Message in a Bottle

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I look up as Anthony strides in, closing the door behind him.
“You closed the door. What’s gone wrong?”
He grins, then hands me a metallic tube. I turn it over. A courier tube, used for documents too precious for digital transmission. I spin my chair to bring it under the light. It’s pitted and scarred, abraded through age and exposure.
“A mystery! An artefact of modern creation tarnished like a relic.”
“That’s the problem. This came out of the autofind from Deep Sixteen.”
“That chunk of Pangaea hasn’t been above sea level since the mid-Triassic!”
Anthony leans in: “Still isn’t. It’s just outside Davy Jones’ Locker and likely to remain there for a while to come.”
“You’re not telling me something.”
He pivots to land in the armchair by my desk: “I thought it was a practical joke until I looked inside.”
“Inside? You did that-”
“Under controlled circumstances. It was encrusted with centuries of crud. But the contents? Go ahead. Look. You won’t believe me if I tell you.”
I unscrew the end of the tube and peer inside. There’s some kind of flimsy. Pulling it out, I unfold it and peer through the thin piece of transparent plastic at Anthony.
“And?”
“Wait for it. It needs to pick up a charge.”
What?
There are words appearing on the sheet. Glowing words. As they form sentences, I feel my mouth drop open.

My name is Tristan Mokolan. I lived in Bellsringham, London. I have been marooned in the Triassic era long enough to know that I will die here. My time manipulation technology has been stolen by my former partner, Bertrand Hallsey. He knocked me out and dumped me here as a cruel way to ensure my disappearance.
I don’t care about his reasons. I just want my Anna to know that I was coming to her with the ring she said she’d wear. I didn’t desert her or Sharna, her daughter. I intended to be the husband and father they trusted me to be.

The small sheet is filled with words. There isn’t room for more, no matter how much I will it.
“Good gods.” I put the sheet down and the message fades out.
Anthony hands me the other glass of vodka he’s poured: “And several devils.”
“Bellsringham?”
“It’s a recently proposed thirty-third borough, comprising a chunk of northwest Bromley.”
“So, this is a 235-million-year-old message in a bottle from a genius who lives in a place that doesn’t yet exist about a perfect crime that hasn’t happened?”
“Yes.”
“Then how did a metal tube survive that long?”
His expression turns serious: “It’s a ceramic-plastic-metallic alloy and I can’t even imagine the technology needed to make the technology that actually made it.”
“And this flimsy?”
“Didn’t dare mess with it.”
“Good call.”
Anthony looks at me: “What now?”
We’ve already come to an unspoken agreement: we have to try.
“When we get home tonight, we set up clauses in our wills that hand a sealed copy of the message down through the generations until a borough called Bellsringham exists and a scientist by the name of Tristan Mokolan lives there.”
Anthony grins: “We’ll never know. I can live with that.”
Everything lurches, like reality tripped over a kerb. I grab the wastebin and puke into it. Anthony is clutching the arms of the chair in a white-knuckle grip. On the table is a plain white card with the words ‘Thank you’ written on it. The tube and flimsy are gone.
While we stare at each other, shaking in wide-eyed shock, the card hisses as it evaporates.

Mary Said

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I hate old servers. Not ‘old’ like they peddle on the upgrade-your-old-one-now streams, but genuinely aged kit still running despite all odds. There’s a lot of it out there. Even back in the late twentieth century, corporates had no real clue as to exactly what hardware they had, where it was and what – if anything – it was doing or being used for. Multiply that information gap by several decades of huge growth in deployed estate and the lack of need for direct connectivity bestowed by the ‘internet of things’ and the result is an unfixable issue of ridiculous proportions.

All of which is a nice preamble to a nasty fact: dead people aren’t going away. Oh, their bodies are recycled and their possessions redistributed, their websites archived and their social media identities memorialised, but any who had a direct neural interface are not actually departing. Whether they are undeleted data or some form of ghost – or even a new form of life, the ‘virtual entity’, is a moot point when they start afflicting. In a world reliant on computerised systems, something that actively interferes is a threat. Giving it so many ‘dark’ places to hide in just makes it harder to remedy.

It’s taken a week, but we’ve traced the faint scatter of this entity to an old server somewhere in the industrial sector around Manchester. As this one managed to kill a real person by slaying their avatar, it’s a priority in case of another ‘attack’. I suspect otherwise, but the concept of vengeful virtual revenants is something I can’t mention. So, I’ve quietly done some research in the hope I can fix it rather than having to erase it.

Ahead of me, amidst the vague data constructs of an ancient system with a faulty GPU and no HPU – holographic processing didn’t exist when this server was installed – there’s a creamy glow with perfectly rounded edges that moves round the constructs, not through them. It’s like it lends them substance with its presence.

“Harold?” The voice is feminine, crackling and hissing like a weak radio broadcast.

“No, ma’am. I’m with the police.”

The creamy form slips nearer, resolving from momentary pixel storm into a young woman in an elegant ballgown.

“Miss Eleanor Graude?” Let’s see if my suspicions are on the mark.

“Why yes, young lady. How can I help?”

My avatar looks like beat cop from twenty years ago.

“Ma’am, it’s Harold. He’s been murdered.”

She hangs her head, a shaking hand covering her eyes: “I hoped I had succeeded, but it’s so difficult to pick things up around here.”

Eleanor looks up: “He beat me all the time. I couldn’t stand it. I can’t prove it, but that’s why I killed him.”

I smile: “Mary told us, ma’am. You defended yourself at last, didn’t you?”

She looks confused: “Mary? But she’s barely six. How could she-”

Her form flickers as realisation sets in.

“I’m dead outside, aren’t I?”

“For nearly two decades, ma’am.”

“He killed me, didn’t he?”

“That’s what Mary told us, Eleanor. With Harold dead, she could tell the truth. And she has. All of it. All the years of it.”

I see her smile as her outline blurs. A perfectly formed tear rolls down her face, leaving a line of empty space where skin used to be.

“Please tell her I love her.” She fades as she utters the words.

I quickly drop out of the virtual world and roll my head to one side so the tears don’t fall on my interface.

On the Wind

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Swerve left and dive over a fence, roll once and spring through a gap in a wall, landing in what used to be a lounge, my face inches from a dead someone’s diary. As a former librarian, I can’t help it: I have to read the words neatly written on the page-

There’s a grinding noise nearby that sounds like distorted laughter. Nasser! Move! Seeing the page is the last one with writing, I rip it out and pocket it. One sheet of paper won’t weigh me down.

Out the doorway and through a parched backyard, explode through a chain link fence in a shower of rust and brittle pieces, then over another brick wall, to plunge down into an open cellar. I crash land and the floor gives way. Surprisingly, it’s only a short fall onto a van roof. I wait for the Nasser to descend on me, but things only get quieter as bits cease to fall. Minutes pass and my breathing slows.

“You alright, mister?”

I turn my head and she gasps at facing the muzzle of my gun. Training: aim follows eyes all the time.

Preteen. Bright-eyed. Cleaner than me.

“I’m good, miss. You on your own down here?”

She nods.

“Had yourself a right good shelter, too. Sorry I made a hole in the roof.”

There’s a tentative grin. Then a smell reaches me. What the-

She sees my eyes widen as I sniff.

“Baking day. Nassers got no noses.”

True. The dreadful clones of a vengeful spaceman see very well, hear badly, have the tactile sensitivity of a car crusher, ignore odours, and I don’t want to know if they can taste things. Duke Benson got left in space when the shuttle fled the arrival of The Ship. Everyone thought he was already dead; he thought everyone had abandoned him. The giant alien manufacturing facility we call ‘The Ship’ may well have been a gift to humanity, an opening overture to eventual contact. Sadly, the first human it met was a mean, unhinged man with a brand-new lust for revenge. Now, ‘Nassers’ are perpetrating an extinction event that only the arrival of The Ship’s creators can prevent. That’s the only scientific conclusion reached: further research and related investigations were suspended in the face of genocidal empirical evidence and an overwhelming need to run and hide.

“I got rolls. Cake in about ten minutes. You want tea or coffee?”

What the-

“How?”

“Dad ran a catering business. I was down in our storage when it started raining Nassers. Dad and Ben, his foreman, reversed big rigs down the entry ramp and blocked it. Nassers got ‘em as they tried to get in. I’ve been alone ever since.”

Two years. She’s been here two years. Barely a mile from what was our camp until a few hours ago, when it became a Nasser-overrun slaughterhouse. Bertrand’s tale about ‘baking on the wind’ wasn’t hogwash. I wish I could apologise to him.

“You ran from Bagnell?”

She knows. I look at her and nod. It’s too soon for words.

“Then you better come in. We’ll be safe, I can drop the security shutters between the carpark and the warehouse. My name’s Greta, by the way.”

“Dustin.”

I clean up while she makes tea. As I shuck my ruined jacket, that torn page flutters to the floor. I pick it up and read:

‘There is no Judgement.
There is no Qiyamah.
There is no coming back.
There is only the end.
It will be ugly,
And accompanied by laughter.’

Now I wish I’d left it behind.

Extinction Event

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The sub-tropical jungle steams in the sultry afternoon heat as the sun reappears after the mini-monsoon. Sapping humidity returns. Two figures appear: the leader moving with the ease of long familiarity with the terrain, the follower stumbling every few steps.

“This undergrowth is hard to get through.”

“I’m afraid we’re not allowed to do anything about that, sir.”

“I paid seventeen million to come here to hunt. You could at least have cut a trail.”

“We’re not allowed to do that, sir. We have to maintain a minimum impact on this milieu.”

“Minimum impact? I’m about to shoot a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a Ruger-Wallace .655! What’s that going to do to the timeline?”

“We’ll remove the bullets and leave the dinosaur, sir. Predation by temporally-shifted hunters is a small enough factor that it is absorbed by environmental losses.”

“Then your man is in for a cheap payday. He’ll only have to remove one bullet.”

“My mistake, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Oh, you found me a big one.”

“Apologies, sir. That one is not for hunting. Temporally relevant specimens are marked by a cartouche – you can see it on the Tyrannosaur’s head, between the eye ridges.”

“You’re telling me I can’t shoot that?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Who decides that? And how?”

“I’m not at liberty to say, sir. Laramidia Hunt Tours will credit it you 5% for this disappointment.”

“Five percent be damned. I paid for it, it’s my kill.”

“No sir.”

“Get out of the way, Tour Guide Croon. Otherwise, we’ll see if you’re bulletproof.”

“Are you threatening me, sir?”

“No. Accidents happen and you’re going to have one if you don’t get out of the way.”

“The decision about temporally relevant specimens is made by a Sagnathus, sir.”

“A what?”

“Sagnathus. A sentient race that left Earth just before the KP event, sir. They decide which of their revered kin we are to leave alone. Attempting to transgress that will void your cover, sir.”

“What sort of horseshit are you trying to feed me, Croon? Smart lizards? Hah! Now, get out of my way or get shot.”

“Sir!”

“What?”

“Behind you.”

“You think I’m going to fall for tha-”

Croon catches the Ruger-Wallace assault rifle as it slips from lifeless fingers, then steps quickly aside to avoid being hit by the owner’s severed head. The Sagnathus sheathes its razor-sharp klewang while its tail slaps the ground in applause.

“Commendable alacrity! Fair greetings, Tour Guide Croon.”

“And many more to your troth, Ranger Takt’r.”

“Your pronunciation has improved.”

“Thank you. My apologies for-”

“None are necessary. We both know the difficult natures of some of the clients you have to guide.”

Croon gestures toward the body: “An unfortunate misfire?”

“I think taken by a pack of linheraptors when he left the camp – against your advice – would be more in keeping. He struck me as a human who doesn’t make mistakes with his guns. So, you found his gun and a few grisly remains, necessitating on-the-spot incineration. When you return his beloved rifle, heads will nod but nothing untoward will occur. But, as a precaution, we will monitor visitors for six months to ensure no investigators slip through.”

 

The sun beats down and the sub-tropical jungle steams in the sultry afternoon heat. Scavenger and predator alike, lazing in the humidity, momentarily tilt their heads to sniff at a scent that drifts by. Recognising incinerated carrion, they settle back to await the cool of evening and better hunting.

That Final Twilight

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“What is that which burns like the star had a child?”

“Terra of Sol Three, my bairn. Its residents called it ‘Earth’. It was beautiful.”

“Why does it burn, pata?”

“They had the war they said they’d never have.”

“That seems foolish.”

“It was. They lived on a planet with more shades of green than any place I have ever been. They had a host of creatures that gave voice; even had companion creatures. In addition to the dominant sentient primates, there were four pre-sentient aquatic species, two pre-sentient primate species, and a host of broad spectrum entities that we never properly catalogued.”

“They killed them too?”

“One could argue that a few hundred murdered billions. When you tally the number of lifeforms that abounded there, it is better the perpetrators died in the holocaust they made. We have not the penalties for a crime so all-encompassing.”

“Did they do so knowingly or were they insane?”

“Sanity is a trait that can change drastically depending on circumstance, my bairn. To the point where what is sanity for one can be insanity for others. I have no doubt that some thought themselves to be in the right, others thought themselves immune, and many more thought their chosen psycho-supportive idols would intervene. In the end, they all burned.”

“What remains?”

“Memory. Which, by the time the ashes cool, will be gone. I returned to renew my acquaintance with this, one of the most beautiful of worlds, scattered with a diversity of natural paradises almost completely ignored by the indigenes. I came back because I was forgetting. Now, I mourn that the forgetting will soon become total.”

“The death of memory being the final demise?”

“In all ways that matter to solid beings, yes. Those who are immaterial may have better of it, but the barrier betwixt us is as impenetrable as that between us and the dead.”

“Then Earth is dead?”

“Aye, my bairn. A glorious place made barren by fear and avarice. The naïve would simply blame a lack of communication, but, at the last, those who choose not to talk invariably have selfish reasons. Whichever of the two underpins the silences, it matters not.”

“What now, pata?”

“We note the loss of a destination. Then we move on.”

“Could there be survivors?”

“Scattered in off-planet habitats and suchlike? Undoubtedly. But, fewer than a viable colony at best.”

“Then we should leave them to their twilight. Anything else would be cruel.”

“Well said, my bairn. Let us begone.”