Under My Scorched Wings

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

From orbit, this island must look like charred toast floating in a soup of boiled seafood. They’ve rained fire upon us for hours. Not sure what we did, but, as Lailoken always said “It isn’t about what you’ve done, it’s what they think you’ve done, or what they think you’re going to do.”

Another wave of fury crashes across my back. I don’t know why they bother. The rocks won’t burn unless they turn up the heat a lot.

There’s nothing visible left to burn –

Except me.

Ah-ha.

Well, that took an embarrassingly long time to realise. So, Lailoken and just about everything else I’ve ever known have been incinerated during an attempt to annihilate me. An entire civilisation and the land it inhabited laid waste because folk always judge by what they would do. And, given sway over me, them up there would rampage. Therefore, they thought themselves to be in danger, because they didn’t believe that anyone could possibly mean what was said about peace with something like me available.

Callow men and distrust; petty minds never breed noble motives. The goad for the recent unrest becomes clear. Finally, I understand what you said about true prescience being like ‘hindsight in advance’, Lailoken.

But, we are as our natures dictate. In the end, our veneers fall away. For them, cowardice, greed, and tyranny are natural states. I am left with a choice. Do I do as I am capable, as my ‘nature’ should mandate, or as I prefer?

Mgixyn shouts up at me, her voice filled with fear: “Dynas, how will we escape? You can’t carry us all and the fires they throw will slay us even if they don’t hit us.”

She makes a point that contains my answer: I cannot save the children while the bombardment continues. Therefore, the bombardment must end. To stop the bombardment, I will have to break a few things. Thus, preference and capability will meet.

So be it. As the fiery hail abates once again, I twist my neck, bringing my head level with the cave entrance, so all can see me. Although those amidst the clutter at the back will only see a silhouette.

“Stay here. I’m going to ask them to stop.”

They nod and hunker down.

I leap. With a crack that echoes off the far mountains, my wings expand and I rise, shedding debris as I go. By the time I blast through the LEO debris layer, my hide is scoured clean. Levelling out as I clip MEO, I ‘breathe fire’- using a focussed in-system portal between my open maw and a solar flare event. That lets me spray a lot of blazing coronal cloud about. Things get bright as stuff either blows up, melts down or gets blasted to ashes. I can hear their distress calls, but, really, they started this slinging-hot-stuff-around lark. Hardly my fault if I’m better at it than they are. That’s just evolution. Works for hypernatural war machines as well as monkeys.

After re-entry, I descend in a leisurely glide, letting the extremes of my foray dissipate while picking out landmarks for our trip to the coast.

I land in a gust of ash, my claws settling back into the ruts they left.

Wide eyes look up at me. Clamouring voices rise.

“Have they stopped?”

“Is it safe?”

I nod. Their eager preparations are a joy. Sheltered here, they missed seeing the horrors. They will survive.

Under my scorched wings, they will thrive.

And that’s as good an oath as any.

Stain

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m standing a little too close for his bodyguard’s liking, but it’s crowded in here and I have to be sure. I stumble a little and Ileo himself reaches a hand to help. I take his arm and smile. He doesn’t recognise me.
“Thank you.”
“Least I could do.” He’s flirting with his eyes – about all he can get away with. Far too many functionaries about. I see his bodyguard move in.
“Looks like you’re taken.”
He glances sideways at his approaching minder: “Unfortunately, for tonight, it’s something we both must bear. Maybe another time?”
I smile as I step back into the crowd: “Definitely.”
He smiles. I’m gone.

Jonas is his waiter and Elle is his escort. She only got out of bed because serving Ileo pays so much. Jonas rose – from the same bed – because I pay his wages. I watch them exchanging passionate glances whenever Jonas passes the table. That’s unfortunate.

Ileo leaves at oh-three-hundred with Elle on his arm. Jonas changes hurriedly and rushes to meet me.
“Will she be safe?”
I smile as I look up from my phone: “Yes.”
His sigh of relief halts as I taser him with the ‘phone’. Catching his body, I step back into the alley, lean him against a dumpster and stab him several times. Just another mugging gone wrong.
As he slides down, I answer the question in his eyes: “She lives because you’re gone.”

I step out the opposite end of the alley, check my tracking and see that Elle has been dropped off – not that it matters if she wasn’t, but I prefer to be honest when answering someone’s final question.
“This is Hive. This is Hive. Please confirm delegate.”
Right on time.
“Delegate is marked, Hive. Go code is XY671020.”
My touch contained two ingredients in fingertip pads. Jonas’s serving cloth had the activating ingredient, while Elle’s dress and underwear were soaked with tracer elements that would only bond with a microadhesive base made of the first three parts.

Far away on a cypress-covered hill, Ileo steps from his armoured limousine and the stealth drone that’s been orbiting since nightfall locks on. Eight antipersonnel grenades rain down and Ileo goes to meet his maker along with his bodyguard and driver, killed with munitions from a nearby country that most will believe held a grudge.

We came up with how to get away with drone operations over ‘friendly’ soil while at college. I did the time in the military necessary to acquire the obscure skills and contacts we needed.
We formed Hillsdon and Vemas, a.k.a. ‘HiVe’. An international company founded in secret, grounded in anonymity, and based on neutral ground. We provide ‘deniable lethal oversight with global reach’. These days, for an increasing number of people and organisations, HiVe is the ace up their sleeves, and they will pay handsomely to retain – and defend – it.
Our notoriety led to Ileo Vemas starting to doubt our moral standing. Arguments escalated into separation. I changed my face within a month of leaving, then killed those who did the work. It’s taken two years to exploit the protocols of our invisible hierarchy to action his assassination.
My de facto takeover will be a side effect. I did this to wipe away that look on his face. The one he got when he realised I simply couldn’t understand his objections to killing for money. I had to. Just had to. I can’t be as bad as that look suggested, can I?

Life Ritual

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“Two.”

A long time ago, there was a war. A really big, planet-smashing war. Sometime during that conflict, they had a knock-down, drag-out battle nearby. It spanned a couple of systems and went on for many years. When they stopped fighting, there was so much scrap wargear floating about they ‘tidied up’ by somehow corralling it all into orbit about Currachus and stacking wreckage so deep on its twin moons they apparently had to make a third moon to calm the tides.

“One.”

Our scant records continue, saying they didn’t even land. Just stole the sky. ‘Currachus’ means ‘A million eyes in the night’. Our ancestors named our home after the glory of the night skies. Old tales tell of the wondrous sight of the yellow moon ‘Neorthas’ following the green moon, ‘Climia’, against that million-eyed backdrop.

Those skies are gone. My skies are shades of grey with ‘eyes’ that spark briefly as chunks of wreckage grind together. Sunlight is a diffuse, dim illumination broken by beams of brilliant light as reflective fragments align, allowing spears of pure sunlight to reach the ground.

“Loose!”

With a roar of chains and the crash of counterweights, the steel-shod tree trunk starts to move along the ancient slipway. Right on the horizon, I can see the sheets of sparks from where the haul chains crash across the skid plates that protect the canyon edge.

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

I peer at Adrianna. She’s got the faraway look she gets when her imagination overtakes her clever.

“It’s certainly the loudest thing I’ve ever encountered.”

She punches me in the shoulder. I grin. She punches me again.

“You’re an idiot. Our forebears built this to let us escape.”

“They built this in the crazed hope that someone would get lucky before this world finished dying.”

“We’ve brought down so much. Some of it we understand.”

That’s the problem. I look to the ground as I reply: “Yet optimists like you insist that eventually we’ll knock an intact starcraft out of orbit and it’ll survive the drop and we’ll be able to use it. We don’t fully understand the principles of what we’re doing anymore! My father certainly doesn’t, yet he’s Overseer of the Winches. We’re becoming primitives with an annual religious ritual that culminates in hurling a metal-clad tree into orbit to bring down the metal we use to clad the next tree. It’s ludicrous!”

She hooks a finger under my chin, lifting my eyes to meet hers, then shakes her head.

“What would you have us do? Things are getting worse. Every year there are fewer crops, weaker livestock, less children surviving. I’m not supporting a gamble, I’m supporting a desperate purpose that gives our folk the will to live. No, it’s not entirely sane. But, it’s all we have.”

Well, now. There’s a viewpoint I hadn’t considered. One that, sadly, makes sense.

Far away, a dark arrow hurtles into the sky as the final thousand drag weights plummet into the canyon with an impact that shakes the ground where we stand.

I stand up, take her hand, and meet her gaze: “Maybe, this time, we’ll get lucky.”

She stares at me, as if probing my change of opinion, then smiles: “Maybe. If not, I’ve got an idea for how we can do this twice a year, but I need someone who works on the haul to check it before I present it to the elders.”

I gently squeeze her fingers: “Time for you to meet my father’s mechanics.”

The Lies That Bind

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The dim glow of combat lighting is broken by a single white spotlight, which goes out as our new officer scrambles through the side hatch, barely slowing from a flat sprint. I don’t blame him. There’s several varieties of lethal flying about outside.
“Good morning. I will be your tank today. As we are now ready to depart, please ensure all genitals and other munitions are stowed safely.”
The officer rolls over and – her! – eyes are a breathtaking shade of sky blue.
“Good morning, tank. My chesticles are secure, thank you for the reminder. Do I just call you ‘tank’ or do you have a callsign you use when a superior officer is bollocking you?”
There’s a strained silence, broken by the ‘thud’ of the side hatch closing.
“Callsign ‘Gentry’, ma’am.”
She smiles and, just like that, I’m in love.
“Thank you for not mentioning anything involving upright positions, Gentry.”
The piercing eyes look about: “Sound off!”
The crew don’t miss a beat.
“Private Blachent. Loader, ma’am. Callsign ‘Greaser’.”
“Gunnery Sergeant Jones, ma’am. Callsign ‘Jupiter’.”
“Communications Officer Williams, ma’am. Callsign ‘Cleric’.”
“Private Raddle. Driver, ma’am. Callsign ‘Whiz’.”
“Corporal Neun. Driver, ma’am. Callsign ‘Dodge’.”
My turn: “Lieutenant Hallam, ma’am. Callsign ‘Comet’.
The new ruler of our chariot – and love of my life – keeps talking as she swings herself under, round, and up into the command saddle, without a trace of effort showing in her voice: “Captain Lallie Bann. Callsign ‘Spooky’.”
She wiggles herself comfortable: “You call me Spooky at all times, except in the presence of brass. Now, everything says you’re a top tank. So, if you would be kind enough to tell me the truth about Captain O’Donnell, we can get back to being a neighbourhood threat.”
I look about. Everyone’s looking at me. So, I gaze into those awesome eyes and lay it on like a smooth bastard.
“Mitch O’Donnell chose his own callsign. ‘Captain Kong’ is what we had to call him. Failure to do so was punished with a day spent scouring Gentry’s drainage channels. During combat, the Captain was usually involved in something important elsewhere – not that the roster showed that. When he did ride with us, we became a ‘hyena’: picking off damaged units from the outskirts of the engagement.
The last time he rode with us, a drone mine took out one of Gentry’s drives. With the front withdrawing, we were left on hostile ground to fix a massive piece of tank which would then need all of us to hold while Gentry realigned it. We were vigorously discussing Captain O’Donnell’s reluctance to get his kit dirty during realignment when some opposition wandered by and started using us for target practice. To our surprise, Captain O’Donnell volunteered to hold them off while we jury-rigged the alignment. Unfortunately, he sustained fatal wounds during the brave intervention that saved us all.”
She looks at me, the ghost of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth: “I see. So, the accounts of a beleaguered crew fighting both enemy patrols and their own hysterical captain, repelling the former and subduing the latter, all whilst performing an ingenious ad-hoc fix to their tank, are erroneous?”
“Totally, ma’am.” Her eyes narrow. “Totally, Spooky. If we’d subdued him, he wouldn’t have ended up under our wheels, now would he?”
She smiles: “I’d bet that sharply creased uniform gave Gentry the extra traction it needed.”
Gentry interjects: “Captain Kong would have been honoured to know his remains served a purpose.”
Spooky bursts out laughing: “I doubt it, but, it’s more than he deserved. Enough. Move out!”

A Jewel for Seshat

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

They’re leaning on the Antares descent stage. Von is sipping a latte from a little café in Venice. Griddin is swigging real kumiss from a Mongolian bar in Gwanghui-dong. Their view flickers with the pulsations of the environment field that surrounds them.

“Did you have to stop the whole planet?” Von’s tone betrays exasperation.

“Have you seen the analyses of the place? Conflicts, paranoia-level detection systems, distrust everywhere.” Griddin grins: “Plus, conspiracy theorists querying everything, unaware they’re part of our cover and making it more difficult for us.”

“So? They’re a little edgy.”

“Phenomenal understatement. One inexplicable incident and every technotribe with an arsenal and a grudge is going to take a swing at whichever culprit they decide it would be advantageous to blame.”

“Oh, come on. That far from land, it’ll become a legend.”

“There are close ties between our target and the mythological record, some parts of which have attained religious significance. In many ways, a legendary event could be worse.”

Von sighs: “I’m not going to change your mind, am I?”

“The quantum lock is so big the suspension team is having to tap solar energetics to keep it stable. I’ve already got over eight thousand beings deployed under invisibility fields with tractor beams and temporal anomaly generators in case of resynchronisation failures; some of their air vehicles are ludicrously fragile.”

“Why now?”

“The adjacent trench-chain collision zone has already caused the plateau atop the seamount to tilt. This is the only intact Noan Archive ever found. We daren’t risk the slightest damage.”

“But, the whole planet?”

Griddin looks at Von: “The course of least harm. An event so inexplicably huge that most of the population will ignore it or create their own explanations.”

“How much trouble can our locals expect from the fraction of a percent who’re determined to find out what caused their reality to freeze for a while?”

“Nothing. I’ve instigated a complete reset. The persistent few will eventually conclude it was an alien exodus due to the simultaneous disappearances, for all that each missing person case will have sufficient circumstantial evidence to satisfy official investigations.”

“Which will make the re-infiltration exercise even more risky.”

Griddin raises his hand: “No, it won’t. Next time we’ll perform clean, targeted insertions. But only after the datasets gathered by decades of ad-hoc, opportunistic replacements are analysed. In the interim, we’ll simply observe.”

“Observe? My team-”

“Is going to get some well-deserved downtime. Now, speaking of observation, look.”

The blue of the ocean is disturbed by a colossal pentagonal antiprism rising from the depths. Vast waterfalls sparkle as it rises under the careful supervision of a four-hundred-unit gravity suppressor swarm.

Von chuckles: “From here, it looks like there should be an intergalactic jewel case floating just to the right of us.”

“And behind us, a pocket cut from a black hole for it to be tucked into.”

Von laughs: “And who would such a gift be for?”

Griddin turns pensive: “Seshat. Back when we first dropped in, she was a goddess of knowledge; one of their first. She should receive it, by way of apology for us failing to correct that male-centric cultural bias before it set hard.”

Griddin goes back to drinking fermented mares milk. Von considers a reply, then nods and returns to sipping his coffee. Before them, the stupendous ‘jewel’ exits Earth’s atmosphere, heading for rendezvous with a vessel the size of Deimos.