Duty and Debt

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Broadbeam seems heavy tonight. That’s silly. It’s not like I’m holding it myself.
There used to be a thing called ‘karma’. It marked your soul for doing good or bad things. WorldOne tells us superstitions like that are fiction. I wish I believed them.

John and I had been watching the explosions get nearer. TACnet was frantic with attempts to intercept this bunch of mad irregulars who had sparked worlds into riot with their desperate rebellion. Crazy or not, they could fight.
“Incoming.” John whispered.
They came pelting down the causeway toward the Core Gates, a motley crew in mismatched gear waving assorted weapons. I could hear their whooping glee getting quieter as it dawned on them what they faced.
The warmecha we piloted had been designed to be imposing. John had a Bastion, I had an Edifice. His the taller, mine the wider.
They stopped a way back and looked up at us, then one of the women started shouting.
“Join us! We’ve only come this far because many troops let us. It’s time for the despots to fall and the people to determine their own worth, their own way!”
I knew her. She’d been at the Academy: Stalli. Still beautiful despite the grime from days of fighting.
The man behind her waved his arm. I saw the bracer of a Star Marine.
“She’s right. This time, let’s fight for ourselves! Let’s put our families and friends before the interests of the conglomerates. Let’s bring the towers down!”
And what could replace the towers? They housed the machines that fed forty percent of the population, maintained by those doing civic penalties. How many would die while this rebellion spread, sputtered, and maybe, eventually, stabilised into some sort of peace? With the Core gone, what outcome could keep the supply runs to the frontier settlements going? One of those settlements, Chriaster, was my homeworld: an unforgiving place. If the freighters are late, people die. Would these rebels even know it without looking it up? No, that was unfair – WorldOne has too many planets for one person to know them all. But, then again, what about Widenet? The military looks after the satellites that provide it – a thankless task that keeps the most essential lifeline of all working. If things fell down, who would volunteer to keep the details of our civilisation going? Sorry, Stalli, but your idealism provides no gentle route for the populace to get to your utopia from here.
I was about to announce my decision when the Bastion slammed its fist through my head. John had decided I’d not cave and gone for a pre-emptive strike. In his haste, he’d forgotten the head of an Edifice only houses sensor arrays.
They were still shouting support when my broadbeam sliced arm, head, and half of John off the Bastion. I didn’t even recalibrate, just swung the broadbeam round and down. I’ve seen what it’s like to die from broadbeam injuries. Better they went quickly.
I burned them down. Couldn’t look at their faces, just watched their sensor silhouettes fade, one by one.

I made a choice. Still not sure if it was the right one. The rebellion continues. The rebels have a bounty on my head so big my family has had to emigrate. WorldOne promoted me, yet no-one will stand guard with me.

So, when you finally die, this karma thing checks how much good and bad you have marked on your soul, then decides what your soul comes back in.
I’m not convinced I’ll be coming back.

The Greatest Conspiracy Ever Revealed!

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“You’re going to record this?”
“Of course. The world must know.”
“So, this is where I’m supposed to tell all about the nefarious schemes my diabolical organisation has planned?”
“Something like that.”
“About the slaves working on Mars to build colonies for the elite to retreat to when this world dies?”
“Come again?”
“Or maybe I should regale you with the true history of this world, of the stealthy yet unshakeable grip of our shape-changing reptilian overlords, and their taste for virgin flesh?”
“Get serious.”
“And reveal the dastardly plots of the insane cults that worship blasphemous entities from beyond the rule of space and time, entities who lurk at the very thresholds of our reality, waiting for the stars to align and the rituals of their fanatical devotees to let them loose upon us?”
“Oh, come on!”
“But wait! Who is to say that my telling of alien overlords from the depths of space, who rule us all with misdirection and mind control, whilst secretly stealing succulent mammals for their abattoirs on the dark side of the moon, is not a revelation too far?”
“You’re not enlightened, you’re bonkers!”
“Really? Can you tell me that our darkening, proto-dystopian societies are not being driven into feudalism by the clever manipulations of an ancient vampire hierarchy so powerful that even the ultra-rich know their only recourse is to party and enjoy endless idylls because they will never truly rule?”
“Vampires, now?”
“Alright, then. What about the fabulous cities in the lightless depths of our oceans, home to the first intelligent race of this planet? What of the secret treaties that exist, forever banning us from certain parts of the sea? Treaties enforced by the threat of the annihilation of mankind’s latest civilisation, just like they’ve done several times before.”
“I’m going to have to apologise for this.”
“To who?”
“I had no illusions about escaping the aftermath of this kidnapping with proofs intact, so I’ve streamed this live, through some literary correction and formatting utilities, to an online fiction site I occasionally ghost-write for. It’ll be front page one day next month.”
“Oh dear.”
“Why say that? You win! I can’t draw public attention to a lunatic exposé like this. I’ll be ridiculed.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’ll be dead.”
“As will I.”
“You see, in my haste to have you dismiss me as a fool, I told a truth.”
“When the transcript gets published, they will quickly discern who I am. From that, they will certainly be able to determine who you are. We’ll be killed.”
“I’ve heard a lot of empty threats while investigating. You’re not convincing.”
“There’s nothing empty about it. Dangerous things will be instructed to hunt us down and execute us.”
“You’re crying!”
“I suggest you put your affairs in order, young man.”
“You’re actually convinced of this lunacy!”
“Quite frankly, you should kill yourself.”
“I will only suffer an abrupt, messy death. You, on the other hand, they will not ask gently, nor will they be persuaded by any truths you tell – unless they are verified by your agony. And, regardless of what you offer up, they will cull your friends and family just to be sure.”
“You’re delusional! Give me a few minutes, then you can leave.”
“Very well.”
“Not going to wish me luck?”
“Luck is not a factor. We’re dead men walking. Enjoy the next few days, then end it on the day the transcript is published.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m out of here.”

The Skies of Home

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’ve shipped many things since the day I left Oktoberfeld. Some legal, many dubious, a few contraband, and nineteen wanted beings. Technically, this is my twentieth.
The job came with some unusual aspects. On a ship like mine – one of the many ‘fireflies’ that flit about the universes delivering the stuff that everybeing needs at prices everybody can afford – a fully sigilled commission was unheard of. The metre-square piece of parchment with its ribbons and wax arrived in the hands of Raine Deckham himself. The ‘Rhamphorynchus’ was being chartered to bring his brother home.
Cargo that wants a view travels in the stateroom. It has a private access to the galley along with a huge starboard-facing window siding the lounge. About as serene as this spaceship gets, because little ships are never quiet.
Raine brought a case full of peripheral noise suppressors. I didn’t know you could get them that small. Consequently, my lounge is still and silent. Disturbingly so. His words carry clearly.
“Nearly home, Doone. Mama’s done the Hazrien lamb you love. Papa picked up Lurina at the ‘port. It’s going to be the first family gathering in twenty years.”
The commission also stated ‘no monitoring’, but this is my home as well as my ship, so I left one basic view-and-listen at floor level. I’m watching now. Can’t take my eyes off it, to be truthful.
There’s a handsome man in a blue and chrome tuxedo sitting on a titanium coffin, candlelit colours almost lost in silhouette against the brightness of the planet that rises across the view. His eyes shine in the light, tears falling as they have done ever since we dropped from transit space into the Deckham system.
“You’re going to love the bower Elspin and Christopher built for you, Doone. It looks out across the Parmadan Falls, set so the evening sun turns the mist to gold, the thing you always said you missed while out amongst the stars.”
Doone Deckham might never have been notorious if he hadn’t been a hero. War turned him into a fierce leader. It also taught him about his love of killing. After the war, he couldn’t stop. A hero who won every battle except the one with the psychopath that lived inside him. That battle was finally won two galaxies and at least fifty murders away, when a Shramni veteran killed Doone as Doone killed her.
“You can rest easy, brother. The hungry dark that stalked your dreams has laid down. No more nightmares, Doone. There’ll always be abeyance candles lit.”
That explains the candles! A naked flame requirement that nearly drove Eddy, my systems tech, round the twist coding exceptions into our watch routines.
“There are no spirits of vengeance to hunt your soul, Doone. Mama wouldn’t have it. She insisted we handle all the rites.”
Which explains why the Deckhams have always paid death dues for every victim in full measure and without attempt at mitigation.
The orbit alarm chirps quietly throughout the Rhamphorynchus.
He pats the coffin.
“Rest ye, son of Deckham. The skies of home will bring renewal.”
With that, Raine stands up. As he wipes his eyes and turns away from the coffin, I catch his whispered words.
“Sleep well, little brother.”

To a Flame

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“Everybody ready?”
“Hell, no. I want to go home.”
“I didn’t ask where you’d rather be, Andrei. I want to know if your suit is sealed so you don’t give us away.”
Muted assent follows Don’s outburst. There’s no more banter. I wriggle forwards and bring my night-eyes online. Peering at the green and grey world about me, the side screen shows the infra-red view. We’re all part of the ambient heatscape. No hotspots.
Sylvia whispers: “Down there. Ten o’clock.”
A hotspot: walking quickly, shoulders hunched. Just a sensible citizen on their way home after a late night.
Don’s words focus us: “We’re on. Watch the low sky.”
‘Low sky’ is the space between buildings. What we seek doesn’t traverse open sky, or so we think. That’s one of the things this project was set up to prove.
When you’re looking to do interesting things with biotailoring, everyone looks about and sees what niche needs a fancy bioform to fill it. From swarms of personal defence wasps to anti-drone bats, the innovation comes from looking forward for our benefit.
Fortunes are made or lost, speculating on the AB – artificial biodiversity – market. Of course, where money making is involved, risks are taken. Surprisingly, nothing disastrous had occurred. This science-cum-art works within rigid boundaries that are still being fully defined. Until then, the layman’s understanding is as good as any: you can’t diversify beyond what nature could create, or has created.
Someone took that rule to heart, then went looking in places no-one else had gone: far backwards.
Madeleine sounds excited: “There! Left of the Marksin Tower Hotel.”
It takes a moment for it to get close enough to make out, then the comm fills with wordless exclamations of awe.
Swooping round the building at the edge of our zone is a grey shape that flashes white highlights to our enhanced vision. The audio sensors prove this thing’s traveling at over forty MPH, yet quieter than an owl.
Don quietly opines: “Flying cudgel.”
As if on cue, the winged form brings its wings in and drives down in a shallow stoop. It’s doing nearly sixty when it hits the hotspot. The crunch on impact makes me shudder.
Andrei replays the strike: “Base of the skull, slightly left of the spine.”
My area of expertise: “Unconscious and/or paralyzed. Not sure body armour would have helped, either.”
The hotspot falls and is shrouded by the wings of its slayer. Audio picks up a tearing sound, followed by little noises that raise my hackles.
Sylvia’s tone betrays no emotion: “That explains the skull trauma and post-mortem throat damage. It mugs its prey for their blood.”
“Size?” Don’s always interested the threat, not the aftermath.
Madeleine’s had a chance to check Andrei’s footage.
“About a metre and a half of body, with a three-metre wingspan.”
That gets to Sylvia: “I never want to be out at night again.”
About sums it up, too. We have proof. Now we have to find the mad scientist who made this nightmare. Moths used to have mouthparts instead of a proboscis, we know that for a fact. That their fascination for light could be the vestigial remains of hunting by heat-seeking is either crazed intuition or vicious addition. Flying at the light being the remnant of their killing strike, likewise. Speculation on origins aside, the world now has what we’re calling ‘Norian Moths’. Judging from reported deaths with the same tell-tale kill marks, and the diversity of victim species, they’re already widespread and well-established.
“Bioterrorism using giant vampire stealth moths? Oh, hell no. Now can I go home?”
Don chuckles: “Put the kettle on. We’re all coming with you.”

Apocalypse Poet

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Do you see the snow as it gently falls?
Can you feel the frost as it climbs the walls?
How do you feel now our world is gone?
Why did you leave us to carry on?

Well, ‘us’ may be a bit of a stretch, but ‘me’ is too cliché. After all, I have the critique of future readers to consider. Whatever they may be.

Excuse me. I’m Giles Rapson Drew, car salesman, stock trader, poet, husband, father, and – of late – childless widower. I’m also the sole inhabitant of Hove in East Sussex, formerly a town, currently an expanse of icy rubble on the southern coast of what used to be Great Britain.

In truth, the only things I was ever good at were writing and being a father. But the pressures of life and career made writing a secondary thing, for odd moments snatched from the month. After all, whoever made money at writing stuff if they didn’t get lucky?

A world heading for peace at last. That’s what we were told. The Moscow Accords, the Pyongyang Treaty, the Pacific Alliance; things were settling nicely.

I still don’t entirely understand what went wrong. Some lunatic I shared a bolthole with raved about ‘legacy automated systems’ left over from the Cold War: never updated and so hair-trigger they would activate even if the missiles they detected were part of a different war.

Whatever happened, it happened too fast for anyone to prepare for. On the Thursday before Christmas, Sandra took China and Grace to shop in London. When the newsflashes started, I couldn’t associate the pillars of white light and rings of fire with a place where my wife and twin daughters had been listening to carol singers and looking forward to meeting Santa. By the time I finished screaming, Europe was aflame. Whimpering, I ran through the house, pulling on coats and overboots, then hurled myself down the garden, levered the padlock off the abandoned power substation and threw myself into the gullies under the rusting machinery.

The blast obliterated Brighton and, but for our place being on the lee side of a hill, would have ended me too. As it is, I staggered out into a world I didn’t recognise and swiftly fell into a semi-feral existence that lasted for quite a while.

Since then, I’ve scavenged. I think it’s no more than three years since the world ended. I see no indication of any other outcome. To pass the time, I write. A stationer on Church Road had a storage room converted from a World War II bomb shelter. It’s got a steel door, air vents, passable drainage, and is filled with paper and pens. An army surplus store up the hill had similar but smaller facilities loaded with dried food and other survival sundries, all of which I’ve dragged here.

Outside, it’s an empty, quiet world. I see crows and foxes, but little else bar a rather aggressive variety of giant cockroach which seems to have done for the rat population and most other small creatures.

There’s a candle under an upturned flowerpot heating the room. I’m bundled in blankets and surrounded by paper: on my left, blank. To the right, written upon. I have become quite prolific.

Here I sit in this hellish survival,
Waiting for sign of humanity’s revival,
In a place that’s not big enough to hold my sorrow,
I still wish my girls would come home tomorrow.