The Eyes That Never Sleep

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I open my eyes to behold a slit of blue between tenements that descend from lofty, sunlit heights to the sordid mess of which I am a larger part. Lining that strip of clear sky are the blurry, baroque patterns made by fire escapes and drying racks set against the cerulean heavens.
Lowering my sight, I find aged brickwork well on its way to possessing the rugose anonymity of weathered rock due to a thick layer of ordure. In places that glistens like oils left to dry by a demented painter.
I have but one boot remaining. The sock on the other foot bears more resemblance to what covers the walls than any garment. My trews are ragged, likely ruined. I am shirtless under my heavy coat, and am lying on a soiled mattress.
Have I an appointment? Am I late? Something disturbed-
My testicles are wet.
Pressing my chin to my chest, I see a bottle resting against my crotch, angled in a way that incriminates my left hand for dereliction of gripping duties.
Righting the bottle, I narrow my eyes, then resort to digital means as the effort required to focus is beyond me. My headware queries the bottle and its RFID returns: ‘Freefall: premium vodka triple distilled in low-earth orbit’.
Unfinished vodka, and the sun is on the rise. So yesterday was Tuesday. Maybe. Today is probably Wednesday, or I missed brandy day and today is Thursday: tequila day. Making head or tails of that conundrum can wait. I drink the bottle dry, then consider taking my trousers off to suck the spilled liquor from them. That would require a cessation of being prone – isn’t worth that sort of effort.
Letting my head fall back, I watch birds wheel across the blue slot above, trying to guess where they’ll pop into view. Sure enough, idling and booze slip me back into stupor.

I dream of a furtive man in shabby clothes running the calluses of his thumb across the edge of his blade, taking comfort from the feel of whetted steel. He’s creeping down a debris-strewn alley, everything about or on him suppressed so as not to give warning. It’s foolish, trying to get past the eyes that never sleep, but the rewards are so big he cannot do anything but try.

My knee cracks bone when it slams into his head, held in place by my left hand, grip anchored by thumb in eye socket. Right hand smashes the empty bottle. Pain starts to make him recoil; jagged glass opens his throat. I release his head with a push and twist. That turns him away before he drops next to me. His last breath gurgles and stops. From the roof above it would look like we’re drunks sharing a discarded mattress.
I’m awake.
“Good morning, Frank.”
My ‘eyes that never sleep’ have been waiting.
“Hello, SAL. How long did I manage this time?”
“Nine days. A new record.”
“Thanks for letting me pretend for a while.”
“I don’t mind. Your drunken dreams are fascinating and some of your ramblings are quite insightful. I’ve contacted the outfitters. Clothes and grooming accessories will be here within the hour. Coffee and pierogi will arrive sooner.”
“Thanks, SAL. Next contract?”
“Mars. Somebody’s insisting they’ve been dumped there against their will.”
“We’re to silence them?”
“No, we’re to bring them home alive.”
“Nice. We can pretend to be a good Samaritan.”
“I thought you’d like it.”
I sit up and settle. It’s so quiet here.
“We should move nearer to the entrance of the alley.”
“Ah. Yes.”

Thud, Bang

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Is all I hear.
On a world where everything uses parts of the visual spectrum humans don’t, we’d have been better off staying away. Far from its star, the eternally-twilit forests of Modbiaent XIV are protected by interstellar law and, more effectively, by orbiting weapons platforms. Naturally, this isn’t entirely about conserving the environment. Modbiaent XIV has stocks of a rare element, dubbed Biaeum, that has many possible uses. It’s been found on a couple of asteroids, but the quantities here are far greater.
Light in a spectrum that allows humans to see actually causes some indigenous life forms to break down. Labelled ‘photonecrosis’ by the media, it means that humans visiting this world should adjust themselves, rather than seeking to adjust the environment. Drysuits mated to space helmets using visual technology borrowed from the military is the current vogue.
“Tassy! What was that?” James sounds scared.
I made contact with him a while ago – not that we know where we are in relation to each other. From the delay, he must be further from the site than me.
“A Wubdern collapsing the habitat by landing on it.”
“How do you know?”
“Best guess.”
It’s also the best likely cause on this eerily quiet world. For months, we thought the silence was due to the nature of the environment. A silly assumption. There’s a more obvious answer: something dangerous is always listening.
Chas Wubdern was collecting samples using a hammer and chisel. The percussive noise attracted the thing that killed him. In his memory, we named them Wudberns. They look like a Pteranodon crossed with a Komodo Dragon with claws on wing joints, wing tips, and feet. We measured their bite strength at over 75kN.
Making the best of the loss, we set out to document Wudberns. To do that properly, we reasoned, we needed more than one example. Taking a cue from shark fishing, we ‘chummed’ the area using loud music, a breathtakingly stupid decision. Suddenly, we had half a dozen territorial predators prowling about and fighting. The battle between the biggest one and its closest rival crushed our engine module. The noise that made caused them to pound it even flatter during a scavenging frenzy.
With engineering gone, it became a race. Could the supply ship reach us before the habitat failed?
We hadn’t allowed for the Wudbern being curious creatures with rudimentary tool use, just like the Ratel. We were the ‘sweeties in the puzzle box’, as Rosie put it. It didn’t take them long to figure out that tools were only needed to pick over the wreckage: the habitat modules are quite flimsy if you land a 500-kilo predator on them hard and often.
I’ve been out here for two days. Switched every possible thing toward keeping me alive, vision system included. James is worse off: one leg broken. Then again, crawling away probably saved him. The Wudberns didn’t hear. That’s certainly what saved me. Donald ran off. While they chased and tore him apart, I tip-toed out into the wilds.
I haven’t told James that the ship’s been kept from orbit by the weapons platforms. Someone forgot to arrange clearance. Obtaining permission will take two days longer than my life support can last.
Unless I can find James and…
Something large lands in front of me. Something heavier falls nearby. Vision on!
There’s a boulder at my feet and James is sprawled in an untidy heap by a rocky outcrop. Good effort, especially with that injury. I hope he’s dead. If not, I have a pipe wrench. James missed. I won’t.

It’s Not Like They’ll Miss It

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The last words my Pa said to me were: “Down where the rocks run free, and the colours run like blood.”
Not the traditional deathbed wisdom for the young buck, but certainly something to stay with one. After seventeen years of prospecting, I still think about it. When Kristin and I transitioned from lust to romance, I knew I’d share the words eventually. That time is tonight, in one of those quiet interludes before dropping off to sleep.
She sits up and replies: “Melting in magma.”
That makes me sit up.
Dondas Kieller, my Pa, had been a crystal hunter, a seeker of the impossible gemstones that can be found in the rubble that drifts through space. His business partner for twenty years, Alois Johnston, had quit barely six months before Dondas found the motherlode.
Not that there was any mining involved. He found an ancient spaceship tethered within an isolated asteroid. How long it had been there was a question with a staggering answer: it had been abandoned before humanity first ventured into space.
The discovery caused a sensation. Johnsten’s attempts to claim some of the bounty likewise. Then the second expedition translated the alien language on the walls and discovered the reason why the ship had been hidden: it was a doomsday device, a planet destroyer, concealed out here in case of dire need, along with all the secrets of its creation.
Secrets that our militaries wanted. Secrets that were missing: data platters and focussing arrays, both made of artificial gemstone, had been recently removed. The military came after Pa, but he didn’t budge. Claimed he’d never explored that far into the vessel. Alois accused him of stealing for profit, but burying after the translations were made public. The media attention didn’t help defuse the situation.
At the height of the outcry, Pa made up with Ma and brought us here, the family lodge on Big Island. It was here that Alois and three like-minded ‘friends’ came visiting one evening a few weeks later. I heard them arrive, then Ma took me with her to overnight with friends.
What happened that night has several versions. The accepted one is that after an argument, Alois departed with his friends. Angry and probably drunk, he lost control of his hired flyer and plunged into the sea. The flyer was recovered, the bodies weren’t.
All Pa told me was that: “Alois knows where the alien gems are.”
I pestered him for months. It came a bit of a thing between us. I’d ask in a variety of ways, he’d always give the same reply. But, as time passed, I got bored with it. I’d still toss the question occasionally, because it made him smile, but the fun was gone.
Until tonight.
At the end of our property, about two kilometres away, is a big lava flow. Kristin’s interpretation has me putting Pa’s last words together with his stock reply.
I whisper: “Alois knows where the alien gems are: down where the rocks run free, and the colours run like blood.”
Looking at her, I smile: “He destroyed the information and core components of the weapon.”
She tilts her head, not understanding.
I look up at the ceiling, eyes watering: “On his deathbed, he confessed to it. By inference, quite likely four murders as well.”
Kristin looks puzzled: “Tell me the story.”
I do.
She sits for a few minutes after I finish, then points at the half-bottle of wine on the table.
“We should drink a toast to him. Then never mention this again.”
I fetch the bottle and two glasses.

He Wore Sorrow; She, the Crown

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The bright lights seem colder, shining from tall glass towers, set against a sky made starless by clouds. Nearer are the lights that adorn the forest of Christmas trees on the plaza above. Closer still are the control boards that flicker above the six-lane carriageway at our backs. Closest are the lights we string while setting up against the two-metre fence that separates pedestrians from traffic.
The wash of passing vehicles provides ventilation for this informal market. It’s surprisingly fresh air, what with most of them being electric. The occasional waft of exhaust fumes marks a classic storming by, while a smell like grass after rain indicates the passage of a cold fusion power unit: a limousine or Domestic Army truck.
Speeding traffic draws the eye but gives nothing back: people watching at the speed of modern society – too fast to get details or gain anything from the experience.
“Got something for me?”
I know that voice. Tobin Dray, a coarse throwback in an expensive suit. He’s got that loathsome combination of sleight and skill: a white-collar worker from a lower-class background and hard teenage years, proud of the dishonesty that got him where he is today.
“You want it on ceedee, deevee, beedee, stick, or load?”
There’s no point in trying any jovial banter. He regards me as a lower class of being, tolerable only because of the vintage material I obtain. Ever since the internet statutes of the last decade, England’s become a place where even your vices are subject to tariffs and access checks. So, for those who have to have what others cannot, they come down here, down where the bleedfeeds don’t reach.
“Load. They’ve started scanning us in and out at lunch break.”
Which means portable storage media, possibly containing terrorist-aiding malware, will be viewed. For Tobin, that would be embarrassing. I know of others who could be fired or even arrested.
“Come on, I’ve still got to get lunch.”
I smile at him and retrieve a datawafer from under the counter. He likes that. The hint of getting something not for the average punter. Today, that’s true.
He drops a wad of scrip on the table and snatches it from my hand, eager to sample it. Placing it against his receiver, he grins in anticipation. As it engages, I see his face slacken and eyes widen in shock.
For some, Christmas is like a magnifying glass: a time to expand the little good you do with public demonstrations of largesse. I often wonder if those who need to do that believe it’ll expand far enough to cover their selfishness.
Tears start to run down his face.
Seven years ago, he drove a young prostitute out of town. She insisted he was the father of her daughter. Doubt was sown. Evidence tampering was never proven. Jeopardising his promising career became a justification. Forsaken, she fled. A troubled orphan, Isla spent a long while struggling to raise her daughter alone before finally seeking help.
Tonight is Christmas Eve, and Tobin came for a shot of Eighties porn. What he’s getting is his daughter, Isabella, singing Silent Night at the school Nativity play a couple of nights ago. I know she looks just like his mother at that age: the one grandmother she’ll likely never meet.
He’s crying. Maybe he can change. Christmas can do that: sometimes you get what you need, not what you want.
Hands shaking, he drops the wafer onto the table and stumbles away.
Supporting the family I have left, my granddaughter and her daughter, is my ‘career’.
Merry Christmas, you bastard.

Arterial Drive

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m sitting in a luxurious café on the seafront at Torslit, watching ten-metre-tall purple waves break across the dome, when a news article catches my eye on the ever-present infofeed.
“Police today released the constructed image of a human they wish to question in connection with several gruesome murders across Fabulon. The suspect stands one point seven metres tall and speaks with a Churuish accent. If you see this male, notify a polipoint immediately. Do not attempt to approach, engage, or apprehend this dangerous being.”
The image is of a bearded everyman in a plaid bodysuit, with an old scar on one cheek and dragon tattoos curling round his forearms.
I wait for the words linking him to killings on worlds like this one, but – as usual – they never come. Even if they did suspect, I doubt it would be broadcast. But, every time, I still wait for it. Like all of my kind, I’d like my art to be appreciated. Which is the eternal dichotomy: to continue my art, I must be free. Which means I must remain unknown.
This modern age affords me ways to ensure my body of work will finally be realised. In the age-old tradition of bank deposit boxes, Datavault operate on the liners that flit between the many worlds of man. For a fee, you can securely store information with them. That data will never be released unless one specifies the release criteria, and the recipients.
The Lenkormians pioneered the forever drives that power the vehicles of a hundred races. They also provide certain specialist services for those with the wherewithal to avail themselves of them. In my case, a life monitor. Upon my irrevocable death, my datavault will unload its contents to the ten highest-rated intergalactic news outlets at that time. My reign of termination will become public knowledge.
Not just dry schedules of the dead, either. I pride myself on trying to record as comprehensive a view of this incredible existence as I can. After all, what point is there being innovative if I cannot attempt to prevent any from surpassing me?
From humble beginnings with a classmate back on Earth, I am currently a forty-year veteran of ending sentients. My variable facial features, shifting scars, and transient tattoos came compliments of a long-demised agency, and government, who recruited me for my tendencies and potential.
They made the mistake of thinking they could control me by threatening my family. When I decided the time had come for me to leave, I ended my family. In the aftermath, I’m sure they discovered that many who’d worked on or with me had already died in circumstances that would only be suspicious after they paid attention to the minutiae. By the time those revelations reached those who would rightly be alarmed, the few targets I hadn’t taken care of were dead and I was somewhere out amongst the stars, performing murder under new skies.
As high tide has past and my drink is done, I’ll save this introductory piece for deposit when I board the liner in a short while. Torslit has been good to me, but an overindulgence at an isolated waystation will cause a commotion, and it can’t remain undiscovered for much longer. Therefore, I must away. The people of this planet are so welcoming, it seems a shame to waste such trust. I only have myself to blame. When practising years of restraint, the occasional massacre is inevitable. Likewise, the subsequent need for swift relocation.
If you’re reading this, my name was Walter Naguel. I would have relished killing you.