Fire in the Night

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Getting used to sleeping while your body moves is the hardest thing about exoskeletal operations. Right now, I’m tail-end Charlie in a forty-man column accompanying a trio of Big Dogs lugging the payloads for tonight’s test. Above us, a pair of Nighthawk drones sweep from flank to flank. From higher overhead, a Condor watch drone has our perimeter locked down tight.

We’re running two-and-one awakes with the remaining thirty-seven sleeping. The early all-sleeper tactics were subject to path manipulation techniques that fooled our flock behaviour guidance routines. The worst case was a pair of twenty-man teams jogging for hours into a moonless Sahara night, taking their drone support and any chance of a victory with ‘em.

“You asleep back there?”

Point Alpha, Captain Zim.

“No ma’am. Just enjoying the ride.”

There’s a guttural laugh from Sergeant Khal: Point Beta.

“Good enough, Pimsloff. Rotate in ten.”

Point and tail awakes rotate through the column every two hours. Gets a lot of ‘efficient sleeping’ done. Studies show it’s good for muscle tone but grim for joint problems. Even if you think you’re hale, a few nights of exorunning will reveal any joint weaknesses with agonising thoroughness. If that happens, you’ll quickly be transferred to a line post that suits your experience prior to ExoSkOps.

My rear-range pings quietly. I spin about, flick my suit into ‘runbackward’, take a moment to adjust to the gait, and cast about for what upset the vigilant Condor. It doesn’t take long to find it.

“Captain, we have a posse on our tail. Their point just crossed our perimeter.”

“TROOP!”

Everyone wakes.

“Pimsloff, call it.”

“They’ll be single file along that last ridge in four minutes. I call skittles.”

“Good call.”

The Big Dogs swing back and crouch, their handlers behind, targeting views synchronised and patched through to everybody’s HUD1: the upper-left display in our visors.

On the knife-edged ridge half a kilometre away, our pursuers are moving carefully, aware we’ve stopped and worried because they don’t know why.

Railgun technology is changing the dynamics of the battlefield now it’s finally shrunk to manageable sizes. The night briefly lights with fire and a chunk of metal, travelling at over eight times the speed of sound, rips across the intervening distance and tears through the lead elements of the opposition.

The survivors crouch and then get a hustle on, looking to clear the ridge before what they think is our only railgun can wind up for another shot. Their slight variances in pace string them out again. The projectile from the second railgun punishes them brutally. I see limbs spinning away into the night.

Afterwards, they take a while to regroup, avoiding the ridgeline. Which, unfortunately, is their mistake. We have three railguns because the two ‘stubbies’ – helical railguns – are here to protect the prototype. What shoots from that is a bright fireball of near-fully ionised gas. We recoil from its heatwave and see plants puff into ash as it passes. Distant, hideous screams echo as a ball of man-made hellfire disintegrates the survivors of the first two strikes, along with the topsoil they stand on.

“Fuck’s sake.” Corporal Kane has the right of it. Please gods never let me have to face off against one of these.

“Mount up, kids. Condor and the Nighthawks-”

“Should be the name of a band, Sarge.”

Levity lifts us from dwelling on the horror meted out.

“Shut it, Mackie. We have enough data. This op’s a success. Time to bug out.”

Just like that. Three shots, twenty kills, mission accomplished. We’ll be home for breakfast.

About Time

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The laboratory is filled with the sound of slow drops landing. The smell alone is enough to drive three officers back. Seeing the mess does for the next five. Officer number nine moves his torch in slow arcs, picking only edges and highlights from the sanguine layer covering everything.

On his third pass, he sees movement.

“Professor?”

“No. The mess was him. I’m Peter Luan.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I was invited. Do you have your witness app?”

“Yes.”

“Activate it. I need to get this down before it fades.”

“Your confession?”

“No, what he said before,” Peter waves a blood-covered arm about, “this.”

“Very well. Citizen, you’re about to make a legally admissible declar-”

“I know. Witness running?”

“Yes.”

“Last night, Professor Gregory Pane invited me to witness a ‘demonstration of concept’ as to why our eight years of time travel research has been without result.

I don’t know why he chose me, nor do I know why he decided to do this without a permanent record. When I arrived, he was standing by the workbench with a device resembling a bulky glove on his right hand. In answer to my queries, he offered the following statement:

 

‘Time travel has been a powerful desire for almost as long as it could be conceived of. Fiction has chronicled its pitfalls and paradoxes. After a lifetime of research – and knowing that an aggressive brainstem glioma will soon affect my faculties – I offer the following theory and demonstration as to why I am sure time travel is not viable.

In summary: time itself does not possess the granularity that we need for effective reference. Our detailed concepts of time are arbitrary divisions that have become finer and more numerous as our preoccupation with placing value upon every moment of our existence increases.

How can we, who ‘time travel’ in our individual perceptions of its passage, hope to grasp something that has no real measure bar day, night, and similar universal markers? Each of us has a realisation of time and the events that fill it that differs slightly from the next person. Eight billion subjective chronologies. How can a traveller choose which to use for their journey? Against that ratio of billions-to-one, no matter what is attempted, the inertia of the many overrules the single intent.

However, travelling to the future is possible, but it would be a self-destructive act. The would-be traveller tries to simultaneously reach every instance of possible time that could exist. Over eight billion tomorrows multiplied by the branching of every possibility within them. I say over eight billion because who knows just how many other things have a temporal sense sufficient to exert influence?

This is why I contend that time travel is either impossible or suicidal, depending which direction you attempt. Therefore, using this experimental gauntlet modified from the proposed Steinberg-Du accelerator, I intend to travel to tomorrow’s dawn.

If I am successful, I will probably die. However, if I fail, I’ll see you tomorrow morning and we can discuss the sudden advance in chronological transit over breakfast.’

 

Then he raised the glove, clenched his fist, and silently exploded. Since you’re here, I presume someone heard my incoherent yelling.” Peter looks at the officer: “End of statement.”

 

Forensics are still combing the scene at sun-up. As sunlight touches the uppermost windows of the lab, a hideous scream followed by the sound of a tremendous explosion temporarily deafens everyone in the room. Apart from that, both events leave no trace.

Losses

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The woman on screen is stern of countenance, yet there’s mischief glinting in her eyes. It makes her even more beautiful.
“Who is she?”
“Melpomene Drenaly.”
“Why I am seeing the face of an inhabitant of the planet,” he pauses to query his headware, “Bresingamen?”
“Johan Marks.”
“This is her?”
“Yes.”
The black-suited man all refer to as ‘Alef’ gazes about the room. A room so secure even the air entering it has been vetted down to a molecular level.
“So, we’ve been watching her in the hope he drops by. I presume something has gone wrong?”
Heads nod.
Alef barks: “I’d rather be informed that mournfully agreed with! My telepathy is negligible, as is my patience.”
At the far end of the table, a figure in dockworker’s overalls raises a hand.
“Twelve years ago, Johan Marks decided the ‘blackened planet’ approach to resistance was unacceptable to anyone with a conscience. He went rogue.
Various departments pursued him. The only successes were in destroying his remaining family through over-zealous actions. In a moment of clarity, Miss Drenaly was deemed off-limits as she was the only bait remaining. After losing five operatives in the next few months, senior Ranks were convinced it was only a matter of time before Johan lost the battle to rescue his girlfriend.
Five years after that, losses had risen to eighty-five. Being assigned to ‘snare guard’ on Miss Drenaly was considered a death sentence. The entire organisation purged itself of unwanted and inefficient elements. Amongst the upper Ranks, it was tacitly accepted that some losses would be good agents falling foul of vindictive politics.
In the last six years, a further thirty-four operatives have been lost. In real terms, no progress has been made toward apprehending Mister Marks since the initial pursuit.”
Alef steeples his fingers: “Commendable brevity and honesty in a report that should have ended the careers of every Rank 18 and better in this room. Including me. But, instead, we are gathered. Does anyone want to venture a guess as to the reasons for our continuance?”
A woman in a grey robe raises a finger. Alef nods.
“Something dire has occurred. Dire enough that our services are more essential than our punishment.”
Alef smiles. Several attendees pale.
“Correct. Skipping the embarrassing silence that would occur if I asked for someone to postulate, let me answer directly: Earth no longer has an Outer Territories. As of seventeen hundred hours yesterday, they declared themselves the sovereign state of ‘Newbelt’, then promptly allied with the Farbelt nations. They were warmly welcomed. Mutual defence treaties were in place before midnight.”
Looks of confusion are exchanged.
Alef sighs: “He only killed the incompetents. The rest, he recruited. We’ve been outmanoeuvred because operatives we trained engineered it. As of this morning, he’s Johan Marks, Head of Covert Operations, Newbelt. And, I have to say, he’s got a formidable and loyal team under his command.”
From somewhere on the right, a quiet voice rises: “We should terminate the Drenaly woman immediately.”
The overalled figure doesn’t even raise a hand: “I don’t think we want to provoke him any further. Besides, I’d bet she went last night.”
Alef smiles: “Only a bet, Ethan?”
There’s a laughing reply: “Yes. Johan always keeps the details of covert actions to himself. Being over here, I’m an unacceptable risk.”
Alef raises his voice over the outbreak of shouting: “Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce Newbelt Ambassador Ethan Marks.”
Ethan raises an eyebrow in mute query.
Alef relents: “Yes, she’s gone.”
Ethan grins: “New game?”
Alef nods.

Under My Scorched Wings

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

From orbit, this island must look like charred toast floating in a soup of boiled seafood. They’ve rained fire upon us for hours. Not sure what we did, but, as Lailoken always said “It isn’t about what you’ve done, it’s what they think you’ve done, or what they think you’re going to do.”

Another wave of fury crashes across my back. I don’t know why they bother. The rocks won’t burn unless they turn up the heat a lot.

There’s nothing visible left to burn –

Except me.

Ah-ha.

Well, that took an embarrassingly long time to realise. So, Lailoken and just about everything else I’ve ever known have been incinerated during an attempt to annihilate me. An entire civilisation and the land it inhabited laid waste because folk always judge by what they would do. And, given sway over me, them up there would rampage. Therefore, they thought themselves to be in danger, because they didn’t believe that anyone could possibly mean what was said about peace with something like me available.

Callow men and distrust; petty minds never breed noble motives. The goad for the recent unrest becomes clear. Finally, I understand what you said about true prescience being like ‘hindsight in advance’, Lailoken.

But, we are as our natures dictate. In the end, our veneers fall away. For them, cowardice, greed, and tyranny are natural states. I am left with a choice. Do I do as I am capable, as my ‘nature’ should mandate, or as I prefer?

Mgixyn shouts up at me, her voice filled with fear: “Dynas, how will we escape? You can’t carry us all and the fires they throw will slay us even if they don’t hit us.”

She makes a point that contains my answer: I cannot save the children while the bombardment continues. Therefore, the bombardment must end. To stop the bombardment, I will have to break a few things. Thus, preference and capability will meet.

So be it. As the fiery hail abates once again, I twist my neck, bringing my head level with the cave entrance, so all can see me. Although those amidst the clutter at the back will only see a silhouette.

“Stay here. I’m going to ask them to stop.”

They nod and hunker down.

I leap. With a crack that echoes off the far mountains, my wings expand and I rise, shedding debris as I go. By the time I blast through the LEO debris layer, my hide is scoured clean. Levelling out as I clip MEO, I ‘breathe fire’- using a focussed in-system portal between my open maw and a solar flare event. That lets me spray a lot of blazing coronal cloud about. Things get bright as stuff either blows up, melts down or gets blasted to ashes. I can hear their distress calls, but, really, they started this slinging-hot-stuff-around lark. Hardly my fault if I’m better at it than they are. That’s just evolution. Works for hypernatural war machines as well as monkeys.

After re-entry, I descend in a leisurely glide, letting the extremes of my foray dissipate while picking out landmarks for our trip to the coast.

I land in a gust of ash, my claws settling back into the ruts they left.

Wide eyes look up at me. Clamouring voices rise.

“Have they stopped?”

“Is it safe?”

I nod. Their eager preparations are a joy. Sheltered here, they missed seeing the horrors. They will survive.

Under my scorched wings, they will thrive.

And that’s as good an oath as any.

Stain

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m standing a little too close for his bodyguard’s liking, but it’s crowded in here and I have to be sure. I stumble a little and Ileo himself reaches a hand to help. I take his arm and smile. He doesn’t recognise me.
“Thank you.”
“Least I could do.” He’s flirting with his eyes – about all he can get away with. Far too many functionaries about. I see his bodyguard move in.
“Looks like you’re taken.”
He glances sideways at his approaching minder: “Unfortunately, for tonight, it’s something we both must bear. Maybe another time?”
I smile as I step back into the crowd: “Definitely.”
He smiles. I’m gone.

Jonas is his waiter and Elle is his escort. She only got out of bed because serving Ileo pays so much. Jonas rose – from the same bed – because I pay his wages. I watch them exchanging passionate glances whenever Jonas passes the table. That’s unfortunate.

Ileo leaves at oh-three-hundred with Elle on his arm. Jonas changes hurriedly and rushes to meet me.
“Will she be safe?”
I smile as I look up from my phone: “Yes.”
His sigh of relief halts as I taser him with the ‘phone’. Catching his body, I step back into the alley, lean him against a dumpster and stab him several times. Just another mugging gone wrong.
As he slides down, I answer the question in his eyes: “She lives because you’re gone.”

I step out the opposite end of the alley, check my tracking and see that Elle has been dropped off – not that it matters if she wasn’t, but I prefer to be honest when answering someone’s final question.
“This is Hive. This is Hive. Please confirm delegate.”
Right on time.
“Delegate is marked, Hive. Go code is XY671020.”
My touch contained two ingredients in fingertip pads. Jonas’s serving cloth had the activating ingredient, while Elle’s dress and underwear were soaked with tracer elements that would only bond with a microadhesive base made of the first three parts.

Far away on a cypress-covered hill, Ileo steps from his armoured limousine and the stealth drone that’s been orbiting since nightfall locks on. Eight antipersonnel grenades rain down and Ileo goes to meet his maker along with his bodyguard and driver, killed with munitions from a nearby country that most will believe held a grudge.

We came up with how to get away with drone operations over ‘friendly’ soil while at college. I did the time in the military necessary to acquire the obscure skills and contacts we needed.
We formed Hillsdon and Vemas, a.k.a. ‘HiVe’. An international company founded in secret, grounded in anonymity, and based on neutral ground. We provide ‘deniable lethal oversight with global reach’. These days, for an increasing number of people and organisations, HiVe is the ace up their sleeves, and they will pay handsomely to retain – and defend – it.
Our notoriety led to Ileo Vemas starting to doubt our moral standing. Arguments escalated into separation. I changed my face within a month of leaving, then killed those who did the work. It’s taken two years to exploit the protocols of our invisible hierarchy to action his assassination.
My de facto takeover will be a side effect. I did this to wipe away that look on his face. The one he got when he realised I simply couldn’t understand his objections to killing for money. I had to. Just had to. I can’t be as bad as that look suggested, can I?