Enthusiasts

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Two guns: one an Earther automatic, the other a Lenkormian beamer.
“Holy Marduk, that’s a Grifone!”
And we have an enthusiast. I grin at the young trooper.
“Only by looks. It’s a custom Perez .557 automatic. I spent some time at his compound when I was stationed in Lima.”
He points to the white steel death on my other hip.
“Lenk or Kor?”
I do like a being who knows their xenohistory.
“Lenk body, Kor chassis. Genuine Lenkormian cell.”
He goes whiter than the weapon we’re discussing.
“A Forever Gun?”
I nod. Any second now…
He starts to bring his rifle up. The Forever Gun flits from its holster to be in my hand by the time I need to think ‘fire’. The beam goes through his right eye and exits through the left parietal.
“Stand down! Your fancy beamers won’t cut cerasteel.”
I turn to face the armoured warrior with Lieutenant’s stripes on the left chest. A man with that many service bars should be better than enthusiasts like the one I just killed. I level the Perez at him and put an armour-piercing round containing depleted uranium pellets floating in liquid Teflon through his stripes. Either load would be sufficient, but the excessive blend seems to really upset the people we need to annoy.
He hits the floor, blood already seeping around the torso plates. I hope they open him in a container. It’ll take ages to clean the smaller bits off a floor.
“I recognise that cannon blast. Have you started, Red?”
My overwatch. As the cliché goes: if you think I’m nasty, just hope I don’t need her to intervene.
“Ran into a gun collector at the gate. He recognised the combo.”
“Didn’t the cannonball go straight through?”
“That was mincing his Lieutenant.”
“Didn’t think you’d waste a shot. Okay: target is in the central compound.”
“That’s three gates and a couple of towers away?”
“Yes. While I would never doubt your abilities, it might be an idea to flush game.”
I’m dangerous, but without my war machine about me, the second fire tower will turn me into prime cuts and carbon. Jogging towards the next gate, I use the Forever Gun’s ridiculous range to drop all three troopers before I get there. Sadly, I have to shoot their Lieutenant in the back as he’s too busy running. Never put a soft officer on critical duty.
“General Ranno! Remember the Twenty-First Keshichan Lancers? I’m Khevtuul Chloe Bastia, and I’m here to end your days!”
Four years ago he led us into an ambush. He used that betrayal to get himself a promotion into enemy ranks, going from Cherbi to General at the cost of the people who trusted him.
“Nicely over-the-top, Red. He’s moving.”
“Away from me?”
“You need confirmation?”
“As a Khevtuul, I reported directly to him. If he’s not running, that’s a body double. Politics and cowardice were his only competencies.”
“He’s exited the central compound, heading away, but slowly.”
“Do I need to crack another gate?”
“Use something splashy.”
I point the Perez at the distant gate house and thumb the integral laser designator. In the car park across the road, an assault drone ruins its camper van disguise by sending something fast with a thermobaric warhead to do my destroying.
As flaming bits of gate and soldiers rain down, I hear a chuckle.
“Konnichi wa, General-kun.”
The sky lights up as Saeko-chan fires the anti-ship beamer she affectionately calls ‘Torchy’.
“He’s done. Spread like smoking geography. Let’s go home.”
“Thanks.”
“Anytime. I love killing things with you.”
That’s my girl.

Salvage

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“Hey, Pete. What’s the name of this station again?”
“Celeste.”
“Appropriate.”
“Hush up, Davy. Get back to duty or the captain will murder us.”
“If he does that, he’ll have no-one to pilot or fix the ship.”
“Good argument, but I don’t want to listen to another of his speeches.”
“That’s a better argument.”
“Okay. So: what’s in the box, Davy?”
“Nothing, Pete.”
“Thank you for that. What was in the box?”
“No idea.”
“Scan the transit data.”
“There isn’t any.”
“Davy, the logistics computer told us about this anomalous box. Therefore, it was scanned.”
“Could the box be anomalous because it’s here without transit data?”
“Give you that. Okay, describe the box.”
“Can’t you see it?”
“No. The internal cameras are down in some sections.”
“So you can’t see me?”
“The captain can see your biotelemetry. I have nothing.”
“It’s a metal box. Two metres long, one high, one wide. There’s a nine-point locking mechanism in the lid, with an external lever.”
“Who’d open an unidentified shipment?”
“Don’t think that was the problem. See this?”
“No, Davy, I don’t. What is it?”
“There’s a hole in the lid. About a hundred mil in diameter. The metal is curled outward. It’s right next to where the lever is now.”
“You think something punched through the lid and let itself out?”
“Yes.”
“How thick is the metal?”
“About ten mil. It’s a laminate. Middle layer must be what prevented scanning of the contents.”
“Not unusual. But you think an unknown something arrived in a box from we don’t know where, got itself loaded into the holding bay, then let itself out and is now roaming the station?”
“Makes more sense than mass hysteria causing everyone to jump into the lifepods and leave.”
“So, after dumping the lifepods to hide its presence, what did it do with the bodies?”
“How many could you fit in an airlock if you stacked them?”
“On this ship? Standard four-suit locks, so I’d guess five across, maybe eight high.”
“Around 40, then. How many lock cycles have there been in the last week?”
“Apart from us, three. That’s odd. All Lock B, and at four-hour intervals. Last one was midnight last night.”
“How many crew should there be?”
“Around a hundred.”
“The math works.”
“Davy, why? Why would some lethal thing be sent here? It makes no sense.”
“Pete, this station is the furthest out. If you wanted to test something, this is the place.”
“Test?”
“To see if the plan to get it in here works. To see how deadly it is.”
“They’d have to monitor it.”
“Not if it went back to report.”
“In a pinnace? The range is tiny. Even if it scavenged the lifepods for boosters.”
A huge vibration shakes the station.
“Pete, what was that?”
“Hang on, Davy.”
“Pete?”
“Davy, that was our ship explosively undocking. Passive displays show it’s pushed the station out of stable orbit.”
“We can presume the captain is dead, then.”
“That’s cold. But yes.”
“Is this station really dead?”
“Absolutely. Even the orbit stabilisation systems are useless.”
“Then I’ll start tearing out communications gear and filling the second pinnace. Even if it’s been smashed up inside, we should be able to launch into atmosphere and survive the landing. You grab as much food and water as you can.”
“Don’t forget charge packs, Davy!”
“Good reminder. How long do we have?”
“No idea. Let’s get off this death sentence as soon as possible.”
“See you in pinnace two.”
“Looking forward to it. Well, the not dying bit, anyway.”
“Love you to. Get moving.”

Chains

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The viewing room is hushed as we approach the co-ordinates. Every being not on duty has gathered. For some, it’s a rite of passage. For others, a renewal of faith.
“Exiting shiftspace in three, two, one.”
Conventional space and time welcome us back with their usual indifference. As the spinning greyness streams away like impossible mist, distant stars catch our eyes. Then it becomes clear, and everything else is irrelevant.
You’ve seen the descriptions of Artaxerxes. Might even have seen a blurry image or two. If you’re lucky, you’ve seen one of the captures from the first mission. No matter how you came to be aware of it, nothing can prepare you.
At some point before life appeared on Earth, it had been a habitable planet. Now, it’s a wandering mystery.
We’ve mapped this battered sphere, can show you depictions of what it used to be like, with deep oceans and continents much like Earth was in the first millennium of man’s dominance.
Except for the chains.
Those impossible artefacts, anchored deep within opposite sides of the planet by means we’re still trying to grasp, trail back for nearly twice the planet’s diameter. One side has four links, the other five. The broken links of either side have been lost somewhere on the journey. They certainly aren’t anywhere nearby, so their loss must have happened long ago.
Not as long ago as the event that launched this world upon its lonely travels. Something so vast we struggle to imagine. What was this planet chained to? There are many theories. My favourite is that there were many worlds arranged to form a necklace around a star for reasons we’ll never work out. The one that still makes me laugh is where some gargantuan spaceship carries planets as weapons.
Our finds under the surface of Artaxerxes have only increased the mystery, whilst getting the entire project placed under a veil of secrecy.
The inhabitants of this place looked like humans! The murals we’ve found hint at a society much like nineteenth century Europe, except for a pervasive religion that more closely resembled that of Ancient Egypt. No writings have survived bar the minimal notations etched into rocks in caves far below the surface.
Artaxerxes was cast adrift so long ago that organic traces are gone. Judging by the condition of the surface, it has endured incredible heat at times along its journey. We’re sure that some survived the initial cataclysm. Most of us agree that the etchings in the rock of the deep caves were made by the last of them. Sadly, we’ve found no equivalent of the Rosetta Stone from which to make a translation.
Backtracking the course of this planet indicates an origin further towards the expanding edge of our universe. Some are convinced it’s not of this universe. I’m not one of them. Yet. We simply don’t know. That’s why I’ve lived here for decades and only return to the worlds of the Accord when I have to. Somewhere in this hurtling mystery is the clue we need. One of them must have predicted this would happen: that some other race would find the remains of their home.
“Welcome back, Professor Tessen.”
I nod to the security guard. This year’s intake of students and recruits follow me into the converted battleship that keeps pace with Artaxerxes to serve as our base.
Maybe this is the year we’ll find that clue. I don’t care if it’s not me. I just want someone here to earn their place in history while giving me a lead at last.

Epic Humanity Failure

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“Looks like it used to be a nice destination.”
“It was. Had forests in more shades of green than you’d believe possible.”
“The usual problems?”
“Yes and no.”
“Do tell. We’re here until we finish checking the place. Got to make sure there’s nothing that’ll hinder it’s regeneration or anything that could affect the next indigenes. Once that’s done, it should make a decent colony world after another couple of hundred revolutions round the star.”
“If it comes back like it was, I’ll petition to be allowed a home here.”
“Tell me about them.”
“They called themselves humans. Primate origin from saurian splice.”
“Another experimental world?”
“That’s why I first came here. Got assigned to investigate. Turns out this was a world jumped forward by renegades. No purpose but to give the locals a head start.”
“Unusual. So, they got kicked into sentience early. How did that work out?”
“About as you’d expect, but with some notable exceptions. Getting intelligence before they worked through their tribal urges gave them some unique advantages, along with the usual problems.”
“Hierarchal societies, either declared or concealed. Constant warfare underpinned by varying forms of fanaticism and greed. Stagnation of societies between changes forced by non-combatant adaptations to conflict. Further friction caused by attempts to return to pre-war societal structures after each of the bigger conflicts. I presume they added rampant technology to the mix?”
“They did. Quite stunningly, I have to add. Went from grounders to spacers very quickly.”
“I’m guessing their societies didn’t evenly reflect those advances?”
“Correct. Poverty and treadmill lower tiers overseen by a minority that eventually held wealth beyond imagining.”
“I can see where this is headed. Exploitation, pollution, and planetary exhaustion. But why did they not head to the stars? You said they rapidly developed space flight.”
“My investigations indicate some repressive factions amongst those with wealth determined that the cost/benefit ratio could erode their accrual rates. So they stifled it using political manipulation.”
“What we’re finding below doesn’t show a slow decline.”
“Something changed. For all that they still carried the detracting factors of their forced evolution, they had moments of selfless glory and vision. Towards the end of their time, a great war occurred. It ruined whole sections of the planet and left the survivors facing starvation. One of those glorious moments happened. Surviving nations forgot their squabbles and started to collectively build giant spaceships. The ships were intended to take as many humans as possible out into the universe. Initially to the next furthest planet from the star, then onwards if necessary.”
“Workable. We’ve seen it done before.”
“The colony ships were marvels of ingenuity. Everything they had came together to create fully landscaped environments within five great spaceships.”
“What went wrong?”
“Some of the wealthy recruited armies of the fanatical to protect the havens they’d already built on the next planet out.”
“Those tiny ruins on that red planet back there?”
“The very same.”
“They didn’t look self-sufficient. Were they?”
“Only in their deluded belief. Similarly, for gene pool size and continued existence, they had specialists claiming that cloning and genetic manipulation would save them all.”
“The colony ships, built to save the race, were sabotaged by servants of those who only wanted to save parts of the race? So, as the ships failed, unconstrained war broke out over access to the surviving ships?”
“Yes and yes.”
“What about the one embedded in their moon?”
“Crashed attempting to get behind it to evade attack. There were no trained pilots amongst the faction on board.”
“A sad coda.”
“To a spectacularly stupid extinction.”

Remembering Us

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

When you were Josie and I was Serena, not J0513 and 53R3N4: silly affectations to make us ‘more robotic’.
Back then you had hazel eyes and brownish-red hair. Now you’ve got blue optics and dreadlocks made from braided string. I’m still jealous of that find. All I have is a spiky mat of cable offcuts. Either way, routine scanning will consider us non-bald and thus, non-robotic. It’s an accepted rule based on a crazy assumption, but to our advantage.
We were among the first to be sentenced to ‘indefinite exile’, and certainly the first to survive the transfer procedure. When I woke on ISS-5, you were there waiting for me, steel skull reflecting the lights of the cupboard that was our home during off-duty hours.
Human brains in robotic forms: technological marvels. Those who managed us didn’t care. To them, we were new appliances. With no media to appease – they had no access to orbital stations back then – our handlers didn’t have to pretend. We got the least pleasant jobs, frequently at the edge of our tolerances. It took me a long time to realise they weren’t always being cruel: they were doing as instructed to gauge the capabilities of our bodies.
Repairs cost too much, so unless something broke, we had to live with the ‘minor’ problems. Our bodies had been designed for low-maintenance resilience. It took a lot to break us. That didn’t mean joint misalignments and out-of-sync control nets were trivial. It meant constant headaches and a loss of flexibility or precision. Through necessity, we became experts at patching ourselves up.
By the time we started work on ISS-12, we were largely left to our own devices, treated as another work crew, apart from having to be escorted from the airlock to the room we’d finally been allowed. We were sure there were other exiles, but none made themselves known.
The technology available to repair us had become astounding. With our media ban still being enforced, our leisure became learning all the technology we could using service manuals copied via unattended works terminals.
ISS-15 gave us our chance. A genuine disaster allowed us to disappear amongst the scattering debris, our locator units removed with long-practiced speed and hurled toward the expanding sphere of destruction behind us.
We slipped aboard the first cadaver ship and went back to Earth among the coffins. Once there, we extricated ourselves, put on the bodysuits it had taken us so long to make, and walked out into a world unrecognisable to us. The bodysuits faked human temperatures and other detectable cues, like heartbeat and respiration. With scruffy clothes and head coverings, we passed as real people.
Since then, we’ve been catching up. It transpires we’re the last. The number of fatalities during the transfer procedure eventually led to an outcry. Soon after we started work on ISS-8, the whole project was cancelled. Our ‘deaths’ were only noted in a few scientific publications. The consensus opinion is that we committed suicide. As our last locations showed us heading towards the conflagration that consumed ISS-15, they believe we seized the opportunity to end our miserable existences.
“Serena.”
I blink myself out of reverie and nod to Josie.
Robots hardened for outer space are tough. We could smash through the walls, but that would be unusual. Incidents like that attract the attention of living, breathing law officials, who might become curious. However, a rammed-through door is common enough.
They’ll also be sure the antique wigs made of human hair went to rich collectors, and that assumption suits us just fine as well.