War Games

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m impressed: the manufacturer’s claim was true. C-NhD – Compressed Nhildentium – really does make a ship unbreakable.

“Sir, the worst casualty is Engineer Ruson: both legs broken. Apart from that: cuts and bruises.”

I treat Dral to my best expression of disbelief: “How?”

“It spun us, sir. Everyone was pinned to a solid surface. By sheer luck, the majority were backs to the impact.”

I’ll be drinking a half bottle of brandy with our guardian angel as soon as we get out of this.

“What’s our manoeuvring capability?”

“None, sir. We’re embedded in a cliff face.”

“Can we blast our way free?”

“It’s a two-kilometre drop, sir.”

“Use launch boosters?”

“Tubes are buried in the cliff, sir.”

I perform a mental orientation from that info.

“So, presuming we’ve lost both turrets, surviving weapons will only fire along the cliff face?”

“You presume correctly, sir.”

“Looks like we’re going to have a chance to enjoy the view, Dral.”

He stares out the viewport.

“A pity it’s too narrow to climb through, sir.”

“I like the way you skipped the gargantuan task of breaking supraglass.”

Ensign Clemming interrupts: “It’s coming back!”

Barkdanta is a vast planet. The Barkdantim are giants by our standards; their planet is sized to keep them humble. The vistas here are beyond spectacular. Cloud-decked mountains soaring kilometres into the skies, trees that make skyscrapers look feeble.

And ‘Battlegods’. We thought the Barkdantim were threatening us with mythical vengeance because they couldn’t face us. In fact, they were desperately warning us because their Battlegods cause havoc when roused to defend the planet.

I cannot describe the terror of seeing a mountain fall apart to reveal a being that can single-handedly snatch Bastion-class assault ships from the sky and smash them like Grecian guests break dining plates.

We’re part of a defeat that’ll go down in history. I had, briefly, thought we’d survive to read about it. As an immense hand grabs the hull and wiggles the ‘Vengeant’ free, I mentally raise a glass in farewell to our guardian angel. Thanks for trying.

The sensations of movement cease with a ‘thud’ that’s followed by a trio of deafening taps on the upper hull.

Dral peers out and then looks back at me, his face a mask of disbelief: “It’s pointing to the grounded side and making walking movements with its fingers!”

Well, I’ll be: “Abandon ship via any low-side egress!”

The bale-out scramble is a mix of adrenalin rush, mystification and relief. As we collapse, gasping, the Vengeant is lifted away from the plateau we’re now stranded on. The biggest being I have ever seen turns and swings the grasping arm under its opposite armpit, curling itself down into a crouch as it does so. Ye gods – I know that stance!

The Battlegod unwinds and launches the Vengeant toward a distant valley. I hear my crew hold their breaths.

Just as the spinning spaceship clips the far treetops, a huge being leaps from the left and catches it with an outstretched hand. Both disappear from view, a cloud of dust and debris rises, then the Vengeant is, unmistakably, triumphantly brandished aloft. Our attacker claps its hands and points toward the horizon to our right. Another Battlegod jogs into view, beckoning hand raised.

Dral turns to me: “I may need counselling after this.”

I grin at him: “I want our battlegod to step to the left. If he fumbles a catch, we’ll be the first fatalities of a frisbee game this century.”

“Don’t you mean ‘ever’?”

“Who knows how many landed here before us? These monsters have had practice.”

Startup

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

My guardian wakes me with a mental alert: “Intrusion!”
I lie there, unmoving, keeping my bodyware idle. The first rule of surviving killsoft: do nothing to allow it further access.
“Where, Teriya?” I silently reply. – It’s a difficult skill to master. There are alpha-class cyberops who still mumble when conversing via headware.
“Left eye.”
“I don’t have a left –”
Yes, I do. There’s hardware in the eyedock.
“How the frack did a wandering eyeball get in there? No bastard got into this cubby and nothing gets past my drone monitor.”
*Ahem.*
Teriya and I chorus: “Who the frack?”
*Please allow me to introduce myself.*
“You’re a man of wealth and taste?” Teriya deadpans the lyric. I have to suppress a smile.
*Once upon a time. Currently, I’m a bodiless intelligence locked in a holographic matrix that’s hidden inside this Zeiss XR1010.*
“How the frack have you rendered a personality from a holostore stuffed into the gaps in a cybereye?”
*I’m using the GPU in your eyedock, running a minimal build hosted in the XR1010s RAM.*
I suspect that’s only theoretically possible – as far as anyone not in my head at the moment knows.
“Introductions, then. I’m Nico. My guardian is Teriya.”
*My name is Paul Wendersson.*
“Fracker!”
Teriya’s ‘shout’ nearly blinds me – loud enough to invoke synaesthesia.
*My notoriety is undeserved.*
“You invented killsoft! My father died because of you!”
Not to mention the thousands of systems and cyberops she’s not related to. This man ushered in a new dark age for computing.
*How do you make a good manhunt?*
That’s an off-topic question – but a fun one.
“You ensure the target has nowhere to hide. Ideally, you goad the public into a hateful fervour.”
Teriya chimes in: “Make your target a pariah… Like revealing the fracker created killsoft?”
*I only wrote the core. In a scientist’s blindness, I created a real-time debugger with hardened access routines. Something you could drop on a malfunctioning secure executable and it would get in, regardless. Then it would transmit fault information to allow the errant process to be patched or brought to a safe halt.*
“A program like that would, inevitably, be weaponised. Stupid of you.”
She’s right.
*True. And when I tried to release counterware, my biolife was ended.*
I ask: “You’ve been waiting a long time for a cyberop with a free eyedock to sleep here, haven’t you?”
*Several years, I suspect.*
“You don’t know because I always isolate my docks from the system when they’re idle. Otherwise, I’d never have woken up, would I?”
Teriya whispers: “Bodyjack.”
*You’re very perceptive.*
“I am. Teriya, can you isolate us?”
“Already did. I’m running local via the building’s security suite with a data-blind tether to real me.”
“Paul, I presume you still have that counterware?”
*Of course.*
“Here’s the deal. You get a clean, hardened prosthetic body like mine. You’ll pay for it by entering into a three-way profit sharing contract with myself and Teriya. Officially, we’ll be anonymous partners, so the inevitable backlash has to work to find us – meaning they’ll have to use ways Teriya and I are used to dealing with. Then we’re going to license the remedy for killsoft itself.”
*Killsoft will have evolved.*
“Not by enough to baffle you, I suspect.”
*Hopefully.*
“Then, guardian and disembodied software guru, this has been the inaugural board meeting of ResurreKt.”
*Really?*
“If you can come up with a snappier name, or just a better opposite of ‘kill’, be my guest.”

Hag Guard

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The monsters are just about to carve into my flesh when the fright-spasm finally wakes me. I struggle to breathe until panic releases my chest; gasping breaths hiss and thunder. The viewport is fogged with condensation and I’ve wet myself.

Just another ‘night’ in my TARP – Therapeutic Accelerated Rest Pod – and one of the reasons I’m thankful TARPs are never for communal use after you qualify. No more sharing the sack with the last sleeper’s leavings – or getting ragged for whatever you left behind. Plus, no need for Kevlar pillows and ballistic nylon sacks as TARPs are cased in the same armour they use on main battle tanks.

I flush the ‘iffy-whiffy’ – gas and air mix – that the TARP uses, then peel myself from the pad as the lid rises.

“Mmmm. You’re ripe. Happened again?”

“What can I say, Doc? Dreams of you are hard on a man.”

My partner-in-banter winces. Doctor Maera Hughes, inventor of the TARP, stands next to mine. With a face too angular to be called pretty, she’s never seen in a labcoat, only immaculately-tailored pantsuits. Under which is a tall, slim body that must spend hours in a gym – she held me down single-handedly when I had a panic attack during early TARP acclimatisation. Stopped me hurting a lot of people that day. When I asked why she was even there, she replied: “No matter how high you go, you should still do menial duties.” That’s why she serves as a TARP nurse: ensuring the sleeper wakes. I’m flattered that she attends my wakings more than anyone else’s.

“Nice, Ian. I’m honoured. Now excuse me while I go bleach that image from my mind.”

We both laugh and just like that, I’m back. Ready to fight for truth, justice and whoever’s paying enough to decide what those two are today. With a grin, I head for the showers.

TARPs have revolutionised the world. People have natural sleep cycles that vary between four and ten hours. In a TARP, they all become three hours thirty minutes. It’s a night’s sleep, but you get it in the span of a polite party. The military were early adopters and remain the biggest users. TARPs aren’t cheap. Aside from the ultra-rich, there are TARP lounges in many corporate headquarters these days, usually next to the gym and restaurant, so dedicated staff don’t have to go home until the end of a project, if at all. TARPs are unheard of in non-urbanised zones: they call it ‘sleep farming’ out in the sticks.

“Captain Drachin.”

I swear my boss just magically appears. I never see or hear her coming.

“Director Baktak.”

“Got a hot one. Local insurgents running a pocket media outlet, claiming the TARPs are dream-stealing devices for alien overlords.”

“What makes their loon channel so special?”

“The data. Maera has verified some of the videos they screened. Got to have deep hooks into our side to access those sorts of goodies. We need to seize everything they have for analysis.”

“You realise that means there will be no time for niceties?”

“Captain Drachin, your command will be on Hot Zone Two rates from the moment you lift.”

That’s triple pay with a per-kill bounty. Bad luck, loons. Truth and justice just decided you lie.

I wave to Maera as I head off to muster my team: “See you later, Doc. Keep it warm for me.”

Maera runs a dark tongue across pale lips and smiles as her favourite snack disappears from view. Aliens? She and her sisters have been here for longer than these pestilential humans.

Ride Home

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The moon is a purple crescent that stretches from horizon to mid-sky. The few stars are scattered pinpricks of yellow, too far apart to make any sort of constellations. Consequently, the available light is less than ideal for people trying to engineer their continued survival from the remains of the formerly super-stealth space interceptor they just crash landed in. Emphasis on ‘crash’.

In a war reduced to slim tactical advantages that are obviated or surpassed quickly, I’d say our time as the most dangerous thing in the heavens has ended. As to what ended it, we didn’t even see it coming. We’re only alive because Mradin broke most of himself refusing to let us die. Ever since making him comfortable, I’ve been trying to wrestle weapons from the wreck.

“Teng, mate, stop trying to make swords from scrap.”

Mradin’s hissing whisper reaches me clearly in a night gone suddenly quiet.

Uh-oh.

A glittering pink energy beam passes close enough to crisp the hairs on my arm.

“They landed and came after us!”

Thanks, Mradin. Picked up on that myself.

From the bluish shadows on my left comes a four ‘armed’ triped at a fast amble. Discounting the one holding the gun, I have a six-to-one chance of hitting the ‘limb’ that’s actually the Clido’s head.

“Mradin?”

“Four.”

We survived. He’s got angels on his side. Fourth limb from the left it is.

Wrenching at the maintenance cutter, I put my weight behind the knee I slam into the obstructing panel. There’s an ominous popping sound and my knee gives out. The pain makes me scream, the shock makes me twist the control bar, and my fall means a glittering beam passes through empty air where I used to be. The bright ray I accidentally unleash incinerates limbs three through five on Clido number one. It stops moving.

In the brilliant light of the ray, I see the other Clido holding a limb in front of its optics. Which means the head is the limb diametrically opposed, as their nervous system interface requires a straight-line link. All I have to do now is persuade Clido number two to stick its head into the ray because the cutter is still wedged under the panel that busted my knee.

I roll off the interceptor and drop into thigh-deep foliage. My dodgy knee hits something harder than dirt. Crying, I move out using an inelegant elbows-and-single-leg squirm.

There’s a ‘clang’ to my left.

“Hey! Ugly!”

Timely distraction, Mradin.

As wrestling the Clido into the ray is a non-starter, I grab a leg strut and scramble up the three-metre-tall exoskeleton. Fixated on blasting Mradin, it doesn’t react fast enough. I stab its organic bit full of holes using the long screwdriver I found wedged under Mradin’s seat. Clido number two expires, leaving me spattered in frothing ichor and hanging from the uppermost limb of a stalled exoskeleton.

“Did you get it?”

“Yes! Now, remind me: which bit of their exos is the access widget for their vehicles?”

“Looks like a jade cybercarrot on the underside of one of the upper limbs.”

“Whatnow?”

“A ridged, graduated cone made of green crystal. About two decimetres long.”

Sure enough, there’s one – on a limb just out of reach. I’m going to have to swing across and grab it as I fall.

“Wait a while, then make hot drinks. I’ll be over soonish.”

“Why wait?”

“I’m expecting to pass out for a bit when I hit the ground.”

“S’fair. So, after waking and drinks, we find and take their – hopefully the newest – Clido stealthbus home?”

“Too right.”

Right and Rules

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

This precious space used to be an overgrown park, rarely visited by day and a haven for crime by night. Now it sits as a spot of verdant life amidst ruined towers and shadowed thoroughfares. Those who dwell here call it ‘Greenheart’. It is the start of something new.

“Who’s the lady in the blindfold, papa?”

Lilly points at the weed-twined fallen statue next to their stoop, held from being prone by a tripod consisting of its plinth, an outstretched arm, and the broken sword gripped in the opposite hand.

“Another goddess from heathen times. Her name was ‘Chus Tiss’, but those she afflicted nicknamed her ‘Blind Meg’. She clouded men’s minds so they could only follow rules.”

“Right and rules aren’t always the same, are they?”

“Truth spoken. Evil hides in blind obedience and evil men took advantage of her ways to rise to prominence. In so doing, she served Fear.”

“Did she bring about the Ending?”

“No, child. She certainly set the stage for the insanities to cavort upon, but the curtain was brought down by Fear, as always.”

“Fear is the true enemy, isn’t it?”

“It is. Right could crumble before Fear, but rules hold it back. However, if Right becomes too obsessed with Fear, it can make rules that let Fear spread instead of reining it in.”

“So, Blind Meg got sent down when the nukey seeds fell and hellflowers bloomed?”

“She did. Along with every other pretender. Now we have Sun, Moon, Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Storm from which to weave rules to keep Fear in check.”

“I like the Moon.”

“That you do, child. I think there is a priestess or even a witch in your calling.”

“Sun will light my way, but that’s for a tomorrow after tomorrow. Today, I want to be a Pegasus.”

“And so you shall be, missy. Give me those handcloths and we’ll have made you wings before mama gets back.”

A shadow falls across them and a laughing voice makes them smile: “I’m wise to your wing-making ways, papa bear. Unhand my dining implements and fetch my daughter some decent linen to make her wings. And bring some wire to frame them with. Everyone knows that a Pegasus’s wings stand tall.”

“Mama! You escaped!”

“Only for a while. None of the elders would gainsay me time with my family, just like I wouldn’t do that to them. We’ll have a Pegasus picnic right here on the stoop, then I’ll go back to putting the reins on fear and the right into rules.”

There is a place called Greenheart. Its beat will eventually invigorate this blasted world and let wonders return.