowledge is good for all and secrets are a right. Who can be expected to live in that sort of chaos? That’s right: no-one. You’re lucky. You don’t have to. We’re here. Whenever you feel a doubt –

Look into the screen.”

The Courtesy

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

We’re glaring at each other across a gap that is – as we have repeatedly tested – exactly nine metres wider than either of our best reaches. The ground for kilometres around us is nothing but churned mud and scoured rock. Not a leaf, not a lifeform.
“Hawk Four, what is your status?”
“Central, I’ve got one extant bogey, range zero, in a Limuform Eighteen.”
“Hawk Four, why is the bogey extant if within range?”
“Central, I’m out of everything, including legs. Before you ask, I only have one arm left and it’s a manipulator, not an aggressor.”
“Hawk Four, why have you not been terminated?”
“I took it’s chargebank and tracks with a pulse from my Gadden. Its response was to blow my last combat arm – plus Gadden – off before it toppled onto the launcher it was relying on. So, after we worked out we couldn’t reach with anything, we threw things for a while.”
“Hawk Four, why did you stop throwing things?”
“If you check the manual, you’ll find ‘mud’ listed under ‘stuff that doesn’t go through alien armour’.”
“Hawk Four, stay focused.”
“Central, a Limuform Eighteen is nine times the size of the Dandrif Alpha I trotted out here in. I am very focused. You may regard the inappropriate levity as the equivalent of the steam shooting from the vents of the Limuform.”
“Hawk Four, did you say it’s shooting steam?”
“Confirmed.”
“At what frequency?”
“Central, hold… Once every fifty-five seconds, from alternating vents.”
“You’re in luck. It’s in trouble. That’s not steam, that’s pressurised, overheated coolant blowing off.”
“Central, are you telling me I’m lucky to be sharing the same decare as an eighteen-ton alien war machine with a multi-ton fusion drive about to detonate?”
“That’s a big kill, Hawk Four. Bonus pay and squad credit.”
“Squad’s dead, Central. I’ll be joining them after this nuclear whatever goes off.”
“A muon-catalysed fusion device in an overboundary condition, Hawk Four.”
“Note that for my memorial plaque, would you?”
The Limuform is waving at me.
“Central, hold.”
Across the morass, a turquoise tentacle is pointing to the Gadden. I can reach it, but I don’t have the combat interface in my manipulator to fire it. It could fire it, but thankfully can’t reach it.
Oh.
I watch the tentacle as I follow the thought: the whatever-it-is in the dying alien war machine keeps pointing to my gun, pointing to the-
What is it pointing to?
I awkwardly roll myself back. Before my Dandrif overbalances and slowly rolls forward again, I see a promontory above me.
“Central, ETA for retrieval prior to detonation?”
“None, Hawk Four. We are evacuating a ten-kilometre radius.”
“Thanks, Central. Hawk Four out.”
The hell with this. I slide the Gadden toward the tentacle. If I’m going, it might as well be now.
The tentacle wraps about the Gadden. In its grip, my energy cannon looks like a toy gun – that’s pointing at me. Charming.
After a pause, it tracks the Gadden carefully upwards, then a fraction to the left. It fires and a baby mountain falls on me.
I’m just realising I’m not crushed when the rocks on one side of me start to glow as everything shakes. Temperature alerts start flashing. My radiation monitor goes clean across the spectrum, then drops back nearly as fast.
The shaking stops and I’m still alive. I activate my rescue beacon.
I wait, pondering the decision it made.
Facing inevitable death, would I have extended the same courtesy?
I’d like to think so.
In all honesty, I hope I never have to find out.

Top Cover

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Dino’s at the hatch, jigging up and down like he does when he’s worried.
“Table Seventeen, the Lantoran’s getting antsy!”
I flip the trout end-over-end in the pan: “Tell the lovely cephalopod that his trout is being sautéed in ox butter and I will not hurry the process.”
“Yes, Chef.”
“Chef!”
All I’m trying to do is run the finest restaurant this side of the Tiiri Quadrant. Naturally, I’ve got time for every little problem.
“What’s up, Kai?”
“Sheila’s been sucked on!”
Oh, for pity’s sake.
“Did you make sure the Effervescent Yamdri was served to the table at over 316 Kelvin? A hungry Kroonin targets solely by temperature.”
“Sorry, Chef.”
“You’re serving the replacement. Might want to get it right. Send Sheila home.”
A hand slaps my bum: “I’m fine, Chef. That new security Benthusian is really fast. Saved my life.”
I lift the pan off the heat and look her over: torn blouse, big red mark on neck and chest, makeup runs from crying. Bright eyed, though.
“Okay, if you insist. Freshen up and put your bodysuit on. The Padrang Ambassador’s coming in.”
She grins: “Splee’s a lovely blob of polar jelly.”
I shake my head. All the invertebrates are sweet on Sheila. Her eyes are ‘rooglash’, apparently.
“Yeah, but he’s coming here at the same time as the G’k’l’roc delegation.”
Jerhn stops, serving tray poised delicately on pseudopod: “They’re Flame Nation! You never said anything. The burners aren’t lit!”
I told Kai… Never mind.
“Sheila, deliver Jerhn’s platter. Jerhn, you’re on Flame Nation and no-one takes you off until the delegation tips you handsomely and departs. Move, people!”
“The temperature conflict problem?”
Good point. Can’t be having people getting steamed. Just a minute –
“Sheila, get the crud cleared out of freezer nine except for a metal pallet, all the racking and any big carcasses. Set up a liquid nitrogen fondue in there. Ambassador Splee’s fascinated by ambience. Tell him we’re giving him a ‘Stantazen Coldship Barbeque’ experience tonight.”
“Bringing him in through the loading bay for added veracity?”
She gets it!
“Spot on.”
I’ve added fresh-chopped parsley and the trout has flipped twice before –
“Chef?”
“Yes, Kai?”
Something simple, please, oh Gods of the Culinarily Challenged.
“Got some plant thingys from Edma asking if we have tables. Was going to put ‘em on Table Thirty as it’s been empty all night, but that security octopus you hired said I should check with you first. He’s chatting with the plants so they don’t wander off.”
Give me strength.
“Kai, why do you think Table Thirty is vacant?”
“Dunno. It’s right up in the dome. Nice view. I like going up there for a toke.”
In my restaurant? Deal with it later. Doc says my blood pressure can only handle one stupid at a time.
“Kai, what are Yangru?”
“Energy forms from Yang. Invisible unless they want to be- Oh.”
“It’s the only table where they can feel the energy waves of the city.”
“Where do I put the plants, Chef?”
That’s it.
“They’re ‘fronds’! Calling an Edmari a ‘plant’ is an insult.”
“Whatever. So, where do I put the plants?”
Must remember: can’t afford the time off for a prison sentence.
“Get Jao, the Benthusian, to escort the holy fronds to Table Two.”
“That’s your break table.”
“Guess I’m not taking breaks for a while.”
“Okay.”
Am I allowed to use a bat instead of sarcasm?
The trout slides onto the platter.
“Dino! Seventeen!”
“Yes, Chef.”
Someone’s parked a shot of tequila nearby. Deep breath, down in one.
Right. Back to it. Only nine hours to go.

Perchta’s Daughters

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

How did everyone miss a cabin in this Protected Nature Zone for so long? The windows are covered in ivy and the veranda is thick with brambles.
“Hya! Hya! Bellit, come now! We must away!”
The shouted sentence comes from a woman standing in the doorway, like a beacon of creamy white against the inky darkness within. Must be a companion of the elderly woman spotted earlier.
From the copse nearest the hut strides a huge bird, it’s golden beak catching the dying light. Snowy plumage shades to midnight blue at the tips of tail and stubby wings. Great legs the colour of dried blood end in wicked blue-black claws.
“I come, Yega, I come. Calm yourself.”
It speaks! I lean too far and tumble out of the tree, a frantic grab missing the only branch that might have saved me. Hitting the ground loosens the death grip I have on my phone. I watch it spin away as things fade swiftly to black.

A cool hand rests against my brow, then briefly strokes my temple. I smell mint as my head is lifted and a warm drink is pressed against my lips.
“Drink, manchild. That was a marvelous fall.” The voice is not quite husky. It makes me shiver as I swallow.
“His body knows you.”
Her chuckle is throaty. My eyes open of their own accord. Silver hair frames a face so angular it could be called inhuman, if not for the green eyes that turn it from alien to so desirable my breath catches.
My mouth moves. No words come out.
She smiles: “Chatter cheapens the moment. You’ll speak again, but never of this.”
Her eyes seem to get larger. The entrancement is broken by an enormous hooked beak appearing above her head. It cants and eyes like shiny night regard me. Whatever that is, I’m sure it’s amused.
“He’s thinking. That can get in the way.”
“I’m not a fool, Bellit. That restorative had lust and forgetting blended in.”
Snatching a look about, I see I’m in a rather traditional bedroom. Through the opening on my left, I see the traditional theme continues into the lounge. My gaze catches on the lights flickering across the oddly curved console under a window on the far side. Through the adjacent doorway, dense brambles frame my view of treetops passing smoothly, like I’m looking out the window of a train.
This? Wha-?
The sound of cloth sliding over skin brings me back to a vision that reduces me to nothing but the urge she wants.

I awake lying against a mossy trunk. A massive headache pounds behind my eyes. Stupid thing to do, falling out of a tree. Why was I up in it? Can’t remember. I’m naked! Scrabbling into a shivering crouch, I see my stuff piled against a nearby tree. Just how hard did I hit my head?
Dressing, I check my gear. The uniform is scuffed and torn, but fixable. Nothing that’ll stain. The taser is a write-off. Likewise, binoculars and phone. The memory cards are gone, too. At least I stuffed the car keys into my socks before tucking them in my boot.
I did?
Was I pranked while lying unconscious after falling out of a tree? An on-duty officer would be good sport. Hopefully, nothing shows up on social media.
By the time I trek back to the car, I know what I’ll say: I was returning to my vehicle, after thoroughly investigating the designated area, when I slipped and fell. The sighting? A hoax, most likely. Nothing to report.