Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
That leaden feeling in your gut as you trudge from transport to entrance. The warmth of the lift buttons under your fingertips. Those shooting pains in your head as Maxine punctuates a story of her weekend with piercing giggles.
Your desktop serves up the application screen so slowly it loads in sections, with an irritating pause between each. The completed page seems too bright, input fields needling your eyes with piercing white light.
The rest of the office had great weekends. Cheerful conversations, loud congratulations, and the usual start-of-week complaining all meld into a roar of babbling noise that makes you wince. Through it all, the printer/copier emits despairing beeps, thirsting for toner.
Too much. You break for coffee. The percolator jug is already down to the dregs, but you wring a half cup out by shaking it for every last drop, promising yourself a fresh one as you gulp the gritty mix. That doesn’t help. Your guts spasm at the insult and you try to settle them by drinking half a carton of tepid milk.
Leaving a fresh pot brewing, you stroll back to your desk, able to cope with things by only squinting now the initial hubbub has died down. Blurrily, you note Maxine wandering off.
A sonorous belch escapes as you sit down. It tastes really bad. So bad, you wonder what the hell you ate after Saturday’s drinking binge obscured all hope of memory.
You ate a lot of sushi.
Garnished with me.
It’s too late. By the time you work out you’ve been invaded, you’ll not be running your body. That sensory turmoil indicated your nervous system was in the final stages of being subverted.
Don’t worry, Maxine is on the menu. A few slivers of me-spawn and that giggle will never bother you again. She’s gone into the server room. Why don’t we go and see if she’s feeling alright?
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
By the time the stubborn git drops, I’m not sure if my nose is numb from the cold or from him hitting it. Christ, what a night to be out earning. Snow up to my ankles and only a footie top under my now-torn padded jacket. Dammit, I like this jacket. Had it off a stallholder down Streatham way. Fuck me, must be over a year ago now.
Right, enough of the ‘down memory lane’ bollocks. What’s this hardcase got that he didn’t want me to have?
As my grandad loved to say, “You know when you’ve been tangoed.” Bloody hell but my ribs are giving it some. I’m going to be black and blue tomorrow.
Aye-aye, fancy phone you had, matey. My word but it’s heavy. You stashed something in it, did you?
“David, is that you?”
Was the prick on the phone when we kicked off? No? What the f-
“Hello, bystander. Has my carrier encountered an unexpected difficulty?”
Yeah: me. Hang on, ‘my carrier’?
“Just found him lying out here, miss.”
“I’m not ‘miss’, I’m Prototype Ninety-Three. Now, is David dead?”
“No. he’s breathing. Looks like he’s been mugged: his clothes are ripped and he’s bleeding.”
“Thank you for your assessment. May I have your name?”
Like hell you can. I swing my arm back for a high lob up onto the railway viaduct. That should sort-
“Throwing me away won’t help. I’ve summoned paramedics and police in addition to the armed response unit that scrambled the moment I alerted Centrex of activity I interpreted as melee.”
“Then why the questions?”
“To interrupt any murderous intent and discern your state of mind from voice stress analysis. It also allowed me to conclusively match your voice with that of the assailant.”
I was always too fond of mouthing off when fighting.
“Are you trying to keep me about ’til the plod get here?”
“From your word usage and stress levels, you don’t evaluate as being dim-witted. Delaying tactics would be useless. However, I would appreciate it if you don’t kill David or damage me. Therefore, my survival protocols allow me to offer a deal.”
What the utter fuck is this thing?
“He has a datavault with four thousand cryptoRUP in a sheath on his left ankle. Worth a lot and, more importantly, something he cannot report stolen. By the way: you have less than three minutes before the first weapons drone arrives.”
Wait a minute.
“What’s to stop you giving my voice print to the authorities?”
“You’re going to put me back in his trouser pocket and I’ll delete the log of this incident from immediately after the alert to when I am next prompted by external query. Two minutes.”
Fuck this. I’m gone.
“Deal. I’m putting you back now.”
I grab the vault and do one. Through a fence, down an alley, over a wall, and through the grounds of the cathedral. Exactly two and a half minutes later, I’m buying a jacket to replace the torn one I shoved into a recycler at the edge of Borough Market.
My phone rings.
It’s that voice again: “Thank you, Roger Cerrant of twenty-one the High Street, Balham. As Centrex has deemed you useful, Prototype Ninety-Four will arrive at your gaff – is that the correct parlance? – tomorrow morning. It will be dormant. The activation phrase is ‘Use this or die while serving eight years for robbery’.”
The line goes dead. There’s no trace of the call on my phone.
Oh, fuckin’ hell.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
We’ve had kids stealing our garden gnomes for years. Some came back, some didn’t, and some sent me postcards, usually from Skegness or Blackpool. As years went by, those kids did well. Our wandering gnomes sent postcards from Ibiza and Goa.
The second generation of gnome-nickers went alternate. We got a card from Burning Man and an envelope from Rio containing a risqué selfie, featuring one of our gnomes, that made the wife blush.
I had an idea: I set up a Twitter account so our gnomes could ‘phone home’. I engraved the password on the bottom of each gnome. I’ve only had one idiot reset the password; the inhabitants of the Twitterverse tore him to pieces. Our wandering gnomes have built up quite a following.
Then ‘Ricky’, one of our veteran wanderers, disappeared. We heard nothing for months. The missus and I were beside ourselves. Losing one of our old boys was especially hard.
That Christmas Eve, my phone ‘cheeped’ – a tweet from one of our wanderers had arrived. I opened Twitter and beheld a glorious sunset over a snow-flecked beach, with twin moons above and Ricky perched on a purple rock in the foreground. The accompanying text read “Merry Christmas from Rixneon! We hope you’re all well!”
Unsurprisingly, the tweet caused a bit of a sensation. The photo got vetted to hell and gone, but no revelations were forthcoming. Everybody assumed it was an elaborate hoax.
Three months into the new year, another mysterious tweet arrived: “Hola from Brigdibdis! Having a wonderful time!”. The picture showed Ricky waist-deep in some scarlet liquid with a huge, light-emitting jellyfish-ish thing hanging in the air behind. The liquid extended away into the distance, lit by other jelly things hanging above other groups of people. Some of them looked right odd. The wife said they were ‘cosplayers’. The furor over the second photo was even bigger, but nobody could work out how it had been faked.
Two years after he left, we opened the door early one morning to find Ricky on the doorstep, next to a shiny green stone. There was a drone hovering nearby, and a trio of black trucks acting as a backdrop for the dozen smart-dressed men and women peering over our front fence with looks of embarrassed surprise on their faces.
They excused themselves and departed right quick, leaving a man from HMRC – who had a set of forms for us to fill in regarding our recently discovered ‘heirloom emerald’ – and a woman from the Crown Assayers, who stated she had been “granted power to act”. Which meant she made a substantial cash offer for the emerald on the spot. The man from the HMRC got to fill in the ‘value’ boxes on his forms and by the time they left with gemstone and forms, our bank balance was a lot bigger.
Two months ago, Ricky went missing again. We’ve not had a tweet or even a postcard (some of our ‘borrowers’ still prefer doing things the old way). Herself reckons it’ll be a month or so before the interplanetary gnome-nappers check-in.
If we get another stone like the last one, we’ll be able to make a hefty offer for next door. Give us a bigger garden with room for more gnomes. Besides, the missus says petunias would grow nicely on her next door’s rockery.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
Our fleeing shadows flicker in the strobing light from far-off eppy guns – still enough to hurt our eyes, not enough to drop us.
A while later, Oli gasps: “Where?”
Good question. Sheer luck we’d headed out in search of cold drinks. The block party had turned into a full-on noise riot and any chilled stuff had gone. We were several roads over when the raid hit.
The road sign says ‘Salvington Hill’. I have a mad idea.
We run upwards, crossing into Honeysuckle Lane. Finally, the incline forces us to pause and catch our breath. The houses around us are big and set back from tall gates in taller walls. We’re surely a long way from the urbs.
A green glow outlines a kokuji sign. Hoping, I press the call pad under it. I hear the whirr of a lens.
The relief at hearing his voice nearly drops me. Instead, I brace up and wave.
“Greets, Hanzo. Me plus one and yes, I need something.”
I hear a laugh and the access portal by the gate swings open.
“Follow the path.”
The long, lit path winds a through a garden laid around a network of ponds and streams. Oli’s gawping. I’m worrying.
Hanzo’s leaning on the open door: “You escaped the Muirfield bust?”
I nod and introduce Oli.
He smiles at Oli: “You’re my late brother’s girlfriend. You only came here to obey the ‘clear the streets’ Edict. We haven’t seen each other since Jansi died, two years ago. Things are really awkward because I had a lilac dancing for me tonight.”
He straightens and turns to me: “Which would be you. There’s a spray booth by the swimming pool. Get naked, get sprayed, only put a robe on after you’re dry, then come to the lounge.”
I’m about to ask directions when he snaps his fingers and a beautiful dragonfly drone flits in to hover by his head: “Guide. Swimming pool. Wait. Go command: ‘Dry now’. Guide. Lounge.”
Everyone at college reckons Hanzo has his act together. I guess being second son of Nihonese royalty doesn’t leave a lot of room for being a flake.
His quick thinking means that when a three-man Domestic Army delegation is permitted entry, Crown Prince Hanzo Naruhito quickly explains the situation. He dismisses them before their stares can make me feel dirty.
Oli’s wide-eyed: “Crown Prince?”
He waves deprecatingly: “An honorary title as long as I remain outside of Japan. Children of concubines don’t get to sit upon the Chrysanthemum Throne. Even if everyone dies, the succession ignores me.”
I raise a hand: “What now? My clever ideas ended at remembering your offer.”
“I know you’re an orphan. I presume Oli is a long way from family?”
“Bad news: you’re both homeless. A fire started during the raid. It gutted the place.”
Oli and I exchange panicked glances.
Hanzo smiles: “Steady. I did say ‘anything you need’, and I have more rooms than I can use. Why don’t you live here for a while? The rest we can make up as we go along.”
Oli giggles: “My folks are going to have kittens when they find out I’m living with a Japanese prince!”
I can’t resist: “Wait until those Domestic Army creeps sell all. I can see the headline: ‘Hanzo’s Wild Nights with his Late Brother’s Ex and a Lilac’.”
He sighs: “I do so love the phone calls from home after I get featured on scandal sites. Grandma Tani will be outraged, again.”
“Is that bad?”
He chuckles: “No. Mum enjoys it immensely.”
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.