The Tomorrow

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

There’s a beautiful morning reflecting in the waters of the Donaukanal. On the opposite side to Franz-Josephs-Kai, a young man sits behind an easel and smokes a cigarette between sips of wasserwine: a diluted fermentation that ensures taste and refreshment rather than intoxication. His watercolours will never be hailed as high art, but they make him a modest living when combined with his government stipend.

A woman emerges from the narrow strasse behind the artist, moving toward him with a strangely fixed gaze. That fixation is what allows me to accost her and slip a stiletto into her heart. Only a deep sigh marks her passing.

The artists turns to see me struggling to hold the body up.

“Need a hand there, friend?”

I shake my head: “We’re fine, thank you. Famke just had a little much last night – and this morning, in truth.”

He laughs and turns back to finish his smoke and contemplate the morning. I stagger off with my ‘drunken’ burden until I can find a quiet back alley in which to search the body for anomalous items. Which will also allow me dishevel her beyond anything bar cursory investigation. The police will draw obvious, but erroneous, conclusions. She will be buried in a pauper’s plot. At worst, the artist may be questioned. He’s getting used to that.

Just like I’m getting used to Vienna in the first decade of the twentieth century. And killing misguided fuckwits trying to kill Hitler and ‘save the world’. For some reason, every time-travelling do-gooder seems determined to off Der Führer before he Führer’s himself. Which is absurd. Every time travelling story hits problems with paradoxes or drops into multiple timeline wonderland. There’s a reason for that.

You. Can’t. Fuck. With. History. It’s that simple. There is no scenario where you can kill the bad person’s parents, or the bad person in their nursery, or ‘warn the pilot’, or whatever, thus averting the impending catastrophe. You stop one bad thing and a new bad thing will do far worse whilst effectively achieving the result you tried to avert. Causality is not as you think you understand it. It’s actually the brutal enforcer of a fixed course.

You read that right: ‘course’. Singular.

There is only ONE future that features humanity. It’s not pleasant, but we’re there. Still warring with each other, still exploiting each other, still messing up the planet. Every other future is a flavour of wasteland. I know this to be true and trust me, if I went ‘back’ to the time I came from to find a future where the Earth was devoid of humans but a green and pleasant land, I’d give up trying to return to the future I came from, and stop intervening there and then.

But, so far, there isn’t one. Every time I ‘go home’, it’s a ruin, a crater or an inland sea – which may just be a really big crater, but I haven’t got the time to explore. Because I have to flicker back and check the common interference points for a stray temporally adept hero or heroine – and kill them before they can do their heroic best and end humanity. Again.

I’m getting tired of my involuntary vocation, so I’ve started leaving little stories like this in the hope of influencing future do-gooders. Go volunteer at your local poor people helping place. Find a cure for stupid. Or how to make useful stuff from household waste. Just stay away from the time manipulation thing, because I can promise you it’ll be fatal.

Tactical Rednecks

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The Forward Operating Base is packed: personnel and equipment moving with alacrity in what, at first glance, appears to be a scene of total chaos. Standing quietly to one side, a holonews anchorman lets his videodrone stabilise before starting.

“I’m here today with Captain Riff Bargel of the 263rd MDSCP, better known to homeworlds viewers as the ‘Tactical Rednecks’.”

He turns to the green-uniformed officer standing next to him.

“Don’t you find it offensive to be called that?”

“Who d’you think named us, son? Nobody gives us anything we don’t want to carry. Easier to get your tongue round than ‘the Two Hundred and Sixty-Third Multi-Draft Special Combat Platoon’, too.”

“You don’t sound like an American.”

“I’m not. Every country has a south. Seems that the folks who inhabit those particular areas share certain attitudes, too.”

“Like what?”

“Respect for our elders. Personal responsibility. Stubborn as several hells. Tougher than them hells n’all. We also like to party, shoot stuff, play music loud, and fight. Lords, but we do love a good scrap.”

“What about racist tendencies?”

“When your squad is the only thing standing between you and something that looks like a giant, ambulatory octopus intestine, you tend to forget little things like colour o’skin and which holy book they subscribe to.”

“I see. What about integration issues?”

“Very few. The language spoken by drunk people is intergalactic, we’ve found. Each new intake gets rat-arsed the first night on camp. Next morning, they’re either Rednecks or they took the dawn shuttle back to wherever they came from. Them’s that remain get a memory add-on that handles the rest.”

“You rather colourfully described a Dabbiloch just now. What’s your take on them?”

“Officially, we don’t like them very much. Personally, I say any race what conceals a vicious vertebrate slave ‘n’ cattle subculture from all-comers for fifty years ain’t fit to share space with any of us.”

“What about the claims of anti-invertebrate hate campaigning?”

“Have to seen Sergeant Krakti?”

“No.”

“Look over there. You see that grey-leafed plant, the one with the purple stripes?”

“Yes.”

“Keep watchin’.”

On the opposite side of the field, the ‘plant’ suddenly inverts itself, stands up on its ‘leaves’, and throws two recruits over a truck.

“Good grief.”

“She’s a Lannugeng variform. Also our infiltration and ambush instructor.”

“A better answer than I expected, Captain. So, I see there’s a lot of activity here. What’s happening?”

Riff smiles icily at him: “If I tell you, Corporal Blattastav will have to eat you, and he’s already eaten once this week.”

The anchorman laughs nervously: “Well, that’s a new take on having to kill me if you tell me.”

“I’m serious. We have no idea what sort of implants you have. The good corporal is a full-grown Charven Neosaur. He can digest anything short of one-inch plate steel, and his frequency-baffling hide means no emanations escape, either. Which means you and your devices would be utterly gone.” Riff grins: “So, do you really want to know what’s going on?”

The anchorman turns to his drone: “This is Ike Preston for KDIN, somewhere in the Hyades, signing off.”

“Good choice. Let’s go get us a drink. Then I’ll introduce you to Blattastav; his views on fighting with ‘little people’ are funny as all get-out.”

Hearts and Firebrands

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Dust settles in a silence broken only by the slow drip of shattered optics. The fools who thought it nothing but a bar brawl are either fled, dead, or wishing they had while pretending to be. In the centre of the room, a petite woman in red leathers points a weapon seemingly too big for her at something that resembles a creature from the myths of Old Earth.

Wulf points a furry finger at her.

“Bang.”

Ruby doesn’t blink. The blaster in her hand is steady.

“Oh, come on.”

The weapon doesn’t waver as she spits dirt from the corner of her mouth.

“You ate my grandmother, you son of a bitch.”

“That’s no way to talk about Mumsie.”

She grins: “I’ll talk about her any way I like. Daddy loved her. I didn’t.”

His claw hands twitch, aching to either rend her or draw down on her.

“Now, now, brother Wuff, don’t be doing anything foolish.”

“Don’t call me that.”

Her eyes turn colder: “Wuff.”

His eyes turn red.

Any moment now, she thinks. Her grip on the blaster tightens infinitesimally.

“Ruby Rodenhud, Wulf Rodenhud. Stop where you stand.”

Ruby howls. Wulf blinks, then laughs. His fighting arms drop to rest atop his plain arms.

“You nearly got me to attack, you cow. Good try.”

Shaking his head, Sheriff Dave Donaghue strolls in, stops, and sighs. Those who had been playing dead get up and shuffle out. Dave tags the ones who bear marks of fighting. Officers will detect the markers, added by his cyberware, and nab the brawlers as they attempt to leave the vicinity.

He turns to Wulf: “You hurt?”

Wulf grins: “I don’t get hurt. I do the hurting. That’s why the army paid for these.” He flexes his fighting arms, then ruffles his refractive hyperfur.

“That payment was a gamble, boy. Against you developing the smarts to put the biotech to good use. From what I see, they pissed it up the wall. I messaged the base, yer pass is revoked. Now git yer gear and git gorn.”

Wulf leaves without another word. Dave takes several deep breaths. His accent only cuts through when he’s mightily peeved.

He turns to Ruby: “Put that pistol down, momma.”

Ruby holsters the blaster in a single, practised move.

“But, Davey-”

He raises a hand: “Every. Bloody. Year. Halloween comes round an’ you get to dwellin’ on yer Granny’s passin’, snort too much of whatever you c’n git yer hands on, an’ work up a killin’ fuss. So, fer the last time: Wulf was mid-enhancement. He shouldn’t have been let off the base. The fools who let him out are still in prison. It. Was. Not. His. Fault.”

He takes another deep breath as he slowly lowers his hand.

“But, Davey-”

“No. They tried all the fancy ways to keep you in check, but, deep down, you can’t let it go. That tells me you saw it, no matter what you told the medicos back then, and at every psych eval since. So, we’re done with this. Next year, you’ll be offworld for Halloween.”

Her eyes widen.

He stands a chair up, sits down on it, then looks up at her: “If you’re a very good Deputy between now and then, I might even cut myself a two-week furlough and accompany you.”

Her eyes narrow and the ghost of a smile crosses her face: “Doesn’t my behaviour as your lady friend count?”

Dave laughs: “I can’t judge you objectively on that. And you know it. Leave be, woman.”

A Little Late for Yesterday

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Stan punches my shoulder as I use part of a Glenniser weapon to fix his rifle.

“Is there anything you can’t do?”

I grin and cuff him toward the battle.

Things I can’t do? Her father knew – I can still hear his words: “You fought for my daughter during war. Can you do the same during peace?”

Turned out, I didn’t have a bastard clue how to do that. All the being nice to assholes and ignoring insults from those who hadn’t the faintest clue what we’d been through. I couldn’t see how she did it so effortlessly. It was like she’d always been a lady of Ecra Colony: competent at everything from tasking sanitary nanites to making the assholes do useful things for everyone, not just themselves. It baffled me. Which, I admit, added to my frustration.

Something had to give: in the end, it was Larry Dalde’s right arm. When I saw his service patches, I thought I’d found a brother who would help me work off the fury, just like we always did. When he pretended not to know the ritual, I thought he was ragging me to get a better fight. Actually, he was one of the petty fools who pretended to have served. Standing over him as he screamed, blood spraying from his emptied shoulder socket, I finally acknowledged that I couldn’t ‘do’ peace.

The colony tribunal agreed. They didn’t even let me apologise to her before I was exiled to the frontier. Which saved my life. While I was in transit, the Glenniser renewed hostilities by pillaging a dozen colonies, including Ecra.

“Anders! Left flank! There’s a power suit leading them in!”

I leap from the crater and cross the blasted landscape in ten-metre strides. The power suit’s wearer doesn’t register me until my blast boots hit the side of its torso and do what they’re designed to do: crack it open. We fall in opposite directions, but only I get up. Stan’s already crouched nearby, covering my back.

“Both boots in the heart-side armpit. They’ll have to rewrite the manual for that one.”

“Only if we live to tell. Move!”

Stan’s off and I’m by his side, faster than fate and deadlier than vengeance.

As we clear the ridge and see their forces milling about in the ruins of the colony below, I realise that since she died, I’ve never even allowed myself to think of her name.

It comes out as a whisper, but it may as well be a war cry: “Madeline, I’m home.”

Eldridge

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Doctor Jessup is terribly polite. We’re stirring our coffees before he asks his first question.

“What started it?”

I smile: “Why do they all add up to six?”

“Pardon?”

“You asked what started it. That question is the answer. I can’t remember when it became an actual question, though. I knew about fifty-one and forty-two, then Rory got shot while trying to climb into some facility north of Vegas. Said the Humvee they dragged him into had an ‘Area 24’ plaque on the dashboard. I asked my sources a lot of questions, got answers that ranged from outright ridicule to scrotum-shrivelling religious fanaticism. I let it go. There’s only so much time you can waste.”

He nods, then gestures for me to continue.

“Two years later, I’m on a helicopter bound for Yellowknife.”

His expression conveys the unasked question.

“Oil rig maintenance.”

Another nod.

“Storm came out of nowhere. Pilot saved us, but we all thought our chances were slim, lost in a snowstorm in the wilds of Alaska. Until a camouflaged, balloon-tyred Humvee turned up. It had a plaque on the dash, too: ‘Area 33’. When I asked, they said nothing. Just drove us south for ages, in silence, to a waystation. Then unloaded us, turned round, and drove off.

As soon as I got back to civilisation, I started making a fuss on alternative media. A few people contacted me. Areas 1 thru 30, they’re mainly Nuclear Test Sites. Six is one of the most irradiated areas on the planet.

It took me a long while to work through the rest of the chaff. But, last month, I got down to one area: 60. Not the Philly AA, but some vague location referenced in conspiracies featuring disappearing people, lost villages and flying battleships.”

He puts his mug down: “So what happened?”

I smile: “You did. The timing is too neat.”

Jessup laughs: “You think I’ve been sent by some secretive government organisation?”

Our gazes lock: “Would I be wrong?”

“I’m here at Serena’s request.”

“Just a moment. My girlfriend asked you to pretend to be a doctor?”

“I’m a psychiatrist. Serena asked me to check on your sanity.”

My world lurches. Jessup rises. While I gasp for breath, Serena takes the seat he vacated.

“Carlos, please stop this.”

I do a double-take, then stare at her: “I thought you, of all people, understood. I also thought you were at your sisters.”

She smiles sadly: “Doctor Jessup called, said he’d finally arranged to meet you.”

I feel hot and queasy. As I lurch to my feet, the worried look that flashes across her face decides me.

“Let me take a leak, then we’ll go.” It’s time to stop this, for her – no, our – sakes.

Shakily, I head for the toilets. Jessup has a hand against my shoulder, concern clear on his face. I’m through the door, looking for the sign to the gents, when it hits me: my shoes are ringing on steel deck plates.

His voice has a lazy southern drawl it didn’t possess just now: “Area 60 hasn’t been entirely in-phase since 1943. Getting attention drawn to it makes it more difficult to shift; a limitation loosely related to influencing quantum states by observation, I’m told.”

He stabs me in the back.

Selena catches me as I fall. Over her shoulder, I see the bulkhead door closing on a view of the restaurant – in a reality I’ve just left.

As the lights start to dim, I hear her whisper: “You’re too righteous to recruit, so it’s burial at quantum sea. Goodbye, dear fool.”