Shipmates

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

He stands near three metres tall and his smell precedes him. It envelops all who dare approach the being renowned for murderous piracy on a scale never before seen. The wiry lad he towers over is, nigh-impossibly, even filthier. Both are in sharp contrast to the gleaming vessel they amble through.

“I be Flint. This be me tub, the ‘Black Harrier’.”

“What’s a ‘arrier?”

“A bloody great ‘awk known for ‘avin’ a mean streak. Likes what I get when swabs get nosey.”

The watery eyes in the grime-caked face blink. The mouth beneath snaps shut.

Flint nods: “Fast learner, ay? Good.”

The master strides forth on his gleaming trio of cyberlimbs. The rookie hurries to keep up, stumbling a little as his innate understanding of pace struggles to allow for a drunken gait complicated by three weaving legs.

“We use ta do our piratin’ in the ol’ overwhelm, ‘eave-to, an’ board way. Cost me four ships an’ so many crew it got to botherin’ me. Not that I gives a damn ‘bout you swabs, but replacin’ ya takes time an’ money, an’ I begrudge anythin’ what takes either offa me.”

He points up at the clusters of gleaming tubes high above: “Nowadays, I uses narrow beams to punch clean through me prey. Got me a wizkid who pulls up skee-ma-ticks so I knows how many bulkheads any tub ‘as, then I punches so many ‘oles they can’t stop the decompressin’. Then we just moves in an’ tows the hulk to one of me strippin’ stations to get cleaned out. What’s left is sold for scrap. Even got me contacts what buy body parts. O’ course, if we gets a high-value catch like a governmint boat or elite barge, we strips it on the spot an’ sends it into a nearby star. Thems the only scows likely to get a big fuss made over their disappearin’.”

Flint stops and looks down at the rookie: “Seems to me I sees a question in yer eyes. You be wondrin’ – if I be doin’ blast piratin’ – why I needs more men. This game be notorious for makin’ crews smaller. Space is fillin’ with bands o’ starvin’ brigands, every man-jack o’ ‘em bein’ dross dumped by their former Captains.”

The rookie nods.

Flint grins: “I like you. Got a fast grip o’ the essentials. Well, chew on this. I got shot o’ the dead weights on me crew right sharpish. All what remained was good, ‘ard, pirat-ee-cul scum. Trouble is, blast piratin’ got no fightin’. It’s all pree-zish-un. Thems what joined coz their souls havta fight hit dry times. An’ we all knows that a man who needs a fight can surely make one ‘appen, ‘specially in the comp’ny we keeps.”

The stinking Captain crouches down, extending a tentacle to pull the rookie up from where a cyberleg has knocked him.

“I seen ya, Krilla. Yer fast and ye pays yer dues. Steely when ya hazta go ‘ard, but got no need ta fight burnin’ under yer ‘ide. You’ll be replacin’ Dokfun: a lean, mean, sharp bein’ with a devil inside ‘e couldn’t shake and wouldn’t bring t’heel. ‘E started that fight to ease ‘is bloodlustin’ nature. You ended ‘im instead. Puttin’ that wit’ all else, I feels yer a man I can use and I’m offerin’ riches for yer time. You with me?”

Krilla smiles.

“That I am, Cap’n.”

The new shipmates stroll off toward the messdeck, followed by a discreet cloud of cleaning nanobots.

Bad Cyber

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The Amour Club is light on love and heavy on by-the-minute. It’s popular with non-johns as the full-time privacy mode prevents surveillance and squashes infobuzz down to a whisper of priority feeds.

I usually enjoy being anywhere that quietens my ConstantTouch and serves JD in liquid form. But the Amour’s regulars are lowlifes who’ll never make it, because talk is cheaper than decisions and appearances are cheaper than experience. Tonight, however, I’m being paid to put up with them for a while.

“Lincoln Shields, as I live and breathe. Who cracked your rock and drove you into the light?”

The comedian on my left is Vinny Roe. The cybernasty on my right is Vinny’s latest goon, Clem. No surname on record. No specialities, either; he’ll do anything that pays him to hurt people.

Vinny waves at the ancient robot bartender – this place is so cheap it won’t even hire an android.

“Get Mister Shields another of whatever mouthwash he’s having. I’ll have Venusian Absinthe.”

Making a production of getting a RealTaste Winston out, I pocket the pack, then pause with a bulky lighter in my hand: “Why the generosity, Vin?”

I see him wince. He hates being called that. I hear Clem’s Gaffin Bodyframe power up. Time to offline my cyberware.

“Can’t a condottierre buy an old comrade a drink without implying ulterior motive?”

He’s been at the thesaurus datachips again. Just what I need when the world has turned dull and my body weighs a ton. I hate being offline.

“We’re not comrades and you never led. If you didn’t keep avoiding me on the streets, we’d have fought and I’d be drinking alone.”

Vinny stiffens. The locale goes quiet. Different jungle; same danger signs.

A skeletal hand wrapped in Gaffin exoskeleton alights on my shoulder like a twenty-kilo parrot. I hear my tendon reinforcements squeak.

“Mister Roe don’t like your tone, Lincoln.”

“Mister Del Crista didn’t like what you did to his daughter, Clem.”

I see Vinny’s eyes go round, which tells me Clem’s making a move. I squeeze the very special lighter and it compresses with a ‘click’. I feel the EMP gallop up my arm and wallop my inactive headware. My vision goes squiffy and my guts flip-flop. I wouldn’t want to have active cyberware right now. Or be bonded into a street-spec exoskeleton – something like a Gaffin Bodyframe.

Clem squeals, gargles, and oily vomit spatters my shoulders.

As the semi-synthetic mess runs down the back of my duster, I turn to look a dying murderer in his one natural eye.

“You went too far with bodmods, yet still expected women to swoon over your implanted macho bollox? That would be sad, except for your problem with rejection. You had yourself hardwired for violence. Did you really think your cyberpsychosis wouldn’t get bloodily creative when a pretty girl slapped you? Or didn’t you care?”

No answer: I’m ranting at a corpse.

Bringing my wares back online, I turn back to see Vinny draped across the bar like a cheap overcoat. A quick status check via his medihost confirms that his half-cybered ticker wasn’t EMP-hardened like all the legal ones are.

I slide him off the bar, then reach over and take the bottle of JD from the EMP-fried bartender’s grip. Pouring a shot, I turn to eyeball at the surviving punters.

“Word of advice: never skimp on your bodmods, people. Cheap cyberware will always fail you when you need it most.”

I down the shot and leave. The crowd parts before me, then mills about indecisively behind. Like I said: never going to make it.

War Games

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m impressed: the manufacturer’s claim was true. C-NhD – Compressed Nhildentium – really does make a ship unbreakable.

“Sir, the worst casualty is Engineer Ruson: both legs broken. Apart from that: cuts and bruises.”

I treat Dral to my best expression of disbelief: “How?”

“It spun us, sir. Everyone was pinned to a solid surface. By sheer luck, the majority were backs to the impact.”

I’ll be drinking a half bottle of brandy with our guardian angel as soon as we get out of this.

“What’s our manoeuvring capability?”

“None, sir. We’re embedded in a cliff face.”

“Can we blast our way free?”

“It’s a two-kilometre drop, sir.”

“Use launch boosters?”

“Tubes are buried in the cliff, sir.”

I perform a mental orientation from that info.

“So, presuming we’ve lost both turrets, surviving weapons will only fire along the cliff face?”

“You presume correctly, sir.”

“Looks like we’re going to have a chance to enjoy the view, Dral.”

He stares out the viewport.

“A pity it’s too narrow to climb through, sir.”

“I like the way you skipped the gargantuan task of breaking supraglass.”

Ensign Clemming interrupts: “It’s coming back!”

Barkdanta is a vast planet. The Barkdantim are giants by our standards; their planet is sized to keep them humble. The vistas here are beyond spectacular. Cloud-decked mountains soaring kilometres into the skies, trees that make skyscrapers look feeble.

And ‘Battlegods’. We thought the Barkdantim were threatening us with mythical vengeance because they couldn’t face us. In fact, they were desperately warning us because their Battlegods cause havoc when roused to defend the planet.

I cannot describe the terror of seeing a mountain fall apart to reveal a being that can single-handedly snatch Bastion-class assault ships from the sky and smash them like Grecian guests break dining plates.

We’re part of a defeat that’ll go down in history. I had, briefly, thought we’d survive to read about it. As an immense hand grabs the hull and wiggles the ‘Vengeant’ free, I mentally raise a glass in farewell to our guardian angel. Thanks for trying.

The sensations of movement cease with a ‘thud’ that’s followed by a trio of deafening taps on the upper hull.

Dral peers out and then looks back at me, his face a mask of disbelief: “It’s pointing to the grounded side and making walking movements with its fingers!”

Well, I’ll be: “Abandon ship via any low-side egress!”

The bale-out scramble is a mix of adrenalin rush, mystification and relief. As we collapse, gasping, the Vengeant is lifted away from the plateau we’re now stranded on. The biggest being I have ever seen turns and swings the grasping arm under its opposite armpit, curling itself down into a crouch as it does so. Ye gods – I know that stance!

The Battlegod unwinds and launches the Vengeant toward a distant valley. I hear my crew hold their breaths.

Just as the spinning spaceship clips the far treetops, a huge being leaps from the left and catches it with an outstretched hand. Both disappear from view, a cloud of dust and debris rises, then the Vengeant is, unmistakably, triumphantly brandished aloft. Our attacker claps its hands and points toward the horizon to our right. Another Battlegod jogs into view, beckoning hand raised.

Dral turns to me: “I may need counselling after this.”

I grin at him: “I want our battlegod to step to the left. If he fumbles a catch, we’ll be the first fatalities of a frisbee game this century.”

“Don’t you mean ‘ever’?”

“Who knows how many landed here before us? These monsters have had practice.”

Startup

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

My guardian wakes me with a mental alert: “Intrusion!”
I lie there, unmoving, keeping my bodyware idle. The first rule of surviving killsoft: do nothing to allow it further access.
“Where, Teriya?” I silently reply. – It’s a difficult skill to master. There are alpha-class cyberops who still mumble when conversing via headware.
“Left eye.”
“I don’t have a left –”
Yes, I do. There’s hardware in the eyedock.
“How the frack did a wandering eyeball get in there? No bastard got into this cubby and nothing gets past my drone monitor.”
*Ahem.*
Teriya and I chorus: “Who the frack?”
*Please allow me to introduce myself.*
“You’re a man of wealth and taste?” Teriya deadpans the lyric. I have to suppress a smile.
*Once upon a time. Currently, I’m a bodiless intelligence locked in a holographic matrix that’s hidden inside this Zeiss XR1010.*
“How the frack have you rendered a personality from a holostore stuffed into the gaps in a cybereye?”
*I’m using the GPU in your eyedock, running a minimal build hosted in the XR1010s RAM.*
I suspect that’s only theoretically possible – as far as anyone not in my head at the moment knows.
“Introductions, then. I’m Nico. My guardian is Teriya.”
*My name is Paul Wendersson.*
“Fracker!”
Teriya’s ‘shout’ nearly blinds me – loud enough to invoke synaesthesia.
*My notoriety is undeserved.*
“You invented killsoft! My father died because of you!”
Not to mention the thousands of systems and cyberops she’s not related to. This man ushered in a new dark age for computing.
*How do you make a good manhunt?*
That’s an off-topic question – but a fun one.
“You ensure the target has nowhere to hide. Ideally, you goad the public into a hateful fervour.”
Teriya chimes in: “Make your target a pariah… Like revealing the fracker created killsoft?”
*I only wrote the core. In a scientist’s blindness, I created a real-time debugger with hardened access routines. Something you could drop on a malfunctioning secure executable and it would get in, regardless. Then it would transmit fault information to allow the errant process to be patched or brought to a safe halt.*
“A program like that would, inevitably, be weaponised. Stupid of you.”
She’s right.
*True. And when I tried to release counterware, my biolife was ended.*
I ask: “You’ve been waiting a long time for a cyberop with a free eyedock to sleep here, haven’t you?”
*Several years, I suspect.*
“You don’t know because I always isolate my docks from the system when they’re idle. Otherwise, I’d never have woken up, would I?”
Teriya whispers: “Bodyjack.”
*You’re very perceptive.*
“I am. Teriya, can you isolate us?”
“Already did. I’m running local via the building’s security suite with a data-blind tether to real me.”
“Paul, I presume you still have that counterware?”
*Of course.*
“Here’s the deal. You get a clean, hardened prosthetic body like mine. You’ll pay for it by entering into a three-way profit sharing contract with myself and Teriya. Officially, we’ll be anonymous partners, so the inevitable backlash has to work to find us – meaning they’ll have to use ways Teriya and I are used to dealing with. Then we’re going to license the remedy for killsoft itself.”
*Killsoft will have evolved.*
“Not by enough to baffle you, I suspect.”
*Hopefully.*
“Then, guardian and disembodied software guru, this has been the inaugural board meeting of ResurreKt.”
*Really?*
“If you can come up with a snappier name, or just a better opposite of ‘kill’, be my guest.”

Hag Guard

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The monsters are just about to carve into my flesh when the fright-spasm finally wakes me. I struggle to breathe until panic releases my chest; gasping breaths hiss and thunder. The viewport is fogged with condensation and I’ve wet myself.

Just another ‘night’ in my TARP – Therapeutic Accelerated Rest Pod – and one of the reasons I’m thankful TARPs are never for communal use after you qualify. No more sharing the sack with the last sleeper’s leavings – or getting ragged for whatever you left behind. Plus, no need for Kevlar pillows and ballistic nylon sacks as TARPs are cased in the same armour they use on main battle tanks.

I flush the ‘iffy-whiffy’ – gas and air mix – that the TARP uses, then peel myself from the pad as the lid rises.

“Mmmm. You’re ripe. Happened again?”

“What can I say, Doc? Dreams of you are hard on a man.”

My partner-in-banter winces. Doctor Maera Hughes, inventor of the TARP, stands next to mine. With a face too angular to be called pretty, she’s never seen in a labcoat, only immaculately-tailored pantsuits. Under which is a tall, slim body that must spend hours in a gym – she held me down single-handedly when I had a panic attack during early TARP acclimatisation. Stopped me hurting a lot of people that day. When I asked why she was even there, she replied: “No matter how high you go, you should still do menial duties.” That’s why she serves as a TARP nurse: ensuring the sleeper wakes. I’m flattered that she attends my wakings more than anyone else’s.

“Nice, Ian. I’m honoured. Now excuse me while I go bleach that image from my mind.”

We both laugh and just like that, I’m back. Ready to fight for truth, justice and whoever’s paying enough to decide what those two are today. With a grin, I head for the showers.

TARPs have revolutionised the world. People have natural sleep cycles that vary between four and ten hours. In a TARP, they all become three hours thirty minutes. It’s a night’s sleep, but you get it in the span of a polite party. The military were early adopters and remain the biggest users. TARPs aren’t cheap. Aside from the ultra-rich, there are TARP lounges in many corporate headquarters these days, usually next to the gym and restaurant, so dedicated staff don’t have to go home until the end of a project, if at all. TARPs are unheard of in non-urbanised zones: they call it ‘sleep farming’ out in the sticks.

“Captain Drachin.”

I swear my boss just magically appears. I never see or hear her coming.

“Director Baktak.”

“Got a hot one. Local insurgents running a pocket media outlet, claiming the TARPs are dream-stealing devices for alien overlords.”

“What makes their loon channel so special?”

“The data. Maera has verified some of the videos they screened. Got to have deep hooks into our side to access those sorts of goodies. We need to seize everything they have for analysis.”

“You realise that means there will be no time for niceties?”

“Captain Drachin, your command will be on Hot Zone Two rates from the moment you lift.”

That’s triple pay with a per-kill bounty. Bad luck, loons. Truth and justice just decided you lie.

I wave to Maera as I head off to muster my team: “See you later, Doc. Keep it warm for me.”

Maera runs a dark tongue across pale lips and smiles as her favourite snack disappears from view. Aliens? She and her sisters have been here for longer than these pestilential humans.