And, In the Death

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

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After the old nations fell, the survivors formed tribes. They argued, fought, and reformed into smaller tribes, always defined by ever-shrinking differences and increased fanaticism. When a tribe reached stability, it promptly set off to find other tribes to fight. For a long time after the ‘Years of Anger’, vicious skirmishes flared up as old hatreds manifested, driven solely by learned bias – because the causes were long gone.
These days, there are few enough of us that fighting is a last resort, except when confronting cannibal tribes. Where we go from here, I do not know. This is my last diary entry, for I now believe there will be none who need written knowledge for generations to come. We have become savages.
To any who read this, I hope you do so in brighter times.
Daniel Mapmaker.
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“You finished painting on the rocks, my Daniel?”
“It’s called ‘writing’, Martha.”
“So you keep telling me. Still don’t see why you need to capture words before the air takes them away, but you’ve always been strange.”
“But good for making and teaching children, so you keep telling me.”
She giggles.
“Mama was right about that. Said your pappy had been a right brute, and only made one to follow him. Told me to ignore what I didn’t like and take what I needed. Said you’d learn, and that you’d always do right, no matter how much you didn’t like doing it.”
“Your mama was smarter than me.”
Martha sticks her tongue out: “She said that, too.”
He smiles. Look at me now, papa. You said you’d rather teach than kill, but to have a future with humans in it, you had to be a killer before being a tutor. I said it didn’t have to be like that. You smiled and said I’d change my mind. Here I am, agreeing with you. I wonder if that afterlife you spoke of was full before you got there? A lot of people died, after all. Guess I’ll find out, one day. Until then, I have a tribe to look to.
“Mapmaker! Which way?” Edward grins and raises his hands in entreaty.
Daniel waves to his eldest and points westward. Edward nods.
“Gather yourselves! We go toward the sunset. It’ll be a long haul, but our Mapmaker knows where better land can be found. We’ll have to fight to get there, so don’t miss a chance to speak your heart to those about you. You never know who’ll be left to come to the evening campfires.”
Daniel swings his pack onto his back with a surge of pride. That’s his son. Using a decent vocabulary to effortlessly lead and inspire a hundred people who have difficulty counting past five, and no interest in learning how to.
Martha swats his backside.
“Giddy up.”
“I will get you for that later.”
She winks: “Counting on it.”
He takes a few careful steps, settling the load. Then he strides down to join the tribe. Where they’re heading for used to be called Cornwall. Papa said there was something about the weather there that would make it a good place to settle when the foraging and farming couldn’t support the number of people the tribe would eventually attract.
Hope you were right about that, papa. Otherwise I’ll be finding out about spaces in your afterlife much sooner than I’d like.

The Charge of the Iron Brigade

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

We raise our fists and give a round of hearty ‘hurrahs’ for our intrepid leader. He waves from the engine deck of his Chieftain before clambering up into the turret and taking command position at the top hatch. He brings a loud hailer up.
“My glorious armoured brigade! Today we take the fight to the barbarians of Sherwood! No more shall their primitive ways and crude technology besmirch this green and pleasant land!”
I love him, I do. Professor Lionel Ferrous, Lord of the Iron Lands, Conqueror of Blighty. That last one isn’t quite true yet, but after we’ve suppressed the ruffians in Sherwood, it’s only a quick trundle up north to reduce the Anto-9 forts to rubble. Then mopping up operations and home for tea. After that, we can petition to be allowed a final campaign: dealing with the ne’er-do-wells hiding in the wilds of Sussex.
He points ahead and the roar of our armoured brigade moving off is like a punch in the chest. We lurch forward, taking up positions in the V-shaped formation that has no less than three Chieftain steam tanks as the point of the spear. It never fails to inspire me: the genius of the Professor gave these great war machines a second lease of life, even inventing lighter armour because of the weight of the steam turbine.
There is nothing like charging into battle as part of an armoured brigade. The wind in your hair, the smoke, the noise, the joyous shouts of righteous warriors engaged in redeeming this land from the ignorant and craven.
I see a flash and a cloud of smoke in the forest. Something big enough for me to catch a glimpse of hammers into the lead Chieftain. The explosion that follows knocks the other Chieftains sideways and the shock wave rolls across us like a swinging curtain of hammers. The charge staggers. I catch my breath and pull the cord that unfurls our colours.
“For the Iron Lands!”
My shout catches the ears of a few nearby. They follow my lead. I see Professor Ferrous turn my way and raise his fist in approval. The fire that spouts from his hatch frames that pose, then he disappears in the fireball that consumes his Chieftain.
I lose my helm in the blast. Looking toward the forest, I see two blocky, turretless tanks emerge. One has a gigantic, stubby weapon that looks like some mutant pepper pot. The other is a behemoth, it’s gun barrel like some wand of doom aimed at our suddenly vulnerable ranks.
A cry from the left brings my attention to the harbinger of ruin emerging from the trees at our flank. Some relative of the behemoth, it swings it’s turret to target the remaining Chieftain. In the moment before the end begins, I see the arms emblazoned upon the slate-grey armour: Lord Morrow of Grafton! We’ve been ambushed by an alliance between Sherwood and Sussex!
These, then, are the legendary Morrowtigers. Ancient god-machines of war, released from centuries-long internment in some tunnel in far-off Polska and brought to this once-blessed isle by a man as brilliant as he is evil. There also seems to be truth in the rumours he has rediscovered engines from the Before Times, for these behemoths do not smoke, nor do their motive sources make noise.
With tears pouring down my face, I grab my loud hailer.
“Retreat! Save your souls! Retreat! We cannot face the forces of Sussex!”
Not anytime soon. But I will never forget. Professor Ferrous shall be avenged.

Savage and Chill

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

A savage chorus rises about us and I start running, dragging Mitchell with me.
“What? Why are we running? I didn’t see anything.”
I say nothing and try to hit my sprinting speed with a hundred-kilo doughball in tow.
“Slow down! They’re not chasing us.”
Again, I don’t have the breath to reply. Ahead of us, I see an angular shape amidst the foliage. That’ll do! Slamming into the side of an old storage pod, I roll to one side so Mitchell doesn’t slam into me.
“Some warning would have been nice.”
He squeaks when he sees my expression, then wails as I yank him toward the wide end of the pod. He’s still making unhappy noises when I whip him round the corner and stuff him through the door. His whining peaks as I kick him in the bum to get him inside so I can shut the door behind me.
“Now we’re trapped. We should have stayed in the open.”
I look about. It’s an old military model. Solid walls, lever-action rear door, small skylight above, which is covered in green stains and blown leaves.
“Are you even listening to me?”
Scrabbling through the junk and plant life on the floor, I don’t bother to reply. Of all the men to be caught outside with. I’d been dumped on patrol with Mitchell Liverston so he could meet his quota of ‘menial duties’ – a requirement all scientific personnel on this trip have to fulfil.
Not sure what happened, but whatever it was, it happened fast. I’ve never been on a planet like this: everything regards humans as prey. There’s nothing we’ve found that doesn’t want to feed on us in some way. Our base is an artificial hill that towers high above the forest canopy: I kept having dreams about the gigantic alien anteater that would end us all. Sadly, this disaster isn’t that epic.
“Did you bring anything to drink?”
I rock back into a crouch and glare at him.
“Yes. I have the same trail gear as you.”
He blushes. Where’s his harness?
“It was chafing. I took it off when we rested.”
Fantastic. Two people with only an afternoon’s trekking rations for one.
“What happened?”
I shake my head.
“No idea. Comms said something about gorillapards rampaging about inside. Then a killgator escaped from the pool room. The last I heard was Professor Nipde yelling about some ‘lull’ not working. I think that’s what he said. Difficult to make out because of the screaming.”
Mitchell’s gone white.
“What did I say to make you wet yourself?”
I resist the urge to add the words ‘even more’.
“I didn’t- Err, no- You see…”
For pity’s sake.
“It’s a figure of speech. Now, why are you white and shaking? Something about ‘lull’?”
He looks like my kid brother did after mum caught him masturbating in her wardrobe: guilty, embarrassed, and little bit excited.
“‘Lull’ is the name I gave my aggression suppression gas. Designed to make the animals here less hostile toward humans.”
Fuck.
“You got that wrong.”
“Absolutely not. It’s perfectly designed for their biology. I really don’t understand why it failed to work.”
“No, I mean there’s a fundamental error in your analysis.”
That got his attention.
“How dare y-”
“Shut up! You’re suppressing their aggression, but the problem is they’re not angry, they’re hungry. You gave them a chilled-out feeding frenzy. Pray the orbital station sends something to rescue us before the locals calmly work out how to crack open this pod.”
He starts crying.
Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Uncle from the Other Side

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Drantill’s become a regular over the last year. His arrival times vary, but he’s always seated by 12:00. From then until 12:30 he watches the long lines of the digitised clockface on his phone move, saying nothing, barely breathing. Then-
“Miss? Can I have a caramel macchiato with a shot of cherry syrup, please?”
“Of course you can, Drantill. Remember, my name is Pellaira.”
He smiles and nods. It’s our little routine. He never uses my name. I make a point of using his. Drantill is, for want of a better term, beautiful. I’d really like to get to know him, but he doesn’t seem interested – in anything.
Except his odd coffee. I’ve never seen a man so transported by just smelling it. His face becomes… Serene. Even more impossibly beautiful. Then his eyes close and he takes a sip, swallows, and sighs.
Maybe I could use that?
“You really like that coffee, don’t you?”
He jerks in surprise. Those wonderful eyes turn my way and it’s like he’s looking at me for the first time.
“Reminds me of home. You blend it well.”
“Thank you.”
“Your name is unusual.”
“It was my mother’s. She died giving birth and dad named me for her. Seemed strange, but I’m used to it now.”
“Where I come from, it’s the name of a great city. To name a child after it is considered a brave act, dooming the child to greatness and a terrible fate.”
“I’ve never heard of a place called Pellaira.”
He smiles and takes another sip.
“It’s far away.”
“You come from there?”
“A little village nearby. Goshtan O’er the Fyres.”
“Strange name.”
“It’s at the edge of a huge lava field. The main trade is pumice. Not thrilling for a young lad. I volunteered for something that took me far away,” he sips and sighs, “now I regret it.”
“What did you volunteer for?”
He looks about, mutters something, and gives a little laugh.
Those eyes catch mine.
“They wanted men and women for an impossible mission, one from which there might be no return. We formed the crew of a great boring machine, powered by the biggest creniuld engines ever cranked. Our mission was to prove for once and for all that our ice-ringed world was set fast upon a bed of endless rock, just as stated in the Latturlidan Scriptures.
“We spent months living in that vibrating tube as it chewed through the foundations of our world. Just as we approached the return point, we tore through. Everything flew into the air. Up became down. Our machine toppled and rolled, then fell, breaking apart in the hideous impact that followed.
“A few of us crawled from that wreckage, finding ourselves at the bottom of a deep ravine. Crazed and confused, we wandered until we came upon a settlement.
“Each reacted differently to the epiphany. To save conflict, we agreed to go our separate ways for a year, then meet up and share our tales so we could work out what to do next.”
He looks at me, tears at the corners of his eyes.
“That was twenty-nine years ago. No-one came to that meeting, so I went looking. Not many killed themselves. Most settled. Some found love. A few started families. Only one yearns for home so much he cannot rest, and tortures himself by visiting the daughter who bears the name and face of her mother, his lost sister. But today he told her the truth, and will never see her again.”
He gets up and rushes out.
…What just happened?

Sunburn

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Two figures stand on the observation deck of the patrol ship ‘Camelot’. The taller of the two points at an object silhouetted against the planet.
“That has got to be the ugliest spaceship I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s not a spaceship,” replies the shorter of the two, tail flicking in irritation.
“One end is blunt, the other end is sharp, and it’s got fins that slope backwards toward the blunt end. What is it, then? Orbital art?”
“It’s a sunbomb.”
“A planetary defence antique powerful enough to appear as a star in the sky, eh? Impressive.”
“No, it’s for use on a sun.”
“I’ve seen a starburster. That would fit inside one of the drive tubes.”
“Not designed to explode. Designed to age.”
“Do what?”
“The writings upon it speak of many interference effects – including several we’re not familiar with – along with a schedule of causes that we have yet to fully understand. There is also a time manipulation component of baffling complexity.”
“You said it was a bomb.”
“‘Sunbomb’ is easier to grasp than ‘alien chronosolar accelerator’.”
“They wrote instructions on the outside?”
“In big characters.”
“Why?”
“Think of it as a huge signal flare.”
“Signalling what?”
“To attract their attention.”
“Who?”
“They call themselves Barsiliumonalf – it’s as close as we can get with any language on Earth. An ancient star-faring race, arrogant and powerful. Some of their phrasing indicates they regard everything as theirs if they want it: stars, planets, beings, it makes no difference.”
“Why make this?”
“Laziness. They got bored of looking for intelligent races, so they scattered a few of these about. Any race smart enough to figure out how to set one off, and mad enough to do so, might be worth talking to.”
“Could we set it off?”
“Detailed translation is going to take a while, but I’m confident we could be in a position to do it within a decade.”
“While you do that, our superiors will decide which sun we can lose. Better get started on creating better defences.”
“Defences? They left star-warping time-distortion devices lying about like litter. How can you possibly hope to defend against the technology they have now?”
“Oh, I’m not preparing for the inevitable and brief shooting war. I’m talking about places to hide in, and observe from.”
The shorter one swings to face the taller: “What?”
“No matter what we recommend, many factions will be sure we’re exaggerating and will go looking for a fight. Which, as you pointed out, is almost certain to go very badly for anyone opposed to the Barsi-whatchamacallits. I’m going to make sure the sensible are protected until the stupid have been swatted.”
“Better still, let’s forget about this device.”
“Too late. It’s been found. Eventually, someone’s going to use it. All we can do is prepare. Which includes making sure nobody drags it off for use on a sun orbited by anywhere nice.”
“You have a low opinion of the tendencies of your fellow humans, monkeyboy.”
“Like draconians don’t like igniting stuff for fun, scaly?”
“Touché.”