Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The screaming wakes me. I roll off and under the bed before assessing. Christine’s slid over to give me room. Another scream. The Bensons let their guard down. I warned them about trying to make a community. I’ll go across the road and loot the place after the pack leaves.
“About twenty savages.” Her hearing is phenomenal.
Eight years since someone’s idea of a clever plan met someone else’s idea of a cunning counterstrike, and I hope to god the EMP storm was an unexpected side effect.
I’d read articles about people in western society coming to rely on the internet as an extension of their mental capabilities. What I hadn’t grasped was just how little the average ‘first world’ human actually knew after the ability to go online and find information disappeared.
The first winter did for the weak. Warring between the various post-apocalypse fantasists living out their road warrior, whatever-punk or Aryan dream thinned the herd further. By the time the second winter rolled in – with skies like beaten lead and ice blizzards that lasted for days – even the hardened survivalists were having to face a reality far worse than anything they’d been ready for.
Survival is about the basics: water, food, shelter, and the fundamentals of hygiene. There’s also some simple logistics involved. While one human can feed a lot of rats, the other way round erased the rodent population in under a year. Wildlife either avoided humans or died out. Eventually, humans had to make some hard decisions. The younger and less squeamish turned first. The older generations were easy prey. Which messily removed most of the remaining sources of pre-internet knowledge and lore.
That’s why I’ll be salvaging cans amongst other things tomorrow. Savages don’t consider them a food source. Even if they recognise them, I’ve seen that taking time to figure out how to open one leaves a savage open to being attacked and eaten by its packmates. I’d hazard an extension of that explains their lack of offspring.
I lived a solitary, smokeless, low-noise existence in the upper part of a four-storey building with razor-wire tangles across the exterior. Painstakingly worked out rooftop agriculture. Had windmills and solar panels to charge car batteries, along with a hand-cranked generator. Those let me heat, light, and keep watch.
“They’re dragging the bigger bodies away.”
One morning I went out on the roof to find Christine watering my tomatoes. She’d also fixed one of the windmills. She’s partially sighted, but felt her way up the side of my building, under the tangles. I should have added her to the larder. Instead I offered her a cup of tea and let her describe the gaps in what had become our defences. I’ll never ask what she went through before getting here. That she’ll only sleep in the dark under my bed tells me enough.
From what I was then to who I am now convinces me that the dictates of ‘absolute’ survival mean you might survive, but you won’t be human. In that case, what’s the point? Much as there is any point, these days.
“They were screaming your name at the end.”
I reach back and pat her leg reassuringly. She pokes me in the ribs.
“They were calling for help from the only source they knew.”
“Why didn’t we?”
“You know why.”
“Because we would have died as well.”
She ruffles my hair as she says it.
This precarious existence is comfortable, but inflexible. We don’t talk about rescue. We just are, and that will have to do.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
Mister Grumsen looks about the little interview room. Nothing’s changed since he last inspected his paltry domain, but kings have to survey no matter how trivial, I presume.
He nods at me.
“One more before lunch, I think.”
I press the admission button. The door slides open and a nervous young man almost creeps in, cap literally in hand.
Grumsen looks him up and down, then refers to the display projected onto the frosted glass by his right shoulder.
“Michael Evander Durham?”
The cap carrier nods.
“Take a seat.”
He does so, perching on the edge of the chair.
“So, Michael. Just completed college?”
Grumsen nods approvingly and makes a note on his tablet: “Polite. Instinctive manners are so rare these days.”
Michael smiles: “My father always-”
Grumsen raises a hand: “That was not an inferred query, Mister Durham. Please respond only to direct questions.”
“Good. Now, I see your GPA was only 3.4?”
“Yes, sir. In the top ten percent of my year.”
“With a primary focus on mathematics, secondary on the sciences?”
“Well, now. I think I see a bright future. Adam, who do we have for this budding salaryman?”
I look at my screen, where Michael’s details have already been circulated to every company that might be interested.
“Bayer-Boeing are the leading bidder.”
I forward the details to his display.
Grumsen looks them over, then looks back at Michael. I can see the edge of the wide smile on his face.
“Glad tidings, Mister Durham. Bayer-Boeing place your net dollar-diem at 5.28 an hour, for an annual return of 13,728. Which gives rise to their generous offer of a 205,920 donation to your family fund for your lifetime of service.”
He looks puzzled. I can see him doing mental calculations.
“Only fifteen years?”
Grumsen shakes his head: “Correct. The lifespan average for your residential area is 42 years. Current demographic data indicates the final twenty-five percent of working life for people from your background is marred by poor health, childcare crises, and similar distractions. Therefore, they flatline the remaining five years for offer purposes, but will pro-rata the dollar-diem rate quoted here on a weekly basis from the start of your sixteenth year.”
Michael shrugs: “Twenty years isn’t bad, I suppose. Better than my brother.”
I can see his brother got a five-year plus ten pro-rata offer for working as a blast miner on Mars. Died during his ninth year in a non-culpable industrial incident.
“We’ll need a decision before you leave, Mister Durham. Adam, what’s the offer on Michael’s next lowest donation?”
“186,810. Fifteen-year fixed term.”
Grumsen flashes me a sideways look of anger. He doesn’t like it when I give the candidates information beyond what he deems fit.
“Guess I’m slaving for Bayer-Boeing, then. But, before I go: What was Adam’s offer?”
Grumsen bristles. I action acceptance processing on the Bayer-Boeing offer before replying.
“My dollar-diem offer was six-an-hour for thirty years, with optional ‘Until Death’ pro rata afterwards.”
Grumsen goes white. He spins to face me, completely ignoring Michael.
“I graduated from Harvard! How the devil did you get better than anything I’ve ever heard of?”
“I’m told to say it was my 4.0 GPA and a near-perfect family profile. As we’re in a screened room, I’m free to tell you my mother’s sister’s husband is the eldest son of the CEO of ATOX Careers.”
Grumsen mutters something under his breath, then turns back to Michael.
“Thank you, Mister Durham. We’re done.”
Michael bursts out laughing.
“I knew I was. Nice to know you were too.”
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
He rests the butt of the rifle on his hip, trying to look casual despite torn and bloody clothing. Pausing his posing to light a cigar, he snaps the lighter closed and returns it to his beltpouch. Looking about the scene, he lifts a leg to rest insouciantly on the flank of the kill, while a quick flick of his head tilts his visor back.
The jungle still hasn’t recovered its voice after the fury of their engagement, restricting itself to furtive rustlings and sudden, warbled crescendos. Silver-white flashes illuminate the vicinity as the holopod does its work, capturing the hard-won triumph of man over alien monster.
“Zip Tinkhotarra. Title ‘Mitch Saunders brings another Acsel to the end of its rampage’. Loc Tallasye Central Basin. Tim dawn plus three. Godo.”
The holopod beeps, then ascends rapidly. As soon as it’s above the canopy, it sends the data three times, to three different locations, in coded pulses under a second in length. The compression plays havoc with image quality, but allows the holopod to send and drop back into cover before the aggressive, territorial Kren knock it out of the air.
Mitch hears a raucous melee start high above. Having missed the holopod, they’ve switched to fighting over the rights to that particular bit of sky.
He surveys the kill again. ‘Acsel’ is a nickname derived from the acronym for its full name: Artificially Created and Surgically Enhanced Superior Lifeform – a grandiose title for a savage piece of liveware. Created by the enigmatic Vallahyr, Acsel first appeared on Siro Nine, where four of them slew seven hundred people, including the entire planetary guard. In the fifteen years since, they’ve killed over a half a million more. Specialists like Mitch are the only real answer. They’re volunteers who undergo augumentation at one of the heavily guarded Deterrent Research centres. All are highly adaptable combatants, able to respond to a threat that has no set form, seemingly being created specifically for each foray.
Which brings him back to this specimen.
“You’re unexpected, monster. What brings you here?”
Stopping dead, he drops the rifle and pulls his pistol in a single fluid move. Without pause, he snaps full-charge blasts off at the possible locations he’d choose to shoot from if he wanted to drop a cocky augment named Mitch who’d just killed a decoy Acsel and stupidly paused to take publicity photos.
The second shot prompts a bolt of lightning from another direction, the scream of torn air molecules goading Mitch to leap out of its way, frantically snapping a shot off as he dives for cover. Something shouts in rage and pain, words in no language he understands, but content easily guessed.
With a probable location for the enemy, Mitch slots a killquick onto the launch rail of his pistol and lets it fly, cursing as its gravtac field breaks three of his fingers. Again! He always forgets to wear the reinforced gauntlets.
The tiny intelligent missile accelerates toward the designated area, sorting sensor data to pick the biggest thing moving in that vicinity. Target selected, it dumps its entire charge to go supersonic, wreaking precise, lethal havoc when it hits.
Something screams and dies. Mitch stays down and summons the holopod.
“Zip Tinkhotarra. Title ‘Vallahyr Ambush’. Text ‘It used an Acsel in wild terrain as bait. Nearly got me. Warn the others.’ Loc Tallasye Central Basin. Tim dawn plus four. Godo.”
He lights a fresh cigar and grins. It’s always nice to be recognised for good work, but rewards like this he can do without.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
“I said I wanted soy milk, not almond.”
The lady brandishes her mug at me like it’s a talisman of doom and she’s a banespeaker. I sigh. If only it were that simple.
Taking the mug, I tip the perfectly good coffee away, then make one while she cranes her neck to follow my every move.
“Sorry about that, madam.”
She glowers at me and waves her card across the paypoint.
“Vanny! Table thirty!”
Only Bernadino, my manager, calls me that. I look across the room and see I do indeed have a customer, one who clearly has an aversion to sunlight.
“Tanya! You’re Barista Two. Vanny, go serve.”
Providence has provided early release. I don an apron, grab a tray and terminal, then head for my section. It’s a long walk over to the furthest rear corner.
“Good afternoon,” I pause to size up my client, “madam. How can Woodhouse Café satisfy you today?”
When I first saw the name, I thought it a good omen. The gods must have laughed so hard.
I glance up from the terminal to meet violet eyes that sparkle like she’s about to launch balefire. Ancestral ghost – or instinct – prompts me to drop. Blue flames cascade past to splash against the ceiling. Screaming starts behind me. I come up off the floor, snatching the Bowie knife from my ankle sheath.
“Son of Talmir, you ran far.”
She’s on me fast, sure of a quick finish. The knife is through her midriff and protruding from her back before she realises she’s failed.
“Haste will end you, witchkin.”
“My name is Maleanu. Look for me in Argnad.”
“The Nether City will never know my name, witchkin.”
I push her off my blade, draw the sign of the Unrepentant over her body, then duck as something comes in fast and near-silent. I spin into my dodge and come out blade-first, much to the dismay of Maleanu’s guardian. He tries to twist out of the way but only succeeds in turning a stabbing into a gutting.
Dropping to the floor, I end his screams, then rise and make the sign of the Unrepentant over him as well.
“Sir! Please put the knife down, then get on your knees and put your hands on your head.”
I turn to see a young policeman, one shaking palm raised toward me, the other clutching a pepper spray.
“I’m sorry, officer, but I dare not do that.”
“You believe there could be more assailants?”
He glances nervously about. The distraction lets me move in and knock him out.
“My liege, if you wanted a new guise, you had only to ask.”
I look toward the fire exit. There’s a slight figure standing in the open doorway, portal generator in one hand, a smaller replica of my Bowie knife in the other. Her pointed ears quiver and lean toward the right.
“All sorts of attention coming, my liege.”
I shuck the apron and switch scabbard from ankle to belt as I walk across the room. I can see ruby peaks and blue trees beyond the doorway.
“Told you before, there’s no need for formality. So, where now?”
“Any reality with technology seems to harbour a few of their agents. Until the court are ready to return, I think it best we be nomads roaming pre-industrial worlds.”
I smile down at her.
“Time to go, Laurenti.”
She grins: “Very well, Vantris.”
The door swings shut.
Bernadino rushes across and opens the door. Seeing nothing but bins and alleyway, he carefully closes the door and resets the locking bar before fainting.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
They throw me through a window, barely a grey panel against the dusk of the underground I’m falling through.
I can just about make out the floor – it’s coming up fast. Using the slight angle of my fall, I try for a roll-out and nearly succeed. Skidding to a stop, I take a breath of the dank air and cough.
“Good landing, good sir.”
Another inmate? Nobody hinted at that. I take a moment to ease my breathing, then it’s time to come up with some way to salvage this situation.
“Whom do I have the pleasure of sharing this tidal pit with?”
“Rathiek Kinodar, good sir. Benthusian diplomat and lately an advisor to the Upper Brighton Seawall Project.”
I’m in an abandoned ballroom with a talking octopus. To be fair, the octopods from Benthus are humanity’s staunchest allies as we continue to venture forth into the wild black yonder of the spaceways.
“September Jameson. Former Captain in the Sixth Abraxas out of Descartes, currently a gunsell under contract to the Upper Brighton Seawall Project, investigating the spate of violent robberies they’ve suffered, along with your disappearance. Delighted to find you, Diplomat Kinodar.”
“As I am to be discovered. I presume you saw through the excuses, asked some awkward questions, and got yourself – what’s that word for stealing someone?”
“Yes. ‘Kidnapped’. Do you know if the origins of it lie with juvenile goats or humans?”
I chuckle into the darkness.
“I’m afraid I don’t. Ask me again when we’re out of this.”
“I take that to mean you came with a plan?”
“No, but I might have one now. During the Orcan Campaign, I worked with your military. An officer in your Creggar Armoured Division mentioned that all Benthusians posted to Earth have to be acolytes of Mother Hydra. Some sort of secretive combat cult?”
There’s a rustling in the darkness. The voice comes nearer.
“Not so much. We have to learn to move in ways that do not discomfit humans. Devotees of Mother Hydra have teachings to facilitate that. But, if a diplomat demonstrates ability, we are also trained in the combat variations of the basics we are taught.”
“Did you show ability?”
“Yes. I’m not Honoured Cal, but I’m competent.”
I’m unfamiliar with that name, but ‘Honoured’ means Benthusian royalty.
“Then I will swear your violence is treaty-exempt, being justifiable defensive measures.”
“Perfect. Could I trouble you to hold my torch?”
Blue-tinged light swells to summer evening intensity.
“Left, then straight.”
His shadow precedes us, looking like a tall man with narrow shoulders and a swollen head. Glancing down, I see he’s using four tentacles to ambulate.
Double doors explode outward under his blow. We barge into a candlelit room. I recognise the gunsells who took me down, along with Dirk Shriddin, Seawall Project Director. Spread across the table between us is a glittering pile of valuables looted from the sunken homes and crypts of Lower Brighton.
Dirk points at us: “Kill them!”
Rathiek waves a tentacle tip toward him: “Yours, September.”
I dive across the table and clamp my hands about Dirk’s throat before we topple off his chair. Damnably, I can’t see the fight because the table’s in the way. Moments later, I hear bones break as two gunsells bounce off the ceiling. Then the other two glide into view, each held by Rathiek in a double-tentacle choke hold.
He wobbles them at me and laughs.
“Two for retaliation, two to testify.”
I grin down at Dirk.
“Good news, Mister Shriddin. I found the diplomat, then we found the robbers.”