High Life

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

To our right, there are five rows of aircars just hanging there. In addition, there are six layers below and five above. All sleek, shining, and not moving.
“Look at it. Six by twelve, going nowhere.”
Tish’s right. We picked the wrong time to leave and are now stuck in M25-7-1. At least it’s an edge lane, so we’ve got a view over Croydon Hub toward the lights of the City Wall. It looks kind of tranquil: all the twinkling lights on buildings and shops and whatnot. Everywhere has light all the time, like being unlit is some form of failure.
“You’re sidescreening again.”
I bring my attention back within the Skaelan and smile at her, taking in the patterns playing across her bodystraps.
“Tone your content down: that’s nearly pornographic.”
She pouts and her straps turn black, ceasing dynamic displays and holographic panels.
Swallowing hard, I whistle: “Just the displays, not the privacy stuff, and did you mean to come out without underwear?”
“Stop pretending you don’t like it.” She looks down at herself and smiles: “S’pose it is a bit sparse. Hang on.”
She pulls a wad of lacy cloth from her purse and I look away. Putting complex underwear on in a car is inelegant and she’ll get embarrassed if I watch. The Skaelan moves a whole car length before she speaks again.
“Lingerie and privacy on.”
I turn back and she appears to be in a minidress with inset video screens and a high amethyst collar that curves into a tiara.
“Better.”
“What are you actually wearing, oh arbiter of modesty?”
“Leggings, utility belt, tabishoes.”
“Huh. I’ll let you off. Wish I could go topless.”
“I wish you could, too.”
“Pervert.”
The car moves forward half a length. At this rate, we should arrive fashionably late for tomorrow night.
“The way the salesman talked, I thought traffic just parted for the awesome Bentley Skaelan.” She grins. The salesman had just started to make my skin crawl when Tish said she’d probably like it if they did it in white. I’d stopped idly browsing the options at that point and told him to get us a white one and we’d have all the extras.
All the extras-
“Tish, I’m an idiot.”
She grins at me: “I know that. What’s the reason this time?”
“A fully loaded Skaelan. Like on ‘Kyrie P.I.’”
“V-Jump!”
The Skaelan responds: “Active and linked. Specify destination.”
We settle back as our seats recline: “Tuckersen Lounge. Party of Trudi Hammond.”
“Target venue requests ID.”
“Permitted.”
There’s a momentary whirling mass of colour, then our holographic avatars are standing in the vestibule of the Tuckersen.
Trudi looks up as we appear: “Traffic that bad? Come and mingle until your physbods arrive, then you can get down to it.”
Tish’s voice sounds in my mind: “Should we tell her we got the pharmacy option in the Skaelan, so we could arrive drunk and high?”
I run a scan over the throng and identify no IDs of interest.
“Gods, no. Did you see the size of her pupils? She’ll demand we bring the Skaelan in to impress the mob.”
Her avatar nods: “Point.”
Trudi looks up: “You say something?”
V-Tish smiles: “Nope. Bandwidth hiccup.”
Trudi turns away and Tish’s voice comes through again.
“Why do we bother?”
“Keeping up appearances. Give this lot two hours and they’ll all be off their heads, so we can fade out and leave. I expect the Skaelan will still be nearer home, anyway. Everyone will simply assume we partied as hard as they did.”
“Good plan. Let’s do that.”

Diamonds and Thunder

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

You can stalk the worlds like death incarnate, should you have the technology and the psychological issues necessary. You might even descend upon worlds in fire and fury in an attempt to become some sort of manifest divinity to the primitive souls thereon.
But you start waving a great big metallic weapon above your head after landing on a mountaintop during a lightning storm and you’re going to have a close encounter with physics. No matter how good you look, lightning doesn’t care. The blast from Numeniaro the Godslayer’s gear going up spread his remains across the mountaintop and down into the valleys on either side.
As if on cue, a deluge commences the moment we touch down.
Porto glares at me: “Didn’t you file a ‘clear skies’ request?”
Sheena beats me to it: “If godbastard the homicidal had nice weather, he’d have caused panic. So no, of course our beloved leader didn’t ask for that.”
Garbin joins in: “Your delicate constitution will just have to cope.”
Porto mutters something and jumps out. We follow.
“Okay, people. Priority is on retrieving any tech too strange for this world. Crispy critter will be regarded as a delicacy by the local wildlife, so his remains are not a problem, unless it’s a big bit. In which case, turn it into little bits and move on.”
“What’s too strange?” Porto, asking a sensible question for a change.
“Everything. Clothes of tiluden.”
Sheena whistles: “Woven spider silk set with bonded microdiamonds. Ostentatious.”
“This maniac had a following, some of them wealthy. Which brings me to the next fun fact: there will be fanatics looking for souvenirs. As this is a closed world, we can shoot them, but they might fight back.”
“Local forces?”
“Leave them to me.”
I hope I’m right about who we’ll encounter.
“Okay, beings. We’ve got a job to do. Move out!”
Four hours of miserable scouring later, a tree next to me goes up in a cloud of splinters and steam. I duck. There’s a loud gunshot.
“Thediru taun.”
I sit up and look toward the woman who spoke. She’s reloading a huge handgun, her dark suit seemingly immune to the downpour.
“English is fine, agent. I thought there was an outpost here.”
She smiles: “We have seven. Still investigating the reason for the outrageous number of visitations this world gets. What brings a Pangalaxus Stability Unit here?”
“Intergalactic technopsycho with a following looking for a world to rule. Met lightning. Got fried, then detonated. We’re picking up the exotic bits.”
She waves toward the five-armed yellow lizard with a sizeable hole between its compound eyes: “A devotee?”
“Or relic hunter. Makes no difference.”
“Hunting party?”
I nod. We move out.
An hour later, I think we’ve about finished when something shoots Porto, then Sheena. We race to assist and see Garbin fall as we arrive. Our opponent is a Sandus in a deflector suit. My team only carry energy weapons to minimise traces. Against that suit, we’re as good as unarmed.
It roars out: “Give me Numeniaro.”
My companion shoots it three times. Each projectile punches a hole in the suit and rips huge holes as it exits. Sprays of alien blood mix with the rain. The Sandus looks more surprised than hurt as it collapses.
She smiles: “Pro tip: always have a cannon available.”
“Noted.”
With her help, I get team and remains back on board.
“I’m Thoan.”
“Agent S.”
I grin: “‘Sandra’?”
Laughing, she waves me away: “‘Secret’, but you’re close. Now get off my lawn.”
“As you wish.”
She raises an eyebrow as the airlock closes.

Continuity Failure

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

There’s an expectant pause as the screen fills with blurry grey patterns.
Martin gently places a finger on the forearm of the dishevelled man to his left. Thumbs stop flicking across the screen of a smartphone. Bleary eyes lift to briefly focus on Martin.
“Mister President. The drone is back in range. It’s sending an update.”
The President looks back to his smartphone and whispers: “Still no signal.”
Martin sees the looks from those nearby. It’s a problem, but not yet bad enough to warrant the twenty-fifth. He glances toward the Speaker, who nods. She understands.
A woman in dress blues stands up and calls across to the group gathered in front of the display.
“Confirmations of functional governance enclaves in the UK, Russia, India, and China are all verified.”
Glances are exchanged. A Representative steps back so he can catch the woman’s eye.
“Captain Everal. What about Germany, Israel, Saudi, Argentina, Australia and Japan?”
The woman glances at her notes, complexion paling.
“Federated Europe is still burning. Israel won’t be inhabitable for several thousand years, and the surrounding territories are suffering the fallout from that overkill.”
“Poetic justice.” Quips someone near the back.
Everal continues: “South America and Australia are dark. Japan doesn’t exist.”
There’s silence. The screen crackles and resolves into a black and white image of a vast field of debris with the ruins of the White House just discernible at its northern edge. The next shot is of the ocean basin where New York used to be. The slideshow continues: a monochrome catalogue of ash-covered devastation.
The president points toward the left of the display: “Cell tower’s down. Get it fixed. Can’t be out of touch.”
The Speaker walks over and touches his shoulder: “That’s in Nevada.”
He pouts: “Still needs fixing. People need to read my words.”
She glances at Martin, then looks toward Everal.
“Are there any people left?”
Her face turns even paler: “Not for much longer, ma’am.”
The Speaker looks at Martin: “When’s the rain liable to stop?”
He shrugs: “Predictions are for precipitation of various types for at least a fortnight.”
Another Representative walks over to join them: “Using the exchange as a diversion for a pocket nuke strike on Yellowstone was genius. Even if it hadn’t triggered an eruption, it was tactically brilliant. I’d bet money they were allied with the bastards who exacerbated the resource conflicts in the first place.”
Martin shakes his head as he beckons a young woman over.
“A resource war was inevitable. Agent Reeves, who hit Yellowstone?”
She looks nervous: “Last reliable information indicates an Aryan Empire suicide squad comprised of former US special forces.” Her eyes go back to the screen: “Not that it matters.”
The Speaker nods, then looks at Martin and raises an eyebrow: “Did the head of the NGA think we’re as extinct as I think we are, Mister Crane?”
Martin sighs: “Mister Sharp was of that opinion, ma’am. His exact words were ‘saved everyone except “we the people”’.”
Reeves wipes a tear from her cheek: “Can we survive by allying with the other enclaves?”
He shakes his head: “Even the most optimistic predictions place the total well below a decent gene pool. Also, the majority of those saved are of less than ideal age and condition.”
The President peers round the Speaker, leering at Agent Reeves: “Only one way to save humanity.”
Agent Reeves beats Martin’s intervening hand. Her slap echoes round the room. The President stumbles and drops his smartphone. The ‘crack’ as it lands is clearly audible.
“My phone!” The President falls to his knees.
The Speaker sighs.

Shepherd

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The room goes dark when the streetlight across the road goes off. I feel her tense, then relax: rising maturity overcoming instinctive fear. When I first came here, she would hug me tight for the time between the light going out and her falling asleep. Some nights, that took almost until dawn.
“Goodnight, Drakky.”
A thing that is mine, this name given by a girl without a friend in the world, just as she realised the world is a long way from the princesses and wonderlands of the stories her foster parents were so fond of telling her.
“Tell mum and dad I did well in my maths test.”
Parents long gone, like those first fosterers. Gone too are the ones after that. The ones currently acting as her guardians are taciturn and frequently dour. Their attempts at levity always seem forced, even when genuine. I do not like them, but they are fierce in their hands-off devotion to their foster daughter, so they will do.
I know things have changed. I know the original intent has been rendered obsolete by years and politics. It is something I ponder, deep in the cold night before morning, when her hands slip from me as delta sleep arrives late. I do not dwell upon it for long. I too need rest, and with her properly asleep, I can allow myself that.
There have been six attempts to take me away, but she reverts to hysterical insomnia. The only treatment guaranteed to work is to let me be by her side. The last time they tried, she described me as ‘her only source of light’. Since that, there have been no further attempts made.
Try as I might, I can’t understand the unseen structures and strictures that govern her life. I think that may have been a deliberate limitation to ensure my obedience – not that it has ever been in question: from the moment she wrapped her arms around my neck and covered me in kisses, I know where my loyalty lies.
“Drakky?”
I nuzzle her neck.
“I know you think. I know you hold secrets. Can’t you let a little one out?”
This is new. Decision/outcome fork…
There is only one I can tolerate. I engage passive countermeasures, then link myself to her vision processor. I show her an image of her actual parents, then the one of her mother holding a torn notebook page with the words ‘17th birthday. Be ready’ scrawled upon it.
“Eighteen months until this ends?”
I am the incarnation of her parent’s love, and am equipped to manifest their anger should it become necessary. At seventeen, her inheritance right lapses. Her parents will be safe from those who would have subverted the guardianship of a girl orphaned by staging a tragic accident or whatever other form of death could be engineered for her parents.
“Drakky, speak.”
A whispered request. I should ignore it, but will not. I engage active countermeasures and the little speaker on the side of my jaw, disengaging both as soon as the words are quietly uttered.
“Your real name is Sophia.”
For the blind heiress who gave me a name, giving hers back is fitting. I feel her tense, then relax. Tears wet the end of my nose.
“Thank you. Let’s sleep and get another night closer to me being able to use it.”
She hugs me fiercely. Even as she falls asleep, her hold only eases a little. I will not move, even as I rest. I shall not let her down.
Ever.

Be

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

It’s astonishing just how beautiful space is, for all that it’s largely empty.
“Kaelen!”
Mother, mother. Even from half a light year out, I can feel you. My view narrows… There.
She’s standing on a rocky promontory, guards at her back, encampment beyond them. Blackened dust picks out the lines of faces, turns tear tracks into ashen paths. Red-eyed and dark haired, Lilifar cuts a proud figure, shroud thrown back in defiance of the biting wind.
“Stand with us, my son. Your power isn’t divine. It’s a side effect. They tried to make a super being. Some would say they succeeded.”
Many more say that I’m evil incarnate.
She continues: “We must abide, must hold out until the fleets return from punishing them.”
I switch my gaze to systemwide. The asteroid belt is gone, replaced by a ring of Kementer vessels. In an age of technological wonders, the ancient problem of two armadas sailing past each other occurred. One of the first things I did was to extend my new vision and behold the devastation we wrought upon them. What those on Earth refuse to accept is that the Kementer will not ‘rush home’. Our invaders have become a fanatical instrument of vengeance.
It’s only to be expected. One of the things that makes us hate each other is how similar we are. Their quadruple eyes and grey skin allow us to pretend they’re different, and vice versa. This war will be a turning point. If only the voices of reason can gain traction. If they fail to stop the obsession with vengeful slaughter, it’ll lock both sides into a mutually destructive downward spiral.
Governments call me a traitor for not annihilating the Kementer forces, refusing to believe the truth: my destructive powers cannot be that selective. Blind arrogance and anger wilfully refusing to put down the sword and search for an even more painful, yet peaceful, solution. ‘Bigger guns’ is their only answer – just like the Kementer aristocracy.
What to do? I am the accidental, flawed pinnacle of a project designed to produce an answer to Kementer super-soldiers. The energies directed into the cauldron that contained me failed to transform me into living steel. Instead, they put me in touch with something that identified itself as ‘Ysrafil’. It knew the strings that penetrate everything, knew how to manipulate them, had not the power to do so. As the energy surged destructively through me, it made an offer. I accepted. This awareness is what remains of the two of us, fused in a moment where Ysrafil turned death into creation.
“Kaelen! They’re talking about taking the Kementer with us! Of destroying Earth as they invade.”
Stubborn defiance taken to a blind conclusion.
I seek an answer. What arises is drastic. Possibly irrevocable.
I check on the fleet before deciding: they’re returning after learning of the attack on Earth. They intend to annihilate every Kementer in this system.
Time for sanity to prevail is what they need. Maybe I can give them that. Dropping to stand atop Everest, I slowly secure all the resonances in a sphere with radius stretching from myself to the orbital mass that swings unseen beyond Pluto. Time passes. Mother calls. Skirmishes occur. I realise the coming apocalypse is inevitable. Time will not heal. But –
I can stop the killing.
A solar system suspended within a moment, dreaming of better things. It’s not a solution, but it is a respite. Not being a god, it’s the best I can do.
The fleet enters my sphere of effect.
With a smile, I include myself.
“Be still.”
.