To Metebelis and Beyond

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

A quiet Thursday night, working away on the laptop. Actually doing nothing of any substance. Too many opinions to agree with, laugh at, or marvel over. So many people being misguided. So many of them seemingly wanting to be, as an alternative to having to face the realities of their assorted situations.
The music fills the lack of companionship, a mix of Mendelssohn’s works reminding me of summers at home before my parents separated, and of long evenings studying with friends who’d been so close for such a short time.
A movement catches my attention. It’s not the first I’ve seen in my peripheral vision today, but this is the one where I have no doubt: something did actually move.
With that thought comes the waving of insectile limbs and something like a freakishly large spider climbs into view over the furthest arm of my sofa.
“Prepare to die.”
It launches itself at me! I throw myself from the chair and scrabble frantically across the floor. It hits the chair back, swings for a moment making curiously cheerful noises, then backflips to land on my laptop.
“Your suicide note will be a literary masterpiece.”
Suicide? Not likely.
I start to reach under the bed, then glance into the shadows there. Did something move?
The multi-legged maniac springs my way. Without thinking I pick up a copy of Gersten’s ‘An Initial Study of the Chreeskakt’ and swat the threat away. For good measure, I throw the book after it. It pancakes the creature. There’s a screech, and what sounds like swearing.
Springing up, I grab kitchen knife and cutting board. Wish I had a sword and shield, but residential permits for actual weapons are impossible to get without good reason or bribery.
“Ha! Now we’ll see who gets an obituary.”
The creature drags itself from under the bound volume, apparently taking a moment to read the spine.
“Flattened by a treatise on my people. Not sure if that’s apt or ironic.”
The voice has changed. Become familiar.
It waves a foreleg at me and chuckles!
“Before we demolish more of your home, shall we move to the dojo, or can we call it quits and go to Servalan’s for steak and sorbet?”
Spawn of a…
“Ralbatmakt? Thanks for the fright! When did you complete renewal, and why chose that arachnid horror as a new form?”
“While we soldiered on Sarvis, you told me about your Doctor Anonymous and the Eight Legs from Three. Something about them fascinated me. So, for this cycle, I’ve chosen to be one – or as near as my research in human archives allows. I didn’t know you had intergalactic guardians who had such amazing adventures. Are there any left? I’d like to meet one.”
I slide down the wall to sit on the floor.
“Do you remember the conversation we had about the human imagining form called ‘fiction’?”
I’ve never seen a proto-spider wilt in disappointment before.
“The universe is a much more interesting place in your collective imaginations, Gan. What we have is positively mundane.”
“Says the talking dinosaur who chose to come back as a giant spider for his next lifecycle. How many more of them do you get?”
Ralbatmakt picks itself up and wanders over to me, eight-legged gait occasionally uneven.
“Extra limbs always confuse me for a while.”
It places a foreleg on my thigh.
“This is the last, Gan. My millennium is up. But for this cycle I can hitch a ride on your back. We can have adventures, yes?”
How can I resist?
“That we can.”

Under the Hand

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“Read for me the writing on the wall.”
We bow our heads and recite the words writ high above, engraved deep into unyielding stone. We have no need to see them, having recited the Second Law every morning and evening since the first day we could talk.
Of the First Law, they say it’s only told by the Hand of One to those who die faithful before they ascend. I never understood that. We’re told this world is everything: the one, all, and only. How can the dead go anywhere else?
“There is nothing new under the Hand.”
No punctuation up there. Guess putting a full stop on the end was considered inefficient.
‘Inefficient’. The dirtiest of condemnations, and so versatile: you can apply it to anything you don’t like. Even to typing approved words in unapproved ways. Everything that comes from human imagination is also considered inefficient.
I tried to argue that without imagination, the concepts we built our survival upon would not exist. They told me I was correct. In the times before the Hand of One, imagination was necessary for the visionaries of humanity to shepherd the unenlightened masses to the ‘ubiquity of utility’. Now we’ve arrived, we don’t need it anymore.
We toil to produce the shapes that disappear into the maws of the supply lines, or to unload the cubes of material we dismantle to reassemble into the shapes we push into the maws. Every day. From clock on to clock off.
What we do makes no sense. Who makes the Nutrigel we eat, the paste we dilute to make Drinkup? I’ve asked. They sent me to ‘contemplate my inefficiencies’ while cleaning out the waste trenches.
I should be upset, but I found caches down there. Cubby holes cut into the filthy walls, down where the Fingers won’t inspect. They’re filled with colourful, useless things. I like the little flowers on hollow stalks that spin in the breeze. I don’t know what they’re made of, but they still haven’t withered. Lots of people like them too. The Fingers don’t. We learned to keep them out of sight. I also found a block of coloured squares. If you twist it, you can get each side to be the same colour! I spent lots of clocked off working that out.
Then I found it. The box with the thing full of new words. I read it: learned about ‘book’ and ‘page’ and ‘plural’. Plus what was in the bottom of the box. How to use that, too. Learned about other things. I don’t understand them all, yet. I haven’t got all the ideas worked out. But I did work out the thing it suggested I do before I go.
The book told me where to find the other thing I needed. Last night, I put them both on and did it.
I stand in the left-hand maw and look up at my first visionary work: adding words to a Law.

There is nothing new under the Hand
and that is the problem.
There is more to this world. Look for it.
Get out from under the Hand!

Slinging the cutter across my back, I make sure the gravbelt is turned off, then walk into the maw. The book says this one leads to somewhere called ‘outside’.
I’m a long way away when I hear a lot of shouting from behind. Sounds like I started something. I hope I did.
Grinning into the darkness, I try out some new words as I jog towards a better day.
“Stop me if you can, Hand of One. I’m innovating.”

The Magma Fields of Slarrul

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“Good afternoon. My name is Deut Wallis. I’m from the Galactic Encyclopaedia Update Department.”
Perry regards the bespectacled gent with suspicion. The last one who turned up in a suit that smart wanted to sell folk funeral plots on the moon, never mind that nobody here buried anything anyway.
“What you selling, guv’nor?”
Deut waves his hands in horror: “Oh, good grief, no. I’m not a salesman. I simply need your help. People I’ve spoken to tell me you’re the one to deal with my problem.”
Perry puts the hammer and chisel down. Pulling off gloves and goggles, he looks the suit up and down.
“Mister Wallis, I’m no dealer with problems. I make figures.”
Deut looks about the cluttered store. The side he’d already taken in is typical of a general store on any frontier world. The side he hasn’t is more like, well, an art gallery. The place is filled with statues, abstracts, and dioramas, all carved from a glossy blue-black rock.
“Precisely. You’re by the Magma Fields. That’s what I’m here about. The spelling mistake. My father noted it years ago, but it’s been so far down the ‘to do’ list we’ve only just gotten around to it for the centenary edition of the Galactic Encyclopaedia.”
“I’ve heard of it. What’s the problem?”
“Well, on seeing images of this planet, I saw the typographic error had crept into you local signage, so I thought I’d come and start the process of getting corrections applied in time for the release of the centenary edition.”
Perry shakes his head.
“I’m not getting you.”
Deut shakes his head.
“The Magma Fields. Such a wonderful view, I’m surprised it hasn’t attracted more tourists. When I saw the spelling mistake, I understood. You could be sitting on a fortune in tourist revenue, and I’m sure your figure-making business would benefit.”
Perry’s eyes widen.
“Oh. Now you say it again, I see the problem. Come with me, Mister Wallis.”
He beckons Deut through the shop and out the rear door. He grabs two pairs of tinted goggles and hands one set to his visitor.
“Put these on.”
Deut looks at them, then shrugs and does so.
Stepping through a metal door, a wave of heat strikes them. Many metres below, glowing, molten rock moves like an enormous sea. Deut raises his gaze to find it is a sea. From here to the shimmering horizon, there is nothing but heaving lava.
Perry reaches into a large fridge and pulls out a can of drink. He offers one to Deut.
“No, thanks. Not while I’m on the clock.”
Perry smiles and closes the upper door. Opening the lower door, he pulls out a chunk of ice and tosses it over the edge.
Deut leans forward to watch it explode into steam on contact with the lava below.
Perry reaches out and pulls him back.
“Wait for it, Mister Update Department.”
Deut’s about to reply when a rippling mass rises from the fiery sea below. The heat coming off it is like a body blow. Two eyes of shining black open. Deut sees a hole open that goes right through the mass. Air whistles and roars. Perry nods.
“Rolthsar is delighted to see you. They wonder if you have an offering?”
Perry’s eyes flick to the fridge. Deut takes the hint and grabs a can from the it. As one, they throw cans into the rippling mass.
Air howls and whispers. The mass subsides back into the magma.
Perry catches Deut before he collapses.
“Your book doesn’t say Magma Fiends in error, Mister Wallis.”

Walk This Way

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“Is your head deformed in some way?”
I spin left, taking the still-habitual extra step to back off a bit while doing so.
It’s an Uglonos herder, complete with brow spines painted blue. The contrast with his lime green hide is striking, but not as much as the clash with his lurid pink compound eyes.
“No, it’s normal sized, for a human.”
The triple jointed legs stop moving, except for the rear toes. They keep moving, lifting and pressing the ground one after the other, going right to left, then left to right, in a never-ending rhythm, marking this one as a devotee of Namedna the Ever-Walking.
“Then why is your warhead so wide?”
‘Warhead’: Uglonos only wear head coverings to protect their brow spines when in combat. The concept of wearing a helm or hat – sandogasa, in my case – for other purposes is incomprehensible to them. On a planet where sunlight is the strength of a desert afternoon on Earth within an hour of sunrise, most humans choose to remain inside the habitat domes. It’s a shame. All it takes is a little harmless guile and you can spend your life roaming this serene paradise.
“I am under oath to Torlyn of the Lowering Cloud. From the moment I saw the first buds of spring on the foan tree outside my family dome, until I return and see them once again, I am denied the sight of Roanna’s Wheel.”
The herder raps his claws against his forearm ridges to honour my devotion. It’s a shame humans don’t get out here more often. These insectile saurians have a society over nineteen millennia deep in peace. No world-blighting wars, no continent-spanning industrial addictions. Their only weakness is religion. They have over eighty thousand deities. From gods of individual village ponds to goddesses of grey clouds traveling westward, they have them for every occasion and space.
“Namedna walked with Torlyn for a whole two-moon year. To honour that journey, walk with me today. The village ahead has the finest bridges from which wayfarers can watch the shineer dance in the moonlight. They also have a sourblossom broth that is a delight to savour while engaged in that watching.”
There it is. The gods and goddesses of this world fit together like a subtle, complex machine that orchestrates every interaction to maintain a sublimely functional society. It’s uncanny how well it works. Could make a cynic think it’s a brilliant piece of civilisational engineering. Luckily, I’m not one of those anymore. I was looking for a place to make a better percentage on my goods. Instead, I ended up selling my ship along with the goods to buy a permit to stay.
“Then in honour to them both, I shall agree, but would prevail upon you to tell me the tale of their journey while we walk. I have not yet been graced with it.”
I fell in love with their etiquette before the sun set on my first week here. From there, it didn’t take me long to fall for the lifestyles and natural beauty of this place. I’ve become a wanderer, making my home on the endless winding ways.
It’s been nine years. I don’t regret a single step. If more of us took the time to exchange stories with travellers, and sit with strangers to sip sourblossom broth while watching shineer dance, things would be much better all over.
Come walk a new way.

A Letter from Georgia

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The advantages bestowed by the digitally-enhanced lifestyle are many. On the other hand, I’ve never found it… Warm. There’s an intimacy to tactile media, an emotional connection with the turn of a page, the smell of a second-hand bookshop on a rainy afternoon – not that there are many of them left. I have to take the IP19 shuttle over to Targive XIV, then go down to the Old Earth quarter to find one.
Then there’s the handwritten form: the letter. Did you know they used to create so many they had beings tasked with delivering them every day?
The letter has become a stock clandestine communication method of modern plots: the secret too dangerous to risk on digital media, and the machinations that transpire around it’s revelations, concealment, or in the wake of its passage.
Being someone who prides himself on being an afficionado of vintage media, I know the letter used to be more a feature of romantic fare, but times change. The speed of life continues to evade attempts to slow it down. The venerable letter is simply not quick enough.
Today, I received a letter! Katharine delivered it without a word, turning away before I looked up from the wrapper. I had to search that up: it’s called an ‘envelope’. This one has Georgia’s writing on it. I’d recognise it anywhere, having sat through evenings of tears and laughter while she learned to write. A media star, darling of the newsfeeds and screamsheets, sitting cross-legged on my battered sofa, tip of her tongue peeking between her lips as she concentrated on achieving consistent handwriting.
One word: ‘Den’.
Like everything she did, she excelled at the written word. Even in the simplicity of penning my name, she somehow translates all of her grace into the smooth sweep of cursive script.
“I’ll write you a letter one day.”
That’s what she’d said. I never expected it to happen after we parted ways. Well, after she left me. I’ll admit to being besotted to the point of never recovering, for all that I’ve kept my promise to not become a nuisance.
I know her latest tour has taken her further across the habitable universe than ever before. There have been various pundits harping on with their interpretations of her reasons. I remember her explaining the truth to me, sitting curled up where I’m sat now.
“I’ve had Benthusians coming to my concerts. Chekkru, too. Something about what I do appeals to them. They tell me of humans in bands we’ve never heard of making a living touring the outer stations. I’m going to go there. I want to hear those bands play. Maybe it’ll help me understand what I do that appeals in ways other human singers don’t.”
Even after she received the diagnosis, she didn’t waver. Wouldn’t talk about the treatments or what the specialists said. Every now and then I’d catch her staring off into the night, pensive expression like a classic study of light and shadow.
She left on the tour six months ago. Tonight, a year since we parted, her aide delivers a letter…
I’ve been looking at it for hours now. Turning it over and over.
As dawn drills a ruddy sunbeam down between the towers to stain my carpet, I get up and put the unopened letter behind the framed picture of the two of us, caught by some paparazzi at a sidewalk café when she visited last summer.
If I hear the malady has killed her, I’ll open it. Likewise if I hear she’s safely returned from tour. Before then? I just can’t.