The Specimen

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The room is unadorned. No evidence of tooling; not even a scuff mark mars the bare rock. No dust, no insects. Nothing moves. This place is still. It’s uncanny. Unnerving for some.
Jeffrey Palist found it fascinating. He wiped himself down before stepping into the room with a deliberation that bordered on reverence. Taking the few steps across the downward-sloping rock surround, he walked out onto the yellow-striped grass until he stood at the centre of the room.
Fortunately, he left his drone camera on. The recording shows him turning around, clearly looking for something. He spread his hands, uttered the words “I can’t see you”, and dropped dead.
The rescue team didn’t even make it to his body. They each took three steps onto the grass and died. The second team were dressed in biohazard suits and found all organic materials on the first team had desiccated to the point of crumbling when touched.
Jeffrey’s body wasn’t desiccated. It looked like it was melting: slowly seeping into the pale earth. Any striped grass that protruded from the liquid mess was quivering.
A decision was made to leave everything in place until further research could occur. The second team were on their way back when they too dropped dead.
Six days later, beautiful flowers bloomed amidst the remains. Metallic purple, glacier blue, blood red, snow white. Petals arranged around pistils that resembled jade green compound eyes, with no visible stamens.
Five days after that, the petals drifted down and shattered. The compound ‘eyes’ were revealed to be shells, from which golden worms hatched. Those asymmetrical horrors opened rings of glossy black eyes and wriggled toward the exit. People were still panicking when Sarah Jackson noticed they were dying while ascending the rock surround. They shrivelled as they went, falling apart while struggling up the slope to escape. The pieces rolled back and sank into the pale earth.

Nineteen years later, Sarah stands next to me as we watch another batch of worms die.
“So the amount of material only affects the number of worms, not their size?”
She nods.
“The worms are all the same length, give or take a millimetre or two. None of them are more than two centimetres wide. A hundred kilos of animate organics will create twenty. A hundred kilos of inanimate organics, four. Blooming and hatching periods never change. The grass never exceeds eight centimetres in height, and is shorter toward the edges of the container.”
“Container?”
“We’ve monitored this thing for nearly two decades. The room is precisely designed to keep it alive, but nearly dormant: dependant on prey wandering in. The rock surround emits radiation whenever living material comes into direct contact. The worms are killed by a gamma burst that never goes further than thirty millimetres from the rock.
“This whole edifice is largely impervious to penetrative scanning. What we’ve found is baffling: indications that the interior of the rock sometimes exhibits liquid properties. Scanning the grass reveals a hemisphere of living material, flat side about five centimetres below the surface. It’s nearly fills the container. All gaps between hemisphere and rock are filled with the same dirt the grass grows from.”
She turns to look at me, gesturing in the direction of the room.
“This place was designed to keep the hatchery alive, but to never allow the hatchlings out.”
“You’re trying to find out why whoever built this place didn’t just kill the thing, and you don’t believe any of the ‘religious cult’ or similar theories?”
Sarah nods.
“Welcome aboard. We could be at this for a very long time.”

Monsters of All Sizes

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The little AIbot skitters across the floor, legs not quite obeying it’s eager command to leap onto Rhonda and pester her until she gives in and plays with it.
“Slow down, Saffy. You’ll break a leg again.”
“Shan’t.”
The tiny terror skids to a stop against her boot and promptly starts to climb, foreclaws doing the work while the rear legs bob like shiny pendulums with claws on.
“And what, young AIbot, do you think you are?”
“Welociwaptor. Comin’ to ‘ill you.”
Rhonda chuckles.
“Where did you get ‘velociraptor’ from, Saffy?”
“Wilm. Bwoosh lemme see. Juwassic Wuld.”
It scrambles higher, oblivious to the look we exchange before shouting together.
“Bruce!”
We hear the sound of someone falling from a top bunk two rooms down. The swearing continues for a while, then gets louder. Bleary eyes regard us from a face nearly lost in shaggy hair and an even shaggier beard.
“What’s burning?”
Rhonda points to the climber on her sweatshirt.
“Your credentials, again.”
I push a chair towards Bruce.
“You showed it Jurassic World?”
He shrugs.
“She loved Jurassic Park so much, I couldn’t say no.”
Rhonda leans forward, her tone deceptively light.
“Which one?”
“She thought the beginning of The Lost World with the Compys on the beach was really funny, but she loved the velociraptors in JP3.”
I watch as Rhonda turns red. I hear Bruce swallow. Time to head this off before it, who is doing that ‘intense witnessing’ process they do, gets some first-hand examples of emotions we’d rather it didn’t get working examples of.
“I can see that being appropriate. It’s meant to be a co-ordinating influence. Speaking of which, why don’t you go and put it with Pack Zeta for a while?”
It cocks its head towards me, then leaps down and scampers across to Bruce, arms spread like a child running to a beloved uncle. He picks it up with a beaming smile, then exits the room chatting happily with it.
As their cheerful conversation fades, I turn back to catch Rhonda’s look of concern.
“I think he’d make a marvellous handler.”
She smiles.
“Thank you. I thought we were going to have to set up another hunt, because he’s an awful behaviourist.”
“His family ran a pet shop in Scunthorpe. He was a juggler. When things all fell in and the arts got sidelined, he somehow talked his way into a junior opening on the robotics program at Autonomous Warrior IV. Something about animal training at the pet shop and working with some of the early Sony dogbots. Anyway, ten years later, here he is. The sheer brass to do that has got to be worth something.”
“If he can pass it on.”
“He’ll do it by example. You see how it’s keen on him? He should be given a chance to have it as a live-in companion. It’ll teach the packs. Make every pack before Zeta the control, Zeta and up get its influence.”
She looks thoughtful.
“All well and good, but what’s the fallback?”
I steeple my fingers.
“We decommission unit Sapphire-33, nickname ‘Saffy’, and have packs Alpha through Epsilon use Bruce for a hunt. Run it as urban stealth with body retrieval while he’s on leave.”
“That’ll leave a lot of blood to explain.”
“Animal rights stunt will cover it.”
“What if he goes for publicity or aid?”
“The 77th can handle the media, and Security Team 4 already think Bruce is a waste of space.”
“So they would run interference. That covers all bases. I like it. Good plan, Sergeant.”
I snap her a casual salute.
“Thanks, Captain.”

Mischief

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

They warn us about culture clashes, especially the dangers of exposing primitive cultures to advanced technology. My mother went with the concept of “one being’s magic is another being’s science”. Ever since, if our devices are too much for the locals, we present ourselves as sorcerers or shamans hired to protect a merchant. It’s stupidly effective, too. Fireworks and hologram projectors have saved my life more times than weapons and violence.
I remember her telling me that Fiona seemed more fairy than petite low-gravity worlder. Said she had a talent for mischief. Tonight, I’m probably going to have to intervene, but the mischief is gold standard.
The hulking barbarian points to the media box in her hand.
“Does making the lights go out kill the little men in the relic?”
“Yes, but not the little women. They fall into an enchanted sleep until you make the lights come on again. Then they conjure the ghosts of their favourite men back to life so they can cavort with them some more.”
“They are comely lasses. How does one take service with them?”
“Surely you don’t want to limit your adventuring spirit by living a life of leisure in a little box full of women?”
“After the winter I’ve had? You can pour that adventuring spirit over your backside and light it.”
Fiona flashes me a ‘dug myself a hole’ look.
I shrug, watch the look of panic cross her face, then grin.
Closing my eyes, I interface with V-space and get the Dragonfly to patch me through to our equatorial trading team.
“Tony! What’s Fiona baited into a fury this time?”
I grimace.
“Nothing yet, Larsen, but her current plaything is nearly three metres across. He’s some barbarian who does a guard boss thing during off seasons. Pretty good at both, judging by the quality of his gear.”
“Part of his face got green tattoos?”
“At least half.”
“That’s a Drashtyn Battlemaster. Think medieval special forces with command skills.”
“Man needs a job somewhere warm. Got anything?”
“We’ve a jolly merchant lamenting the lack of toughs to head up his next expedition. That do?”
“Tell him you can bring him a veteran Battlemaster from the northlands using our tame elemental. Providing he pays us full finder’s price.”
“Fiona going to puppet the barbarian?”
“Yup. He’ll be oblivious to being flown in the Dragonfly. We’ll tell him it was elemental magic; he’ll be fine.”
“Tasty. Peggy and Regan and can fake a summoning to give you a landing zone.”
“Perfect. See you tomorrow morning.”
“We’ll be ready. Come in on my beacon. Be sure to land inside the circle of flames.”
“Got it.”
I open my eyes. Fiona is sitting on an enormous knee, looking like a nervous pet. I stand and wave my tankard to get his attention.
“Battlemaster! Before you succumb to a Sprite’s Bargain, I can offer you employ in Wishtar.”
He comes up fast. Fiona rolls out of an untidy landing to tuck herself behind me.
“Gently, now. You know sprites can only do as their natures dictate.”
The massive brow furrows.
“I’m aware, merchant. What’s the job?”
“Trail lord for an expedition.”
“I accept.”
Fiona dashes forward and slaps a control rig in with a low blow. He stiffens, then walks from the tavern with jerky movements, Fiona at his side.
She walks him all the way to the Dragonfly and lays him down in the cargo bay. He starts snoring immediately.
I grin.
“You need to work on the walking, but nicely done.”
“We off to make money?”
“In the warm, too. Wishtar, here we come.”

Via Tenebrae

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

We spent a century looking for life on other worlds. Found some, too. Most of it wasn’t happy to meet us. Us being us, we got round that with our usual bonhomie and genocidal violence. Until we met the Pesserac. They kicked our murderous fleets clean out of space, and eradicated every colony we’d established through force. Then they politely informed us that peaceful colonisation was welcome, because we had a lot to offer. However, until we evidenced the ‘fundamental societal changes’ needed, we were also banned from participating in interstellar trading or receiving aid.
We were a pariah race. Despite the clear warnings, we often pushed our luck. They had clearly dealt with our kind before, and fallen foul of the lies told. We never had any survivors.
It took Earth a century to sort itself out. Afterwards, things generally went well when we ventured into space. Then the first ship with cordallium-windowed viewing galleries journeyed into the long night and humanity discovered a reason to behave, and to believe. For any to cause denial of access to this wonder swiftly became inconceivable.
“Ma’am. They’re here.”
Streamers of light twist past the gallery windows. Tourists crane their necks to try and see ahead. There’s some pushing and shoving.
“Stand easy, people. You’ll see them soon.”
As if on cue, a whirl of colours comes to a halt by the largest window. It presses close. People step back. They can’t help it. I couldn’t, and I’ve seen this countless times.
In proximity to the glass, the colours part to reveal the outline of a figure. Completely negative, no reflections, nothing. Just a rainbow aura about a darkness that comes in varying shapes.
“Marla.”
A man on my left sobs the name and collapses. Every time, with no exceptions, a revealed form will match someone’s recollection of a lost loved one. It works with animals, too. Not that all animals can express grief or distinguish individuals, but recognition behaviour, pack calls and the like have forced the acknowledgement of this phenomenon.
Another whirling form presses close. A shorter, more rounded figure. A family to my right clutch each other tighter and burst into tears together.
The eerie event continues. So many people come each time. Most don’t get the encounter they hope for. All of them see enough to be convinced.
These things are like dolphins, riding ahead of our ships, shedding ribbons of light. How long they’d done this before we could see outside bare-eyed, we don’t know. We can’t detect them in any other way than with human sight. Several scientists I know surmise it’s actually some interpretive quirk of the way our brains process light after it passes through cordallium crystal.
This new field of science is inconclusive and ongoing, but people don’t care. The entities, or effects, or whatever they actually are, have been named ‘Delphine’ in some strange hybridisation of religion and perceived characteristics.
A faster-spinning mass of light presses to the window near me. The outline of my sister quirks her head in the way she used to do. It straightens up and, just before it whirls away, I swear there’s a flash of light like the edge of a silver eyelid closing in a quick wink.
Every time I see, I’m sure it’s somehow learning from me how to represent her. My suspicions about that sort of behaviour have been dismissed so many times I’ve given up.
Much as I can’t stop myself visiting, I’m increasingly convinced we’re missing something. I’ve no idea what. But, in the moments before I sleep, it scares me.

Witch Hunts

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I didn’t want to write this, but here’s the thing: I have to.
Sitting in my study, looking out the window at a glorious sunny day, with kids running riot in the playground and old folk sat on benches watching the world go by, it’s what many would call perfect.
Which is the root of my quandary. It’s the 22nd July 1952. How can I tell them it’s not going to last? The wondrous future of leisure supported by advanced technology that everyone talks about is a lie. I’ve seen it: the computers, the prosperity, the inequality, the Nazi trappings. For the majority of people, it’s a dystopian ‘work until you die’ future, and it’s less than eighty years away!
The machine doesn’t have the ability to let me see how we get there. In truth, getting the view I have was a miraculous accident. Einstein had some ideas about the future being set, and viewable. I might have confirmed some of them.
What puzzled me is that what I see changes each time. Initially I thought it was because my act of viewing enacted some Heisenberg effect upon what I saw: either due to my observations, or possibly knowledge of what I have done and seen becoming public.
Then I thought it because of me viewing on different days – which may have some bearing, I admit.
I am now more of the opinion that Einstein’s fixed universe view is not entirely correct. I believe the view changes each time because I am seeing the various possible futures that could exist at that point, depending on which significant events transpire or fail between now and 2032.
My greatest horror is that not one of the futures I’ve seen differs in the fundamental composition of society. After all the sacrifices of the last decade, it seems the fascists will eventually triumph. The uniforms may differ, but the words, the targeted hatred, the cowed populations and ruling elite are unmistakable.
I intend to continue to document my work for a few more days, then prepare an initia

The man finishes reading, then reaches over the body to pull the page from the typewriter. He turns to the woman who is rummaging through the cluttered bookshelves that cover two walls of this small study.
“No need. The whole place will have to go. We can’t afford to miss a thing.”
“Thank God.”
She drops the papers in her hand with a sigh of relief, then waves to indicate the room.
“Is it that serious?”
“From what I just read, he’s a dyed-in-the-wool communist crank. Looks like another scientist driven doolally by his work.”
“Senator McCarthy might be overstating, but he’s not wrong. I’m beginning to wonder if all this science is such a good thing, either.”
He turns and pretends to check outside the window so she doesn’t see his smile. Turning back, he pulls out a lighter. She opens a slim silver case, extracts a pair of cigarettes, and puts both between her lips. He lights them. Then, with a little flourish, he sets fire to the page and drops it on the floor.
They step out of the room as the fire starts to spread. He takes the cigarette she holds out. After waiting long enough to be sure the place is well alight, they leave. Walking a short way down the road, they duck into a black DeSoto and drive off.