Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The fan on the ceiling turns slowly, another kitsch feature of this fake colonial era hospital. I do not know when hospitals started to compete for trade, but the ‘healing ambience’ vogue has been out of control – and good taste – for a while. A symptom of a diseased society: choosing to be treated in a replica of a Field Hospital from the Crimea or the whitewashed walls of a Rehab Centre in Da Nang, or any one of thirty or so other styles. Offering appearances, not authenticity, in every case. No-one wants anything less than the very latest in medical care during their treatment.
“Good morning, Mister Clarke.”
The nurse is cheerful. That stoic happiness you wear like armour, when there is no other option but to put on a brave face to cope with an unwelcome task. Not that I have ever had to do that, but my recent experiences have given me a certain insight. Which means I recognise the sideways glances, the abruptness in her practiced moves. I am an interloper in an otherwise genteel establishment.
“How are we feeling this morning?”
“I am comfortably numb, thank you. Yourself?”
She pauses, flicks me a smile that has a hint of being genuine, then carries on as if I had not asked anything. Her bluff manner continues for the few minutes it takes her to check me over. It is a courtesy, more than a necessity. The monitoring suite can see everything and administer anything bar actual surgery or sexual relief, and I am not convinced it could not be programmed for the latter. I would enquire, but I think it could be a query too far for a nurse clearly holding herself together by willpower alone.
“The doctor should be with you before lunch, Mister Clarke.”
She nods and retreats, reaching for the name badge she hid in her pocket before entering. A pointless attempt at anonymity, as the detention drone that squats on the ceiling in the corner will have identified her via facial recognition before she took three steps into the room. If she were unauthorised, she would have been incapacitated before taking a fourth step.
It amuses me, the care with which they are holding me. A rare artefact, to be handled with kid gloves and kept in padded storage while a determination as to its real worth is made. More correctly, an evaluation of the public condemnation likely to occur should it be lost. Less amusing is the knowledge that, even in my advanced state of healing, I could still die ‘from my injuries’.
The media are calling me a hypocrite. I disagree, but it will not change anyone’s opinion. I am the last one standing, and there’s no victory or support in that.
We fought for a fairer society. Son of money, I found myself drawn to a cause that would decrease my father’s income by a few percentage points while helping so many.
Whether the radical elements evolved or were induced, I will never know. The violence was pointless and self-defeating, which makes me believe it was manufactured. The truth got lost in high definition video of shouting combatants. It saves on special effects budget when the blood on the walls is real.
In the end, we died for our cause. They fought to the last. I fell off a roof. I remember looking at the stanchion impaling my chest and trying to laugh.
A mobile trauma team saved me. My father’s health insurance paid for them, and a new heart.
Cold irony echoes with every beat.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
There’s a lot to be said for the feeling of security granted by street lighting. Not overlooking the fact that its arrival heralded mankind moving from a lifestyle largely governed by the availability of daylight or men with flame-in-hand.
Flame. It’s insidious. Inconstant. A wavering light that moves the shadows about. When you’re dependent on shadow, not knowing where the bloody things are going to be from one moment to the next is a real pain in the butt. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I don’t even know where the bit of me you’d call my butt would be. Don’t need to.
So, here I am, one of the longer-lived predators of this fine planet, doing rather nicely off the new upright-walking types who seem to be losing their fur in most places. Then one of you bright-eyed bipeds goes and makes the connection between spark and flame. That tore it. Nearly three millennia of you lot making your way through the dark by whatever fashionable form of flame-in-hand you could come up with.
It wasn’t all bad. Some sections of your population preferred unwavering light, using reflective surfaces to stabilise their moving flames. Wonderful! Fixed shadows and darkness once again. Many a troupe of you, huddling about a motley fire, gazing longingly toward the big house with its bright windows, had no idea your ‘poor’ state meant we passed you by on the way to feeding on those in that big house.
The ever-changing light you so love, the heart of the fire, is what we can’t adapt to. Our changeable, light-hating forms cannot move quick enough to avoid injury or death as what was a shadow we could flit through becomes lit, while what had been deadly bright becomes the dark we need. Maddening. I’ve lost so many friends.
Then streetlights appeared. Flames on poles, of all things. As they got better and more widely used, you left your flame-in-hand behind. Became reliant on the lights on top of the poles. By doing that, you made us new lurking grounds.
The brighter the light becomes, the stronger the shadows. That dark hides us. That dark is us. The reason why some of you walk into the dark and don’t come out? Is us.
What are we?
I don’t know. You don’t have the science or the superstition to make the right words. But, since I’m borrowing one of your languages for a while, I’ll try –
Waiting for your lights to go out.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The sirens start to wail.
John turns as he shouts, swinging a rucksack of stolen provisions onto his back. By the time we see torch beams flicking about in the hands of guards heading this way – the section where their spotlights aren’t working – we’re all running for the fence.
“Keep up, Jinny.”
Easier for you, Em, you’re taller and it’s all legs. Back here in the shortarse division, we get to dodge and hide more often.
Which is what I’m off to do. There’s no way I can make the fence. I’m not convinced Em can, but at least she has a chance.
Sliding under an overturned truck I pull myself up against the back of the cab, hopefully merging the outline of my form with the accumulated crap already under here.
I hear a shot. Nothing to do but wait. Hopefully they aren’t led by zealots determined to exterminate the evil scroungers threatening the glorious New Era government by stealing a few cans of food.
The night is criss-crossed with searching beams.
A scream. Em! Sodding hell, how am I going to tell Trev? Little Em will be five next week.
Footsteps approaching: one person, no torch.
“Vardy!” The shouter is a long way off.
“Here!” The owner of the footsteps.
“You get that screamer?”
“Body went down into the scrap. You want it, come out tomorrow.”
Footsteps pass the overturned truck, then come back.
Another shout: “Not worth it. Come in. We’ll do a final sweep to the fence line.”
“Gimme a moment. Breathing’s playing up.”
The footsteps stop and someone leans against the truck.
Same shouter, further away: “Catch up when you’re sorted.”
I hear Velcro rip and then the sound of someone taking a big pull on an inhaler.
“The problem with sliding under something in a hurry is that you leave a big skidmark if you forget to brush it away.”
Footsteps crunch and scuffed boots come into view. They start kicking about, obscuring the trail I left!
“Your tall friend has broken her ankle. She’s flat out in what’s left of the grey container between here and the railway line. Wait until the follow-up sweep passes in about twenty minutes, then you can retrieve her. They won’t try to fix the gap in the fence until daylight, so you’re good to get out that way. Mind the sentry drone. They rotate for recharge every hour or so and the procedures are slack, so they bring one in before sending a new one out. You’ll have a ten-minute window.”
I can’t believe I’m about to chat with a Domestic Army trooper.
“The time you’ll have to get through that fence and leave the area.”
“Why are you-?”
“Too old to run with the resistance, and my lungs are too fucked anyway. My choices were Pensioners Workhouse or Domestic Army. I chose the one that lets me look like a loyal citizen while making sure the system doesn’t work like the New Era Mandate says it should. Damn sure there are more like me, but surveillance means we can’t trust anyone. In a way, it makes the disruption better: it’s all disjointed, and they’re looking for an organisation.”
“Some days, I do things I’m not proud of. Other days, like tonight, I get to do a little good. Anyway, I’m off to look for intruders I’m damn sure I won’t find. You have better luck next time. Ciao.”
The footsteps retreat. Our unknown saviour is gone. What a way to survive.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
Here we go again, shooting when we should be talking. I’m sure the gigantic shrimp things didn’t mean anything, but it’s a little late when Jeff’s on the guns. One of them twitched the wrong way and his favourite twitch lights up the night. Plants, rocks, alien crustaceans, anything living in the shallows, it all turns to tumbling chunks.
“Of all the stupid, disobedient-” I see Cadenza take a deep breath before she shouts into her headset.
“Jeff! Cease fire!”
The guns continue roaring and the missiles continue whizzing and the grenades keep sailing merrily into the night. I can see Jeff’s fixed grin joy.
A new noise underpins the cacophony. It’s not a constant, it’s a percussive. A blocked ejection port? No, that would have an echo. I look about. No one’s going tribal and beating time in excitement. Nothing’s falling off the ship…
It’s coming from my right.
The weapons aren’t panning anymore. They’re all trained in one direction – to my right. Jeff’s not grinning. He’s got that head down, got-to-kill-it look. Something’s going belly up, and I think it might be us.
Cadenza screams: “Sauri!”
We’re in deep trouble: caught racketeering by one of the nigh-indestructible denizens of far Gorgoroth: legendary, implacable overseers of freelancers like myself, Cally, and Cadenza. Jeff’s not one of us, but Hutnin got eaten last trip, so we needed a weapons tech. Jeff loves guns. Not so good at maintaining then, but he brought a lot with him to add to the ship’s armoury, so we hired him. In hindsight, that might have been rash.
Where’s Cally? If we need to hightail it out of here, a pilot’s kind of essential.
A part of me is egging Jeff on: likely the only way we avoid penalties is to eliminate the one witness who can make trouble for us. The weapons continue to roar and I turn to see what our chances actually are. Perdition, it’s a red one! Of all the planets, it had to land here.
Wings wider than our ship is long snap open and I hear Cadenza scream in a language I don’t understand, but I’ve heard before – what a way to find out her favourite nightmare involves Sauri.
A large movement in my peripheral vision makes me turn my head just as the guns fall silent. I can’t see Jeff for the scarlet gobbets and blood splattered across the inside of the weapons nacelle. The escape hatch under the nacelle opens and Cally drops onto the grey grit that functions as sand round here. She rolls out from the landing and heads toward the monumental proto-dragon that’s actually lowered its wings a bit. I guess even Sauri can be surprised.
“Greetings, scion of the peaks.”
I forgot: Cally’s from Gorgoroth! We might actually live through this.
Its voice is grating and louder than the guns. Every word blows grit about.
“Kin to the earth, ill met upon a bloody shore.”
I don’t like the sound of that.
“We erred and hired one with more than ten rounds. In contrition, we offer his death.”
Time passes. Sweat rolls down my back.
Four gigantic eyes shift from ruddy amber to pale azure: “Accepted. Quit this place, never to return.”
Cadenza straightens up: “Upship immediate, people.”
As I pass Cally, I whisper: “Ten rounds?”
“Old Earth wisdom, imported to Gorgoroth: ‘No honest man needs more than ten rounds in any gun’.”
“That’s why you still carry a revolver.”
A disturbing thought intrudes: “Sauri have guns?”
“Pray you never see them.”
I will. Fervently.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
My orbit is not done. I cannot accept this. A few hours drifting have forced me to admit my stupidity. All the times I cleared up after him, excusing his selfishness as something special, like he shouldn’t have to act decently toward other people.
“Damn you, Neil. Damn you. May perfect stars shine over your unmarked grave.”
His voice is faint: “Danny, that’s no way to say goodbye. This find will let me live the life I’ve been kept from. I’ll never forget what you’ve given me, this wonderful gift of wealth and happiness. I might even see if I can support Myra through her grieving. She never understood why you left her.”
“I left her for you! You needed bailing out of jail on Rustel! I walked away from her and mortgaged everything so I could spend a year at high burn to go and save you. A year! You promised you’d speak to her for me. You told me you were sure she’d come round. Then you told me she’d moved on. Now you’re telling me she’ll grieve? You lying, self-obsessed bastard.”
The laughter over the communicator is getting fainter. He must be nearly out of range.
“Please. That’s charismatic lying bastard. After all, I got to console her over you taking off to follow me all over the galaxy. She was so hurt that you’d sent me to make your excuses.”
I try to let the anger out, but it’s too big for my mouth.
Neil continues: “I can’t help it if your lack of good looks and self-esteem made you latch onto me. I did you a favour. Remember all the good times we shared?”
“You mean all the times I found you’d slipped away with the prizes and then had to save you from the lies you told to get those prizes in the first place? Up yours. I might not be the best-looking man in the cantina, but at least I have some decency.”
“Which is why you end up watching porn while I get served, wind up penniless while I make a mint. How many times have I showed up to pull you out of hock?”
“About as many times as you left me to carry the can and only came back when you needed my spaceship to escape the towers of lies you could no longer support.”
There’s a pause, then a chuckle.
“You’re right. But my version plays better. A little philanthropy always makes me look good.”
A series of staccato noises come from the speaker, followed by the whistle of venting atmosphere.
“Danny! There are holes in the cabin! What do I do?”
I can’t help myself: “Don’t panic. You’re in your suit. Just reach to the left, grab my spare helmet and put it on.”
“Why am I in my suit? I’m inside a spaceship.”
A familiar voice cuts in: “Because you’re playing it safe while in a dense asteroid belt, you idiot.”
Neil and I chorus: “Myra?”
“Your chances of an accident increase when you’re looting alien tombs for the memorial gems they make out of their dead. Those odds turn to a dead cert when I find you trying to abandon my idiot of a lover by stealing his ship. You’re vermin and I’m done being reasonable.”
His last words are not kind. Myra ignores him.
“Danny? After we dump the body, salvage your ship, and put the jewels back, we’re going to have a long talk.”
I’m a fool with woman trouble, and am very happy to be alive for it.