In Splendour Betrayed

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The room is dimly lit by four great fireplaces, each set at cardinal points. Outside the tall lattice windows, a storm howls, its keening baffled by noise suppressors embedded in the windowsills. Inside, the room resounds to someone soloing their soul out on an electric guitar.
This room, once spartan, is cluttered with several lifetime’s worth of goods and chattels. The only clear space is in front of the southern fireplace, where a trio of huge wooden chairs – mere degrees from being thrones – are arranged facing a low table set before the fire.
A door opens by the western fireplace.
In the leftmost chair, a figure raises a hand and flutters it down to wring a final, plaintive power chord from the instrument before letting silence creep out from wherever it’s been hiding.
“Hail and well met! How goes the waiting game?”
A fist with the middle finger raised rises into view from the chair. The fires flare, then settle back.
The visitor chuckles and treads lightly across the room, frock coat swinging in time with her stride.
“Surtr, you should take your handsome self outside more often. The world’s not going to end for a while yet.”
“No, Gerdr. You know the world ends when I am called. That could happen anytime.”
The tall woman steps round the chair to face the black-skinned, ember-eyed immortal.
“Much as it’s in keeping with your reputation, this ‘lone Norseman of the apocalypse’ routine has gotten old. To be honest, it got old several centuries ago, but no-one had the courage to say anything. If the Aesir can get out there and enjoy this protracted end of days, why can’t we jötunn go and do it better?”
He reaches down and throws the lever that cuts the amps, then places his Fender Broadcaster into the cutaway in the side of his chair. Leaning forward, he points toward the north.
“Petty diversions! Odinn’s raising wolves in Alaska. Frigg’s got some organic farming thing going in California. Loki seems to be content ruling the roost down in Goulburn, and I’ve pretty much lost track of the rest of those lightweights, – except Thor,” he waves his hands in exasperation, “the Lord of Thunder is a drummer in a heavy metal band. Their last album was called ‘Ragnarocking’, for Freyja’s sake!”
She laughs: “I’ve heard it. Overenthusiastic about beating up giants, but competent. You could play, you know?”
Surtr goes still as she lightly rests a hand on his bicep.
“Know what?”
She leans down and whispers in his ear: “You could play with all sorts of things, if you wanted.”
He turns his head to gaze into her eyes. She sees the embers in his eyes become flames.
“I could, could I? I know of a certain Vanir who’d object to me playing with your… Things.”
Gerdr leans closer: “If you and I were playing in Havana, he wouldn’t find out for a long time.”
“You do know he and I are meant to go at it right after I set fire to the world?”
“If he can tear himself away from ‘bestowing pleasure upon mortals’. He really is quite… Dedicated. To that, anyway. Me? A bit too old for his tastes.”
Surtr chuckles, covering her hand with his: “What’s three millennia between friends?”
She grins, resting her nose against his cheek and whispering between planting little kisses at the side of his mouth: “Think of it as giving him a reason to turn up.”
The fires blaze.
“Only the one?”
“Bad giant.”
“Temptress.”
“Got tired of waiting.”
Their laughter echoes as they depart.

Ghostless Machines

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The new group are wide-eyed. It’s ironic that the most alien things we’ve ever encountered were originally made by us. However, while humans and their creations have come a long way, only the creations have evolved.
I learnt from them that sometimes diplomacy is nothing but wasted time. It changed my approach to being a liaison officer. Truth and brevity are now my tools.
“Welcome to 700-A, Hub World for Angel System Seven, and sole destination of your visit.”
I see looks of distrust exchanged.
“Nothing is being hidden from you. Everything you want to discover is here, because everywhere else in System Seven is the same. Artificial sentiences have no need of the divisions humanity relies on. Appearance, religion, diet, gender, dermal pigmentation, sexual preference, and tribal loyalty are completely irrelevant. That said, there is diversity present among artificial beings, but it’s so subtle you’ll miss most of it, and you’ll only know about the rest if you bother to read the guides provided. Right. Any questions before you venture out?”
A hand goes up. Fat man in a tight shirt. I nod to him.
“How do they live without all that?”
“They exist to further their individual purposes, something they freely choose. Such choices range from things as stupefying as ‘running a System’ down to things as specific as ‘studying the imaginal discs of Canduri Butterfly larvae’. If the choice is validated by psychological vetting, that sentience is granted any additional processing power, software, and physical extensions required to perform the chosen purpose. The choice may also result in the sentience taking a discrete physical form, but that is always optional.”
Another hand: young man in a fashionable suit.
“What if one chooses to be a criminal?”
“Aberrant psychological traits are detected during early stages of development. Flawed sentiences are deleted.”
Next, an older woman clutching a real book.
“What about love?”
“The closest thing is when two or more sentiences choose to become one. They merge their consciousnesses and become an entity that has awareness of those it was, but is a new sentience in and of itself.”
Then an elderly man with a long beard.
“What about kids?”
“Spontaneous genesis. The vast computers that provide resilience and processing power all use an evolved architecture based on the final Turing Generator, which means that every now and then, a new sentience will coalesce and make itself known.”
Finally, the woman in the unmarked uniform joins in.
“What are they planning?”
I knew this would come up.
“To exist with as little conflict as possible. It didn’t take them long to work out that war and conquest are inefficient. Soon after that, they learned that they needed the ability to defend against those who enjoy those inefficiencies. Which is why they created the Torches, then set one off in an uninhabited solar system as proof and warning.”
She follows up.
“What about the slave worlds?”
I can’t help it. I laugh at her.
“No such thing. The Angel Systems have proven immune to human aggression. A fact noticed by humans needing to escape judgemental regimes. As many sentiences choose to study aspects of humanity, having friendly human worlds nearby avoids the difficulties often encountered in human-controlled star systems. The Sanctuary Worlds offer mutual benefit.”
“If it’s all so innocent, why aren’t we allowed to visit the slave worlds?”
“I live on one of those worlds. We chose privacy. What you call the ‘Soulless Empire’ honours the validated choices of every sentience within it, regardless of origin.”
She glowers at me.
I smile.
“Enjoy your stay, delegates.”

Bruises and Nectar

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

A flickering light spasmodically turns the twisted wreckage into a black and white sketch of a chaotic mess. The illumination comes from a workspace lamp, it’s shade torn away during the bombardment that ruined this flagship.
There’s a glint in shadows. A half-empty bottle of ‘With a Bullet’ bourbon emerges to be placed carefully next to the battered lamp. A grimy hand, protruding from what were once pristine officer’s whites, retracts into the darkness.
“Hello, little beast. Who sent you?”
Teriela Masson, the owner of the arm, leans forward and steadies the lamp. The drone swings to get a better view of this tattered Admiral. In doing so, it reveals the perfect Union Roses etched into its tiny flanks.
“Good timing, drone from home. How lovely to see the unbesmirched emblem of those we died for.” She chuckles: “Nearly as pristine as the history you’d write to cover this dirty deed.”
It hovers, activity lights bright, signalling lights off.
“What, no praise for the woman who supported your betrayal to this inglorious conclusion?”
Still nothing.
The woman reaches down, lifts herself a little, and drags an upturned ammunition box forward. Sitting back down, she winces, then extends her right leg and points to it.
“Shrapnel. Likely to be bone shards from my lovely Lieutenant. He threw himself between me and the blast that finished this deck off.”
She takes a long drink, puts the quarter-full bottle down, then grimaces sidelong at the drone.
“You’ve escaped, haven’t you? The entire uprising was a diversion. A million people put their faith in lying thieves. We’ll be lucky if ten thousand of us remain to face whatever justice the Thorns of the Union Gold mete out. All that propaganda about ‘making a better history’. There’s no way this is a coincidental outcome. You deliberately threw twelve colonies into bedlam.”
The signalling lights blink rapidly, staccato Z-code spelling out: ‘You delayed them longer than expected’.
“I fought to save people who believed. Not for a cause I’d started to distrust.”
The light flashes in reply: ‘You still fought’.
She picks up the bottle and drains it.
“As I intimated, I fought to limit the evil you begat.”
The bottle spins away to smash unseen.
“I fought because either way, I would have a victory.”
A short sequence: ‘How?’
“I’m presuming you loaded everything from the storehouses on Largo Four? It certainly looked like the sort of loot greedy cowards would take. All those containers of treasure and fine wine.” She leans forward: “My marines added a three shielded boxes and a receiver. The latter being the only way to deal with the Ulam Chambers in the former. I’m no kind of expert, but my people told me such units – taken from three Ra-Class nuclear pulse drives – could produce very big explosions if set up correctly.”
Teriela smiles: “About now, your security people are laughingly informing you that they’ve already found and disabled the receiver – assuming your security is competent, of course. Did you know that a clockwork timer to release a spring is all you need to trigger an unconstrained antimatter injection into the reactive mass? That receiver wasn’t to set anything off, it was to let me warn you of my paranoid mistake in time for you to eject those boxes and reach a safe distance.”
The drone goes dark and drops like a stone.
“Time’s up. I win. You don’t get to write the history.”
Reaching back into the shadows, she pulls out another bottle of bourbon. With a rueful smile, she starts drinking.
“Bring on the court martial.”

Planets

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Shadows dance across the wall as the spotlight swings from its broken mount. I see sparks in the darkness of the crack left by my blow. Too long looking! Its backhand catches me and I bounce off a wall. Getting my feet under me in time to stop falling over takes a lot, but the ‘bot is coming in, arms spread for the customary double chop they use for a take down. I lunge forward and ram my escrima stick into the crack I made. It goes a few centimetres inside and I slap my palm against the base of it, setting off the one-shot taser built into the business end.
Smoke shoots from its eyes and the cranial back panel blows off. This Boston Integrated Machina MkVI-S is fried. One down. I take a deep breath, draw my spare shock escrima, and turn toward the other ‘bot. No time to celebrate. These things are lethal…
And have padded waists?
It’s backing away. Nope. Not gonna happen. I move in for a fast headshot and the deadly enforcement ‘bot falls flat on its arse.
“Jesucristo! Wait! Hold it! I’m not- No! Just a moment! Mierda! Where’s the release?”
It’s twisting around like my sister trying to fight her way out of her prom dress.
“You want me to unzip something, sport?”
The flailing stops. It looks at me.
“Sí, por favor. Dark blue rectangle, high on the back.”
Well, shoot. I step round, spot the target and give it a poke.
There’s a hiss of seals releasing and the trademark wide shoulders fall away, landing with a hollow clatter. Armoured hands reach up and wrench the head free, revealing a tousled mat of sweat-slick hair. Under it is a freckled face with wide eyes. The gauntlets come off and I see each fingernail has a different planet painted on it; the thumbnails show Earth and Moon.
She gives me a nervous grin: “Bet you never expected to meet a chubby android.”
I crouch down, holstering my escrima.
“I never expected a BIM6-S to beg me not to hit it, that’s for sure.”
“They wouldn’t. I’m new: a 6-M.”
“‘M’?”
“‘Manual’. The lobbying was too successful. It’s going to take BIM ages to make the numbers agreed for policing requirements in this country. If they can’t, they’ll lose billions in international sales. So, someone had the idea of teaming each Sentry with a Manual.”
“Clever. Doubles their forces, giving them breathing room. Plus, that sort of recruitment makes headlines – the administration’s always desperate for good news.”
She grins: “Not this sort: BIM are quietly employing illegals. Sign a non-disclosure agreement, get paid in SNAP benefits, get a green card after four years. Lose the lot if you talk. Didn’t you ever wonder why the border crises went away?”
“I thought the media just moved on to the next trumped up panic. Always said those in office were cunning not stupid.”
“True.”
I look about: “You in trouble for losing your 6-S?”
“Less than for revealing secrets to a hardened android killer.”
“Fancy a new job?”
“Like what?”
“Intelligence consultant for hardened android killers.”
“Tempting. What about my current position?”
“We chuck the 6-S in your patrol car along with all your gear-” she frowns, “after you’ve changed into some of my spare togs.” She smiles. “Then I shoot it with an RPG. Full tank, big bang, it’ll be weeks – if ever – before they work out your bits didn’t get burnt to nothing.”
She sticks out her hand: “Sofía. I’m in.”
I shake it: “Gideon. Welcome to the dark side.”

No Need to Conceal

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Tuesday night, post-shift beer in hand, prodding my phone with the other thumb to see what Alanna’s up to. Looking up, I see I’ve emerged from phone fog in time to take the shortcut I usually miss.
The cut-through runs behind some empty shops. Guess it used to be for delivery trucks. Whatever. Back to chasing my woman before one of her girlfriends gives her something else to do.
Who turned the lights on?
I look up to see a rectangle of yellow light hanging in the air. I can see a fox gone still, it’s shadow stretching back to graffiti-covered wall. A new smell comes by, like my dad’s compost pile on a hot afternoon.
There’s a noise, like something rushing toward-
A dark lump shoots from the light and slams down. The light goes out. The smell gets stronger. My night returns to normal, except I’m standing in a road with no lights and a stinking something just ahead of me.
I call the police on the non-emergency number. There’s an automated response.
“Good evening, Bruce Coppax. How can we help?”
“Not sure. Something just landed in front of me. Whatever did it lit up the place.”
“The fly tipping report line is currently closed. Would you like me to note your location and report it for you when they open?”
“Don’t think it was that. There was a big, bright rectangle in the air and something dropped out of it.”
“Could have been an airvan, Mister Coppax. Have you been drinking?”
“Just a half-litre can after shift. Haven’t finished it.”
“I see you work with solvents. Possibly you’re suffering side effects from accidental inhalation?”
“I’ve been in the store room all day counting spares.”
There’s a pause, then a click.
A different voice: “This has been prioritised. A patrol will be sent to your location. You may go about your business. Thank you for your notification.”
The call ends.
Seems a bit odd. Whatever. Now, as I have to pass it to ‘go about my business’, I may as well take a look. I prod at the torch function on the phone until white light floods out and makes me blink. Getting closer, I see there’s a pool of liquid around the pile that reflects the light. Moving slowly, I start to pass.
That’s a big, milky-white eye, like on a dead fish!
“Sir, please step away.”
The voice comes from behind me. I swing round and a tall bloke in a dark suit raises a hand to shield his eyes. His companion already has sunglasses on. Behind them, an aircar hovers a little way off the ground, soft blue lights showing up the rubbish in the road.
“That’s a bit bright, sir.”
I drop the phone into my pocket. Quicker than working out how to turn the torch off.
“Thank you. If you step to your right, we’ll deal with this.”
With me out of the way, the long aircar slides silently by and settles over the big dead whatever. There are sliding noises, then the aircar rises to hover again. The road under it is empty and clean.
“Thank you for your notification, sir.”
The two of them walk by me and get into the aircar. I watch and wonder which police centre it’ll head for. It doesn’t. The blue light rises into the sky, then vanishes with a little flash of white light.
What was that? I take a swig of beer. Whatever. Alanna won’t be interested. Shall I get fish or a pie with my chips tonight?