Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
“Pass it.” Jez hisses at me.
“Borrox!” Kate’s disbelievin’: “What it mean, then?”
Lookin’ over the page, I hunt for really long ‘uns: “This word is ‘mountain’. That one is ‘distance’.”
“Bloody ‘ell, you never said you could read!”
I shrug: “Not much. Word here, word there is all.”
“More’n us. You smart, Nev.”
Kate’s adorin’ gaze warms me. I could talk this up an’ get a night in her bedroll. As soon as I think it, I know it ain’t a right thought.
I grin: “An’ you lot still get taken easy. Can’t read a damn thing. Can point out a word an’ lie.”
Jez throws a book an’ I let it hit me, coz it’s not as hard as the disappointment in Kate’s eyes.
Reachin’ out, I touch her wrist: “Like it when you think good o’me. Wouldn’t be right to get closer usin’ lies.”
She smiles an’ offers me a big, floppy book: “Set this in the ashes. When the pages start to curl, light it.”
That’s what I like about her. She loves the silly stuff that don’t help at all, because she’s so damn good at the stuff that keeps us livin’.
Like here. She found this place. It’s at the end of an ice tunnel so long we thought it was only another wurm run. She says it’s a ‘lie-bree’: a place where they stored words so smart people could come an’ get smarter.
O’course, when the deep ice came after the warrin’ finished, there weren’t too many smart people left. People I’ve met only got three answers: smart people either died out in one o’ the wars, died out tryin’ to outsmart the cold, or they got did somethin’ real smart an’ somehow left us not-smart types behind.
Don’t really matter. They left a few good dens. Got enough fuel here for life an’ then some.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The dim room is momentarily illuminated as the door opens to admit two men in dark suits. They sit on the sofa, facing their guest across a low table. The door silently closes.
The left-hand figure produces a badge that glows with a pale blue light.
“You can shed your guise, Blessed. We’re from the Bureau.”
The room is lit like the noonday sun shines above. Both men fall instantly and irrevocably in love. With a quiet rustle, she furls her wings and the light eases to summer evening intensity. The feathered tips of the wings softly brush the ceiling and sparkling dust drifts about.
“Thank you for attending so promptly, Honoured Second Sistrial of the Jadiene Host.”
“The title’s honorary, given my exile. Call me Froxnar.”
“Thank you, Froxnar.”
“I’m surprised. Courtesy and nice furnishings don’t fit your reputation.”
“That’s why it’s a good reputation, ma’am. Terror is still the best non-violent deterrent, after the initial example-setting period.”
The winged figure visibly relaxes with a little laugh that makes everyone who hears it regret their tawdry existences.
“Sadly true. So, how may I serve?”
The figure on the right bows his head: “That would be inappropriate, ma’am. We’re simply here to ask you to change your methods.”
“In what way?”
The man on the left sighs: “The spamming has to stop, Froxnar.”
“But I get such desperate responses. It’s so sad. I can shed a little light on a few lives, though I cannot bestow any gifts. It’s so difficult, having to work via placebo.”
“Your mercy is without limit, as is your capacity to communicate. The world’s infrastructure cannot cope with semi-sentient software that leaves no room for other traffic.”
“Then how am I to make good of my sojourn?”
The two men look at each other. The one on the right replies: “Go back to your old ways. With hospitals and the like so overstretched, a little providence from the high halls will be welcomed. The silence that binds medical staff regarding inexplicable happenings will happily embrace your gifts. Which you will be able to fully deploy.”
She claps her hands in delight. Every minor ailment within a quarter-mile is cured.
The man on the left raises a hand: “We would ask that you limit your boons to miraculous opportunities, though. Sudden outbreaks of mass fitness and honesty may cause harm.”
The man on the right sighs: “Especially the honesty part.”
She straightens, wings spreading. It gets much brighter. Both men don sunglasses, drawn smoothly from their left inner jacket pockets.
“I understand. My miracles will only imbue those who call upon the powers or deserve a respite from their travail.”
The men smile.
“Thank you, Froxnar. May your exile be -?” He pauses for lack of adequate words.
She shrugs: “My exile will, indeed, be. It needs no fair wishing, much that I appreciate the courtesy. We are done, then?”
The room is lit by a flash that cleans every mote it falls upon. She departs. Darkness falls.
The man on the left coughs, then raises his voice: “Lights on.”
They regard each other, black suits turned ash grey on the side that faced her.
“This could be interesting.”
“It could. But there are a lot of people out there who finally have a chance. We can deal with a bit of weirdness to accommodate that.”
“Before that, a visit to Tailoring?”
“Ah, yes. Men in Pale Grey just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?”
“Not even remotely.”
The two men exit the room chuckling.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
John trundles the pallet truck toward the ramp.
“A few of us acquired some things from Centra Medico on your behalf. Doesn’t seem right, just throwing you out.”
He smiles and I hope my embarrassment doesn’t show. ‘Civil war’ is a misnomer. It can be rude and brutal. But, despite the rabble-rousing and the hatred, good people remember that today’s enemies were yesterday’s neighbours, friends, and family.
Seven hundred colonies seceded from the Pax Centra, choosing to make their own way into the great unknown in a loose alliance devoid of big power blocs. After many weeks of negotiation and sporadic violence, it was decided that both sides would repatriate those who wished it and subsequently adopt a peaceful hands-off policy for six Earth months before returning to the negotiating table.
He smiles: “You understand I can’t stay, the Pax Police are keeping watch on any who come near you Free700 folk. Good luck.” He parks the load, shakes my hand, and leaves.
Ellen steps out of his way, then turns to watch him go.
“That man is vile, Jerome.”
I gesture to the pallet: “I wouldn’t go that far, but certainly didn’t expect him to turn up with a batch of shanghaied medical supplies.”
She looks at it, clearly unimpressed: “Nice of him.”
With a shrug, I ask her to close up and head off to check on things in this hastily fitted-out evacuation ship.
Lift off is hard, but everyone makes it. Reaching high orbit, we meet Free700 Cruiser ‘Rubinia’, settle in their cavernous hangar, disembark, and move to the mess hall. We still have a lot of interplanetary logistics to discuss: an exodus this big is without precedent.
An hour later, my attention to the details is waning. I become aware of a lot of running and hushed conversations in urgent tones. As I rise to investigate, two officers run in.
“Did you get a shipment of medical supplies just before you lifted?”
“It’s a thermonuke! Damn Pax just destroyed the evacuation group!”
My vision blurs. How many dead? John, you bastard!
I hear many versions of the same question: “What about us?”
The pair shrug, looking scared.
“Don’t know why we’re still here.”
“I left it behind.” Ellen’s shout silences the hall.
She raises a finger: “Any man who treats his family like John did isn’t generous. When that sort gives, it’s with the intent of taking more. So, when Jerome left me to close the cargo bay, first thing I did was roll John’s ‘gift’ outside.”
Well, I’ll be damned. People are patting her on the back and cheering while the two officers make hasty comms calls. My sister just won another point in our ongoing disagreement about her intuition. This time, she did it by saving the lives of two thousand people.
I pause and grab one of the officers.
“Did a thermonuke just go off at the spaceport?”
He smiles: “Thankfully not. They must have seen Ellen dump it and deactivated it.”
“Do we have any spies down there?”
Now I have their complete attention.
“Neither of us will answer that.”
“I’m not asking you to. I just want a man by the name of John Raberton the Third to find out there are grim consequences for trying to nuke your neighbours.”
They exchange glances. Two thin smiles appear.
“We’re sure that can be arranged, sir.”
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The cooling towers hum less at night, as the temperature drops in the world above. ‘The World Above’. Oh, how our leaders love that title. They use it everywhere, usually presented in ways that used to be reserved for heaven and similar post-death nirvanas.
“Tea?” Susan nudges my arm.
I look down to see a cup of chestnut-coloured brew. I take it, forcing a smile. Susan has adapted better than I. It would be petty to spoil the moment in a fit of pique.
The world was going to hell with fanatics of every stripe hacking at each other while good people were left to shore up the burgeoning masses with steadily increasing taxes. Even corporations stepped in to help governments cope as the global population exceeded all resources.
In better times, the outbreak between North Korea and America would have been limited. However, when Chinese intervention forces rolled into Pyongyang, little Kim let rip with everything he had at every country he feared. He had a lot more than outside observers predicted.
Things quickly fell apart in the aftermath. My grandfather spoke of ‘infrastructural dependencies’. I never realised that meant if you deprive an urban population of basic needs for six days, it’ll turn feral.
Fortunately, father maintained a place in Silo One, a modest six-bedroom affair in the upper tiers. After settling in, it was good for a year. Rationing was tiresome, but proportionate share based upon your gold reserves had been agreed as a fair method. What father had failed to grasp was that his gold trove was, in real terms, trivial. We should have taken residence in Silo Five – where our reserve would have been roughly on par – but father always insisted that one started as high as one could. After his strategies to secure our station failed, he took to gambling to top up his dwindling reserves. When that tactic failed, we found settling debts down here was a merciless thing: mother simply failed to return home one night, as she belonged to someone else! I railed at father until he tried to beat me down, at which point I decamped to Susan’s parent’s place. I found her alone, nursing her mother, as her father had moved in with a billionairess up on Tier Six.
And so, our descent began. Everyone we asked for help denied us – seeing our plight as where they would be if they frittered their reserves on non-essentials like helping others.
I remember the Tiering meeting so well. Susan and I sat, dressed in our best, and not clutching at each other like some desperate couple from a black-and-white movie; which is how we felt.
Mister Grooms summed up: “Roderick, Susan, it saddens us to see members fall. However, there is still a place for you. Mister Tasker will explain your obligations when you arrive on Tier 209.”
Mister Tasker was forthright: “To remain, you will need to earn a token reserve. I recommend choosing cooling tower duty.”
We took the hint and became cooling tower cleaners. One of us worked while the other cared. A year later, both our charges died within a month of each other, cancer taking her mother and alcoholism ending my father. We wept tears of grieving, guilty joy, realising we could change our shifts so we would have time together.
Those below Tier 100 have never seen the upper tiers. They regard Susan and I as curiosities to be avoided. At least we have each other, and, up on these tower ledges, we can pretend for a while.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
We’d been down for a long while before Commander Bramson came up with the idea of linking to the orbiter, getting it to swing into low orbit and tractor beam us off this damn rock. I objected on the grounds that humans can’t extract oxygen from vacuum; the orbiter couldn’t enter atmosphere thick enough to breathe.
“Sure, the ship’s beat up, kid. But the crew section is solid.”
“How the hell can anyone verify that? Our diagnostics and scanners were mangled when the control module got flattened!”
“That’s not the attitude we need. You go ‘bout your duties and leave the serious stuff to us.”
As I leave, Kristin grabs my arm and drags me behind a cargo pod.
“Will you stop kicking off at him? He’s not going to listen, even if you’re right. Always has to be his idea. You know that.”
I know that. But, Bramson’s last ‘bright’ idea planted us in a cliff face that collapsed on us after the ship fell out of it. Which is why I don’t trust his latest piece of inspiration.
Everyone else works like maniacs, morale improved by Bramson’s conviction. Meanwhile, Kristen, Tommy, and I hide what supplies we can as rationing has been abandoned. The pair of them trust me, which, in some ways, scares me more than the situation we’re in.
The moment comes and they all pile in, then peer out at the three of us.
Bramson steps back out: “Come on, Kristen. I know he’s a pretty boy but don’t you let your needs set you on a path to ruin. Tommy! Lars ain’t right. You come here, right now.”
Tommy shakes his head vigorously. Kristen calls Bramson so many names so fast he actually steps back.
“I see you’ve been learning manners from him. Okay, you’ve made your choice. Live with it.”
He steps inside and shuts the hatch. We backpedal quickly as the tractor beam fills the air with pinpricks of light.
I watch it rise through the monocular and well, damn, it looks like Bramson was right. There are no trails of leaking atmosphere. I’m just wondering how to apologise to Kristen and Tommy’s when the crew section pops. It was airtight, but with its reinforcing removed to lighten the load, it wasn’t strong enough to contain the atmosphere.
We stand under a beautiful clear sky, watching the awful result.
As the shock releases us, the monocular beeps: it’s uplink acknowledging the orbiter’s loss-of-life check. The crash and fall out of the cliff hadn’t killed anyone, so as far as the orbiter was concerned, all was well – which caused our problem. But, with a sudden loss of life and confirmed survivors, the orbiter’s rescue beacon will have assistance here within a week.
Kristen turns to me: “Did you know about this?”
“I hadn’t thought it that far through.”
She nods: “Good. Keep that in mind because, in an absence of heroes, the debrief panel are going to be looking for culprits.”
Tommy raises his hand: “Bramson did it. Left us behind.”
We look at Tommy.
“Not strictly true, Tommy.” Kristen smiles at him.
Tommy looks at the sky, then back at us: “Lars disagreed. That’s only insubordination.”
“Tommy, it’s -”
“Irrelevant, Lars. Wasn’t mutiny, so nothing justifies him abandoning Kristen and me. It’s clear dereliction of duty. Throw in crashing the ship in the first place and Bramson will be found incompetent.”
Kristen claps her hands: “Lars saved us!”
Tommy stares at me: “Accident, luck, whatever. You’re good by us.”