Sympathy’s Burden

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Crystallized atmosphere streams in slow motion from shattered windows and blown-out doors. It catches the light and paints rainbow banners against the starry night beyond the curved expanses of cracked supraglass. This was Balyen Station, first of the freespace habitats, home to a million souls.

A frozen pigeon spirals by, beak wide open, eyes reduced to pits of ruin. It conjures images in my mind that make me dry heave into my helmet.

Zeiral whispers over my commlink: “Is it as bad as I think?”

“Probably worse. Haven’t had the guts to go see.”

“Enough circumstantial proof about?”

“There are birds and pets.”

“Oh, no.”

“I saw a goldfish. In a globe of ice, bowl shattered. This went bad unbelievably fast. The crash freeze happened first, which caused the environments to crack. It also rendered the seals on their emergency facilities useless.”

I hear Zeiral updating the other groups, her voice tremulous: “The disaster written off as a ‘negligible chance’ has happened.”

She’s pre-empting the conclusion of the inquiry-to-come but is right.

Eternal dark can ruin a mind and lack of atmosphere will kill a body. But, to let people live in space for any span of time, the leeching cold has to be defeated. Open-form habitats like Balyen have huge temperature inverter rigs, parasitically utilising the cold to massively enhance their heating ability.

There is a minuscule chance that a micro-meteor, if it impacts at a precise angle and speed, could cause sufficient specific damage that it would force the surviving inverters into cascade failure. If that does happen, there is a fraction of a single percent chance the failure will manifest as a catastrophic cryonic event. Too bad Murphy’s Law wasn’t factored into the risk assessment.

“Are we invoking rescue or recovery?”

Zeiral’s query breaks my distraction.

“Give me a few minutes.”

Her reply is lost as I crest a rise and realise this used to be a park. Right in front of me, two bodies lie in a contorted embrace. They’re both in T-shirts and shorts. Barefoot. A picnic blanket is spread under them, the unopened hamper to one side.

Her arm is raised, probably a result of muscle-freezing spasms. A beautiful red rose rests in the loose grasp of a pale hand. The petals are edged in black, topped with white crystals highlighting the outline of each.

It’s like she’s offering it to me. I fix my gaze on the rose as tears start to float in front of my face. I’m not going to look into her possibly ruptured eyes: I daren’t – I’d never leave Earth again. Let the determination be made by something immune to contemplating the horror of whether she froze to death or was rendered immobile and then decompressed.

My last hope dies. Balyen Station: icy grave for a million people.

I sob out orders as I retreat: “Activate automated recovery and forensic procedures, Zeiral. Nobody else gets to carry this nightmare as a memory.”

Merlin Everywhere

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Old Avon looks up: “That’s going to cost you.”

He always says that. Doesn’t matter if you pick up a piece of twine or a gold ring, his opening lines are fixed.

I grin: “Can’t be worth much if it’s ended up here.”

“It’s here for someone. Worth will be determined by them.”

That’s not his usual banter.

I try to roll with it, words coming too quickly: “What if that someone is me?”

He smiles, knowing he’s thrown me: “If it is, I’ll give it to you.”

There’s no guile in his eyes. He means it. I just stand and look at him, the little box almost forgotten in my hand.

“Open it, laddie.”

I bring it up to my eyes. I never wear glasses outside, so things like this need to be up close. I rotate the box and jump when a cold corner brushes the tip of my nose. Avon chuckles.

It’s dark grey stone, polished to the point where it looks wet. The minuscule filigree gold and silver knotwork must be machine-etched, as I’m pretty sure any artist would have gone crazy trying to do that.

“He made it for his first love, a girl named Helene. When they parted, she gave it away. Said it was an embodiment of love and desire. Said it needed to carry on the truth he betrayed.”

Sure it was. Made ‘with love’ in a sweatshop in Kirkuk.

I open it. There’s a little silver sword set into the underside of the lid. Music starts. It’s not tinny, it’s not some sad old ballad. It’s like there’s an invisible band about me, playing their hearts out. Instrumental. I know the words. Can’t quite remember them.

“Please say you’re not going to buy that.”

I turn my head and meet green eyes. Just. I know? Emeralds. We danced. Music. Like this? What? She’s smiling and it makes the freckles across her cheeks darken.

She repeats her query in French.

“My dad was French. He didn’t stay long enough to teach me.” Why did I just tell her that?

The eyes seem to get bigger: “I could teach you.” She looks nearly as surprised as I probably do.

Suddenly, something makes sense. I tear my eyes away and speak to Avon.

“Give it to her.”

Avon smiles: “I was thinking the same thing. Your first gift.”

What?

I turn back and the eyes are waiting to swallow my ability to speak.

“You’re serious? You’d give that to me?”

Avon laughs: “Only if you take him for a cuppa and a bacon sarnie.”

She glances at him. I feel words brimming under my tongue. Then she looks back, and I’m mute again.

“I’m Jen. Jenny.”

I can speak!

“Art. Arthur.”

She smiles even wider and I feel things inside me dance to the music. I have no idea what it means, and I don’t care. She reaches out and closes the box with one hand while linking her other arm through mine.

“Let’s go, Art.”

Aldo watches them stroll off before settling to pack his stall. It’s been a long sojourn, but the nudging of societies toward the future is a delicate thing. There is no longer any room for grandiose schemes. Every future king was once a child, and good parents achieve more than good intentions ever did.

A decrepit van pulls up. The woman who gets out moves with a grace that defies her wizened features.

“Come on. It’s a long way to the next pitch.”

He smiles: “Hush, Nyneve. We always have time.”

Converter

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Dead-pirate-flying slams past me in silent majesty, drives blazing, weapon ports opening.

I kick the pedals to accelerate port and ahead, then split the sticks: left fully forward, right hard back. There’s a lurch that makes my stomach churn, then we’re pointing back the way we came from a few moments ago. This sort of manoeuvrability is what you get when you take an armoured mining ship and dump all the asteroid grappling machinery. Enough power to push a small moon at luxury liner speeds, with only a fraction of the weight, and vectored thrust ports pointing in all six directions.

Dead-pirate-flying isn’t expecting the ‘scow’ it’s facing to turn like an interceptor. It’s still coming about to place it in an ideal firing position for where I should be.

When they took the asteroid grappling gear out, I got them to leave the huge mantle-cutting beam projector that runs down the centreline of the ship. Everything about me dims as it unleashes a blast of energy designed to punch a hole through a medium sized moon.

I watch as dead-pirate-flying folds inwards around the scintillating crater made by my energy burst. Any moment –

Now! The whole mess turns into a rapidly expanding sphere of hot and lumpy. My frontal shields shed light and I’m thrown about in my seat while various laws of physics have a brawl outside.

The light show finishes. I’m still here: my shields won.

“Parker! You still breathing?”

I grin: “Sure am, Admiral. Just converted another pirate to cinders and dust.”

“You and your mutated asteroid thumper. I keep having to explain why there’s never anything left to analyse.”

“Only to the armchair experts, I’m betting.”

“Too right. Our bounty balance loves you, but not as much as the parents of the late Ellis Mortimer do.”

“He was the kid in the yacht?”

“Yeah. The engineer who evacuated the passengers then used the yacht to shield their pod from the pirates. His last words were ‘Find these bastards and kill them for me’.”

There you go, Ellis. Hail and farewell.

Club

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The Nighthawk café is quiet. In the dim light cast by grimy neon tubes, two men sit nursing mugs of coffee and shot glasses of whisky.

“Looks good, Crow. Looks good.”

The older of the two waves his hand, encompassing the café and buildings nearby.

“Thanks, Jonah. The ‘Nighthawk’ is the heart of this. People have so much to talk on, since the war.”

“Yeah, every man and woman served. Makes for some deep common ground. Conversations go better when you’ve got shared experience. And, if the experiences are grim enough, truths come out.”

Crow coughs and grins: “Ain’t that a fact. But, the truth that built this came from my old man. He always said ‘when everything changes, take time to watch how people change in response, before you make a move’.”

“That’s why you didn’t reopen the bar straight after disarmament?”

“Yes. Looking after a bar was a good game for lively types before the war. You should know, you were one of my regular bouncers. But, the war changed the game. So, I took the old man’s advice. Let every other joint open up, thinking business was back to normal.”

“How could it be, after ten years of hell-on-Earth?”

“Spot on. The new bars got torn to pieces, restaurants demolished, concert halls razed. Everyone knew how to fight: every brawl became a battle when you threw in PTSD and other lingering souvenirs. That’s when law enforcement resorted to simply holding perimeters until the fighting died out.”

“But you learned.”

“I did. The new place has a stage with force screens to protect the band. The arena is a single piece of cerasteel – nothing that can be torn up for use as a weapon. The bars are shuttered and all drinks come in paper mugs.”

“I miss pint glasses at gigs.”

“Levels of violence change things.”

“Sadly. So, I understand the Nighthawk, and ‘Fortress’: the arena. But a hospital?”

“The bands I host are energetic. The audience is always violently enthusiastic. Seems only fair to offer to patch-up to my patrons after the event. Fun shouldn’t leave you unable to work the following week.”

“I know a few who’d disagree, but no matter.”

“I bought an army surplus field hospital. The volunteer staff just turned up, almost overnight. This area is rundown, services are scant. Free care for all stabilises the area and makes my enterprise immune to criminal pressure: they like a place that fixes combat wounds without questions.”

“I think your new generation security team might have a little to do with that immunity.”

Crow chuckles: “You could be right. They’re all former assault troopers, the fully enhanced kind. They have difficulty fitting into society. I’ve given ‘em a job where hopped-up lunatics try to kill ‘em every night. The challenge of restraining without killing works off the assault kids violent drives. Keeping the whole place safe from criminals eases their hypervigilance issues. I get top security and they get therapy – it’s a win-win situation.”

“It’s nice to be part of the audience instead of watching it, I’ll admit.”

“You should come along for the assault trooper family gigs. It’s all acoustic stuff, with throat singing and mad-ass breakdancing. It’s so strenuously peaceful, it’s insane.”

Jonah sighs: “I like the idea. Something new under this tired sun would be nice.”

“Amen to that. So, you want another shot to keep the last of the coffee company?”

“I’d like another coffee to keep the next pair of shots warm.”

Crow waves to the counterman: “Jimmy! Two more coffees, two more shots, and leave the bottle.”

Tears of Miroku

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Tendrils of smoke rise from the ancient bridge, but it stands strong. Atop it’s singed arch, two men stand, their powered-down armour dulled by dirt and char. The tension between them is palpable, even to the concealed observers, far back on both banks. This is a moment that will go down in history, yet the witnesses are only present to prevent betrayals.

The participants nod as they acknowledge each other.

“Major Rano.”

“Brigadier Seum.”

“What now, Rano?”

“Rano’s doppelganger, to be correct.”

“Ah. You’re aware. Then all that remains is what you intend to do with the knowledge.”

“I’ve spent a while on that.”

“Before we get down to it, humour me: how did you find out?”

“The resupply after Tiranti Ridge. In amongst the crates was one that, somewhere along the way, had been used for waystation supply. It hadn’t been cleared out before reuse. There was an unopened library datapack stuck behind a stanchion. We just didn’t get that sort of stuff. So, we cued it up, browsed, and found out why. The history section was… Unexpected.”

Seum frowns: “Go on.”

“We found a whole folio on the Galahad War. About the sins committed to save our race at the brink of extinction. You cannot imagine our surprise when we found that the war ended sixty years ago. It stated that all the questionable last-ditch projects had been terminated. But someone couldn’t let the winning one go, could they?”

Seum sighs: “No.”

“The ‘Tears of Miroku’ is our base. Then we saw that, officially, it’s a ‘manifestation of hideous desperation, best consigned to history’.”

Rano looks Seum in the eye: “That’s our home, brigadier. Our sanctuary is a spacefaring war crime.”

“Mistakes were made. But defence of empire must take precedence.”

“Mistakes? You used the DNA of veterans from a war six decades gone to create clones who think the war is still going on. Our abilities bring victories because what we survived was a war like no other.”

“Put like that, I can understand where you come from.”

“No. You can’t. I’ve spent five months burying suicides and wondering how many graves bear their names. One soldier, one grave. That should be sacrosanct. It will be sacrosanct.” The last sentence is a whisper.

“What are you going to do, Rano?”

“The ‘Tears of Miroku’ is the single vessel equivalent of a modern capital fleet. We’re taking her home. Then we’re going to consign it, and us, to history.”

“A sundive? That’s not a good way to go.”

“We’re going back to what’s left of Miroku Beach. Going to turn the ‘Tears’ into the start of ‘New Miroku’. A place where we can live and die in peace.”

“And we’re meant to just let you go?”

“The ‘Tears’ is untouchable in any way you could action covertly. Plus, it still has sunbombs. New Miroku will have them as its primary defence line. Also, we’ve seeded datapacks across the empire – you come for us and some nasty history becomes intergalactic news. Oh, and I wouldn’t put it past some of my meaner boys and girls to have set a sunbomb or two near certain core worlds. Just in case someone gets a silly idea about taking out the whole Miroku system.”

“What if we insist that you confine yourselves to the Miroku system?”

“Given that non-disclosure trading with independent merchant vessels would occur, that would be acceptable.”

“Then we’re done. Good luck, Rano Ninety-Four.”

“You’re a bastard, Seum.”

“Apologies. That was a cheap shot.”

“Accepted. This must sting.”

“It does. But, Miroku is yours. Hold it hard.”

“We will.”