Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The young man is wearing a vantablack bodysuit that leaves only his face discernible. Matching cloak, gloves and boots are stacked next to the log he sits on. A sensor-laden facemask lies in his hand as he starts speaking.
“You wanted this. So, no interruptions.”
The video drone settles into a hover. A voice emerges from it: “Whenever you’re ready, Captain Tane. Just tell us when you’re done.”
He nods, then stares into the lens with disturbing intensity.
“Vampires? Werewolves? I wish. Like anyone facing a Kastonen, I wish for the mythical horrors of my youth. I’d even face them in packs.
Their vessels descended on rural Iowa and the Ukok Plateau, the former attracting far more attention than one in the wilds of Siberia. By the time the US military had laid waste to a significant amount of Iowa and still failed, the snow leopard was extinct in the wild, along with most other fauna on the Ukok Plateau, and in adjacent territories.
Kastonen are predatory parasites that grow rapidly from a host by means we don’t fully understand. We daren’t study them because their bodies are made of highly contagious matter. They transform an infected host like high-speed cancer, first bonding to the nervous system – making removal a fatal process – then spawning as many of themselves as the host can support. It’s agonising to endure. Immolation is the only answer as the corpse remains infectious.
Regardless of origin, a Kastonen is sextupedal: an amphibious nightmare centaur of varying size, depending on what it spawned from, and how much it’s managed to consume since then. The only limit on their size seems to be gravity. We know of at least three oceanic Kastonen that are bigger than Blue Whales. It also seems that beyond a certain size, they start to grow armour in addition to their incredibly tough hide.
Strangely, they’re herbivores. They reserve meat as fuel for more Kastonen. Fighting them is difficult because skin-to-skin contact is deadly. Plus, they actively avoid confrontation. It’s their primary defence. They don’t want to fight, despite being very capable. Bite and run is their preferred tactic. Nervous system bonding occurs within seconds. Nascent Kastonen will start to grow within an hour. I can’t properly describe the process, it’s unbelievable to watch. We find infected by the noise they make. Those who aren’t in a condition to scream in pain are where our problems arise. Too many have fallen quietly and the doomsday cults that have sprung up are making it worse.
Which is the reason why this interview was authorised: publicising new measures and information.
From now on, any cult member who espouses ‘donating’ to Kastonen will be treated as a Kastonen. Note that the decision over removal can only be made by military personnel. Vigilantes will receive the usual penalties, regardless of any decisions pertaining to their victims.
Have no doubt: we’re fighting for our survival. The new information only reinforces that: the Kastonen could not have made the vessels they arrived in. They are a bioweapon, and their owners will be here in under eighteen months. Our strategists are working on solutions and our scientists are working on pathogens to exterminate the Kastonen. Until then, do your best. Survive. Live to beat the bastards who loosed them on us.”
He blinks: “End of interview.”
Tane dons his gear in silence. He disappears into the shadows before the interviewer can overcome the shock sufficiently to ask anything.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
It’s easy to spot strangers round here. They’re the ones who call the grass-banked sewer on my right a canal.
“And in those days of tribulation, the faithful called unto Old Peace, but his thing was endurance without fighting, so he answered not. When the Ruiner of Empires unleashed the twin demons Druntha and Thacha, the people rebelled, invoking Marilyn of the Twin Desires in the name of the Virgin Queen and the Unseen King.”
I listen to the preacher, reluctantly impressed by his hybridisation of twentieth and twenty-first century politics with pop culture to form a gutter religion that has a host of gods but only one commandment: spend as much time as possible out of your mind on whatever drugs you can find because the world has gone to shit.
Even with my possibly loftier view, I have days when I wholeheartedly agree. Today isn’t one of them.
“Shields. You owe.”
I feel the business end of something big enough to kill a lorry touch the back of my head.
“You’re too close.”
The cold muzzle slides a little as he looks up and over the sights in surprise.
Spinning on my back heel, I turn until my cheek touches his fingertips where they cradle the forward grip of the gun. His eyes widen as I punch a screwdriver through his armoured vest and into his heart. The smell of singed blood fills the air as his cheap heart shorts out through the conductive lacing inside his ribs.
Pulling my screwdriver out, I keep hold of the shiny gun as he drops. Looking it over, I give a low whistle.
“Wherever did you get a blunderbuss like this, Danor?”
“From me, chukka.”
I spoke too soon about today not going to shit. That voice belongs to Lenki – the man I’ve come to kill. I turn slowly, leading with the hand holding the gun, while the other hand turns the screwdriver to lie along my forearm.
“Put the gun down.”
I place it down carefully, leaving it with the business end pointing to one side of Lenki.
With a smile, I extend my hand as I step aside.
He steps the other way and shakes his head.
“Not falling for that. You did me with that trick once before. Drop the pointy tool.”
I smile: “Can’t fault a man for trying.”
The screwdriver drops. I see Lenki’s eyes widen as he works out what’s happening a fraction too late. The tool lands in the trigger loop as my foot braces the stock. Lenki gets his pistol partway up before the gun does what had been intended for my head to his legs. Seeing the result, I’m happy that didn’t happen.
Lenki gibbers as his explosively truncated legs and shock-numbed grip fail to keep him from sliding into the sewer-canal. He screams and gurgles until he drowns or the things that used to be rats chew through something vital.
I take a deep, satisfied breath, then gag. You don’t do deep breathing through your nose down here. I’m getting out of the habit, which probably means I’m getting somewhere. I retrieve the gun, then wipe it and the screwdriver before tucking both away.
Turning to stare at the preacher, I give him a knowing smile: “Whisky from a dead man?”
The preacher proffers a bottle of Glenfiddich; Danor always liked being flashy when organising the locals to provide diversions.
“That’ll do nicely.”
I kick Danor’s body down the bank, then open the bottle. I raise a silent toast before drinking. Sewage: never a shroud for good men.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
We dash around a long curve that should get us out of their sights for a while.
“In all those old films we watched, fighting the evil empire involved a lot less running away from angry warriors with frighteningly accurate weapons.”
Freya looks back, snaps off a deterring shot, grins at me, then looks ahead before replying: “The accurate ones are million-credit death machines. They won’t risk them in pursuing rabble.”
“We’re rabble? I thought the word was ‘rebel’?”
“Semantics, Paul, semantics. We’re the opposition. Any name that distinguishes us from the Roekuld is fine.”
“That’s remarkably accommodating of you. Now, how do we avoid being called ‘dead’?”
She lashes out, flicking the end of my nose: “Less sarcasm.”
We pelt down a featureless corridor somewhere in the outer hull maintenance spaces of a Margantor-class interstellar dreadnought, the pinnacle of Roekuld interstellar warships.
“What makes you fight, Paul?”
I go cold. She glances at me as we continue to run. What a time to be found out.
“I joined because you did. My dad’s in the Watch. I would have joined him, but-”
She pulls up short and trips me. Automated pest-suppression beams crackle through the space where we would have been.
Sliding across to lean on my chest, she stares into my eyes.
“But you fancied my lively brown eyes and ready smile? Or was it my pert arse and long legs? Maybe even my passable intelligence and rapier wit? Oh, you wonderful fool. You still don’t know, do you?”
She rolls off me.
Stung, I try to save a little face as we scramble up and get back to running.
“What makes you fight, then?”
As we turn a corner, I see an aperture, the pale blue glow of its containment field glowing, down by the next corner.
She slows as we approach that corner: “It’ll do, providing they haven’t got ahead of us.”
Firing up our atmosphere helms, we peek round the corner and see the svelte forms of a pair of Craszen combat droids at the end of this corridor.
I do some calculations in my head: “We’ll still be in range when they make it here. There’s no cover within any distance we can achieve.”
The boot to my lower back propels me through the field before I can grab a hold.
“Not if someone who knows how to fight holds them off.”
I spiral out, rotating so I can see her face.
Her voice is quiet: “You want to know why I fight? I fight because someone has to. Humanity is not done. Every act of defiance gives hope. Every person who lives to fight another day carries stories of those who gave their lives for that.”
I hear her sniff.
Then she whispers: “So every Paul I’ve come to love, only to find he joined up for the wrong reasons, can find a cause or quit and go back to the life he should have had.”
She smiles, then spins and falls prone. I see the lilac flashes of her – I check my belt – and my blaster. Engaging full boost on my thrusters, I orient myself to witness her last battle for as long as possible.
Commander Ettisen gave her life for me. Me! Naïve and horny from the same college on Tammaloren.
I found a cause, Freya. There will come a day when those I lead will need me to do what you just did. If the Summerlands you spoke of actually exist, please wait for me.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The bridge is quiet. After the last escapade, everyone’s resting in some way or other. I do my down time relaxation up here, working through the after-battle reports to assess where we can improve.
I look up and back to see Scarven, our Edmari pilgrim, floating serenely in the middle of the observation dome, fronds curling and uncurling with hypnotic grace.
“Yes, Holy Scarven?”
It sculls itself about so the primary eyes can regard me.
“Scarven will do. We are both peer-ranked dignitaries, in our ways.”
“Thank you. How can I help?”
It back-paddles to stop its drift toward me.
“I have spent many homeworld-duration years contemplating humanity in all it’s diverse forms. I have come to appreciate the loud art you call music and understand the reasons why you are enamoured of fighting. But, in this moment of quiet contemplation between police aggressions that you call down time, I find myself returning to a human-centric conundrum that has haunted me for a long time. I was wondering if you’d care to share your insights on the topic with me?”
Sounds serious. The holy fronds from Edmari having an entirely scent-based humour, so it can’t be anything light. That little speech indicates a depth of puzzlement I haven’t encountered before.
“I’d be honoured to shed what light I can.”
All twenty fronds snap-curl, then roll out slowly.
“‘Shed light’. What a deliciously apt concept and usage. Thank you.”
I’ve just made a lifelong friend. Edmari ‘collect’ words and phrases. To use an unheard verbalisation that is applicable to the sacred photosynthesis of their archetypes is considered a gift of overwhelming worth.
“Let’s see if I can keep up the good work. What’s your question, Scarven?”
The Edmari becomes still.
“Bakers bake. Cyclists cycle. Millers mill. Why do carpenters not carpent?”
Of all the possible questions that had flashed through my mind, that wasn’t amongst them. I sit up and route a priority query with light encyclopaedic collation through to the nearest datahub. When it resolves, I look up and smile.
“I’m guessing you’ve only travelled on mainstream ships, where English is the trade language. Our diversity also extends to the languages we speak. Earth has had thousands of spoken languages that have evolved or fallen into disuse over the centuries. Your late creators engineered your race as an entirety. Thus, the concept of having more than one language is alien to you. ‘Carpenter’ is a word adopted into English from a language we call ‘French’. If you like, I can request that human linguistic history be added to the exchange program for your race.”
The fronds twist and shake, then Scarven sculls closer.
“More than one language? Could there be more words for ‘happy’ than your English contains?”
I grin. ‘Happy’. Something the Edmari had no word for until they met us. Which is odd, because that is, fundamentally, what all Edmari are. Now, they are fascinated with the concept and its application to their views of life.
“Many, Scarven. I would venture hundreds, if not thousands.”
It performs a cartwheel of joy before sculling off toward its biosphere, voice drifting back to me over the cheerful rustling of its fronds.
“Such great gifts discovered during this ‘down time’ you have. Your race is filled with delicious strangeness. I look forward to many more down times.”
Think I just conceded my down time for a while.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
On a far balcony, people are starting to panic. A crystal goblet flashes rainbow reflections as it tumbles, the hand that held it snatched backwards so quickly the goblet falls straight down. The holder was my target: now more a thing of art and geography than a man in an expensive suit.
“Successful removal noted. You are stood down while the projection is reconfigured for this deduction.”
I heave a sigh, drop down, and crawl from the rooftop. The heat radiated by the air conditioning stacks should conceal my presence from thermoscans and my stealth suit will keep me from being seen, providing I move slowly. Laborious manual checking of security footage might find me, but will reveal nothing. Just another anti-corporate fanatic distinguished by the use of an anti-personnel missile instead of a rifle or bomb. They know about the theft of the missiles and will write this off as an unfortunate occurrence of domestic use. I must have bought it from the organisation who stole the weapons.
We stole them, and will use them with care for targets we cannot reach by other means. Ideally, our work should be achieved without overt displays of murderous violence. As little disruption to the everyday as possible is the aim.
“You have three minutes to get below ground. They’re instituting an area-wide snapshot.”
For a victim of his standing, it’s not surprising. The proximity of enough satellites to allow it is inconvenient, but lift shafts are ideal for plummeting thirty floors. The trio of crash foam grenades combine with my armour to ensure I’m only going to be bruised tomorrow.
Scrambling from the foam, I exit the shaft into a basement car park. It’s the work of moments to pop the lid on a drain and quickly make my way out, disappearing into the sewers.
Our founder, Jason S, enshrined our duty: “Corporates are not evil. Governments likewise. Only people can be evil. Presented with a regime where moral codes are at odds with accepted mores, the influence and protection of the pack will encourage aberrant behaviour. The mission must be to remove those who would enable environments of evil within the organisations they influence or lead. No casual slaughter, no public presence.”
His influence inspired the work that led to IDEAL, the program that assesses the power balances and shifts that wrap our world in layers of influence and reliance. From its impartial assessments, there comes a list of targets and a sequence in which they need to be removed. Each success results in a re-evaluation of the remaining target pool. Some targets drop as the one who would have led them to do evil has been removed. Others rise as a new evildoer rises to prominence in the inevitable power-vacuum created by our action.
It’s a slow task. To be sure, we have to be meticulous within an application of predictive mathematics like never before.
We’ve made mistakes. Two of our own have had to be targeted and killed. There is much about this work that makes many of us uncomfortable. But, we are agreed: what mistakes we make are still better than the evils we prevent.
I often ask myself if we are the ultimate necessary evil. If IDEAL targets us as the final targets of our work, I will have my answer.