Business is Good

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Do you need to have a defensive engagement but can’t afford it?

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Drawing on over nine hundred years (Terran Standard Time) of conflict management and tactical excellence, we are justifiably proud of our mission statement: ‘No War Too Small’.

For those unfamiliar with us, we are the military logistics division of United Terra, the renowned planetary management organisation. Our founders, board and core personnel identify as ‘human’: we are a race of mammalian bipeds, holding a tradition of warfare extending back several millennia into our planet-bound history. War, they say, is in our blood. Indeed, we still hold the highest threat rating ever awarded by the Concillium of Worlds. The fact we have not destroyed ourselves is a testament to our profound abilities in all arenas of applied warfare.

So, you like our pedigree and have read the testaments from our satisfied clients, but, you care about the wellbeing of the non-combatant populations you represent. Never fear. Bankrupting your planet is the last thing a responsible warfare management plan will do. We guarantee no more than 55% planetary GDP (per Terran annum, eight annum minimum term) in payment, backed by our famous ‘No Victory, No Fee’ promise.

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Working with UNITED DEFENCE means that from invoking hostilities to accepting surrender, it is unlikely you or your populace will need to deviate from daily routines. (Except for beings located within the designated defensive engagement zones.)

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Contact us at united.defence.corp@UT@terraofsol3

UNITED DEFENCE – Because your war is our business.

*** Declaration of Fair Warfare ***

In compliance with Concillium statute 904.221.18, UNITED DEFENCE is obliged to ensure that any holder of weapons of devastating mortal threat (WDMT) is also equipped to engage in reactive tactical engagements without recourse to WDMT. Note well that in this case we are only contracted to supply materiel and expertise. We do not provide combat-ready personnel.

Run Run Run

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m pulling taters when I hear the bell and the rhyme starts pounding in my head. I scatter the haul as my legs take off of their own accord, carrying me with them.

Run, run, run,
The snuffymen come!
No time to hide
Just dive inside
Down the flows
Dim the glows

Their ears give them away. They might be behind a hedge, but the ears stick up above, all mirror shiny like the hubcaps on Uncle Tap’s old truck. Seeing ears ahead, I drop and roll under the hedge on my left, then cut across the maize field beyond, heading for the second grate. It’s open! I dive through and pause to make sure it ratchets quietly shut. No need to attract attention from what’s under them ears.

Run, run, run,
The snuffymen come!
Behind the hosties
Dodge the ghosties
They want your heat –
Be quick on your feet

I drop torches into their water cans as I run past. Ahead I can hear people trying to be silent as they scoot round the maze of server machines. Behind me, the darkness fills with a scary silence. I reach the machine stacks; there’s nothing to do about Laura, caught by the cooling-wights. I slip by easily as they’ve clustered about her body, soaking up the last of her life. Must remember to light a candle for her if I make it.

Run, run, run,
The snuffymen come!
Round the scrap
Through the trap
Cemetery stones
Under the bones

It’s a short corridor from the stacks to the piles. I have to slow down as the scrap has sticky-outy bits and jagged edges. Just as I reach the far side of the junkyard, I hear the cooling-wights scream. They fear snuffymen because they can’t steal their heat and snuffymen can do for them. The rhyme thunders in my ears, louder than ever.

Run, run, run,
The snuffymen come!
Pop a lid
Like she bid
In with the dead
To save our heads.

I dive into the chute and hope I got the right one. I plunge left, then right, then slam down with a ‘whumpf’ into a pile of old softs. Scrambling out of mouldy sheets and shirts, I hear chute-flaps banging. Snuffymen always hit the flaps to make sure we haven’t left traps. They never remember we criss-cross this end of all but one chute with cheesewire.
Out of the laundry dump, down the tunnel and into the necropolis. Headstones and crypts as far as the eye can see – and my underground eyes can see a long way. I hurdle three crypts and swing past a tombstone topped by a statue of a screaming angel with one wing missing. Two over, one back. A big, old grave topped by black stone. I slap its surface as I wince: Snuffymen screams are horrid.
The cold stone lifts along one edge and I wriggle into the dark, helped by the dozen hands pulling at me. The ratchet rattles as it’s released and we curl about each other as the lid drops and silence comes back.
“Breen, you made it!”
“Did too, Ella. Laura got chilled, let me pass easy.”
“Candle for her tomorrows, then.”
“Aye.”
“Time to pray?”
“Make it short, Ella.”
She starts and we whisper along, sounding like leaves in a churchyard on an autumn wind.
“Snuffymen, snuffymen, can’t get us today.
Snuffymen, snuffymen, take your nets away.
Snuffymen, snuffymen, we’ll not be your kill.
Someday, snuffymen, our kin will do you ill.”

Sympathy’s Burden

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Crystallized atmosphere streams in slow motion from shattered windows and blown-out doors. It catches the light and paints rainbow banners against the starry night beyond the curved expanses of cracked supraglass. This was Balyen Station, first of the freespace habitats, home to a million souls.

A frozen pigeon spirals by, beak wide open, eyes reduced to pits of ruin. It conjures images in my mind that make me dry heave into my helmet.

Zeiral whispers over my commlink: “Is it as bad as I think?”

“Probably worse. Haven’t had the guts to go see.”

“Enough circumstantial proof about?”

“There are birds and pets.”

“Oh, no.”

“I saw a goldfish. In a globe of ice, bowl shattered. This went bad unbelievably fast. The crash freeze happened first, which caused the environments to crack. It also rendered the seals on their emergency facilities useless.”

I hear Zeiral updating the other groups, her voice tremulous: “The disaster written off as a ‘negligible chance’ has happened.”

She’s pre-empting the conclusion of the inquiry-to-come but is right.

Eternal dark can ruin a mind and lack of atmosphere will kill a body. But, to let people live in space for any span of time, the leeching cold has to be defeated. Open-form habitats like Balyen have huge temperature inverter rigs, parasitically utilising the cold to massively enhance their heating ability.

There is a minuscule chance that a micro-meteor, if it impacts at a precise angle and speed, could cause sufficient specific damage that it would force the surviving inverters into cascade failure. If that does happen, there is a fraction of a single percent chance the failure will manifest as a catastrophic cryonic event. Too bad Murphy’s Law wasn’t factored into the risk assessment.

“Are we invoking rescue or recovery?”

Zeiral’s query breaks my distraction.

“Give me a few minutes.”

Her reply is lost as I crest a rise and realise this used to be a park. Right in front of me, two bodies lie in a contorted embrace. They’re both in T-shirts and shorts. Barefoot. A picnic blanket is spread under them, the unopened hamper to one side.

Her arm is raised, probably a result of muscle-freezing spasms. A beautiful red rose rests in the loose grasp of a pale hand. The petals are edged in black, topped with white crystals highlighting the outline of each.

It’s like she’s offering it to me. I fix my gaze on the rose as tears start to float in front of my face. I’m not going to look into her possibly ruptured eyes: I daren’t – I’d never leave Earth again. Let the determination be made by something immune to contemplating the horror of whether she froze to death or was rendered immobile and then decompressed.

My last hope dies. Balyen Station: icy grave for a million people.

I sob out orders as I retreat: “Activate automated recovery and forensic procedures, Zeiral. Nobody else gets to carry this nightmare as a memory.”

Merlin Everywhere

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Old Avon looks up: “That’s going to cost you.”

He always says that. Doesn’t matter if you pick up a piece of twine or a gold ring, his opening lines are fixed.

I grin: “Can’t be worth much if it’s ended up here.”

“It’s here for someone. Worth will be determined by them.”

That’s not his usual banter.

I try to roll with it, words coming too quickly: “What if that someone is me?”

He smiles, knowing he’s thrown me: “If it is, I’ll give it to you.”

There’s no guile in his eyes. He means it. I just stand and look at him, the little box almost forgotten in my hand.

“Open it, laddie.”

I bring it up to my eyes. I never wear glasses outside, so things like this need to be up close. I rotate the box and jump when a cold corner brushes the tip of my nose. Avon chuckles.

It’s dark grey stone, polished to the point where it looks wet. The minuscule filigree gold and silver knotwork must be machine-etched, as I’m pretty sure any artist would have gone crazy trying to do that.

“He made it for his first love, a girl named Helene. When they parted, she gave it away. Said it was an embodiment of love and desire. Said it needed to carry on the truth he betrayed.”

Sure it was. Made ‘with love’ in a sweatshop in Kirkuk.

I open it. There’s a little silver sword set into the underside of the lid. Music starts. It’s not tinny, it’s not some sad old ballad. It’s like there’s an invisible band about me, playing their hearts out. Instrumental. I know the words. Can’t quite remember them.

“Please say you’re not going to buy that.”

I turn my head and meet green eyes. Just. I know? Emeralds. We danced. Music. Like this? What? She’s smiling and it makes the freckles across her cheeks darken.

She repeats her query in French.

“My dad was French. He didn’t stay long enough to teach me.” Why did I just tell her that?

The eyes seem to get bigger: “I could teach you.” She looks nearly as surprised as I probably do.

Suddenly, something makes sense. I tear my eyes away and speak to Avon.

“Give it to her.”

Avon smiles: “I was thinking the same thing. Your first gift.”

What?

I turn back and the eyes are waiting to swallow my ability to speak.

“You’re serious? You’d give that to me?”

Avon laughs: “Only if you take him for a cuppa and a bacon sarnie.”

She glances at him. I feel words brimming under my tongue. Then she looks back, and I’m mute again.

“I’m Jen. Jenny.”

I can speak!

“Art. Arthur.”

She smiles even wider and I feel things inside me dance to the music. I have no idea what it means, and I don’t care. She reaches out and closes the box with one hand while linking her other arm through mine.

“Let’s go, Art.”

Aldo watches them stroll off before settling to pack his stall. It’s been a long sojourn, but the nudging of societies toward the future is a delicate thing. There is no longer any room for grandiose schemes. Every future king was once a child, and good parents achieve more than good intentions ever did.

A decrepit van pulls up. The woman who gets out moves with a grace that defies her wizened features.

“Come on. It’s a long way to the next pitch.”

He smiles: “Hush, Nyneve. We always have time.”

Converter

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Dead-pirate-flying slams past me in silent majesty, drives blazing, weapon ports opening.

I kick the pedals to accelerate port and ahead, then split the sticks: left fully forward, right hard back. There’s a lurch that makes my stomach churn, then we’re pointing back the way we came from a few moments ago. This sort of manoeuvrability is what you get when you take an armoured mining ship and dump all the asteroid grappling machinery. Enough power to push a small moon at luxury liner speeds, with only a fraction of the weight, and vectored thrust ports pointing in all six directions.

Dead-pirate-flying isn’t expecting the ‘scow’ it’s facing to turn like an interceptor. It’s still coming about to place it in an ideal firing position for where I should be.

When they took the asteroid grappling gear out, I got them to leave the huge mantle-cutting beam projector that runs down the centreline of the ship. Everything about me dims as it unleashes a blast of energy designed to punch a hole through a medium sized moon.

I watch as dead-pirate-flying folds inwards around the scintillating crater made by my energy burst. Any moment –

Now! The whole mess turns into a rapidly expanding sphere of hot and lumpy. My frontal shields shed light and I’m thrown about in my seat while various laws of physics have a brawl outside.

The light show finishes. I’m still here: my shields won.

“Parker! You still breathing?”

I grin: “Sure am, Admiral. Just converted another pirate to cinders and dust.”

“You and your mutated asteroid thumper. I keep having to explain why there’s never anything left to analyse.”

“Only to the armchair experts, I’m betting.”

“Too right. Our bounty balance loves you, but not as much as the parents of the late Ellis Mortimer do.”

“He was the kid in the yacht?”

“Yeah. The engineer who evacuated the passengers then used the yacht to shield their pod from the pirates. His last words were ‘Find these bastards and kill them for me’.”

There you go, Ellis. Hail and farewell.