Depths

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’ve travelled distances that make oceans seem like ponds. I’ve dealt with solar flares and meteor storms, flown half-blind and bleeding from situations that would make a sane man scream for his mother.
As I look up at the snow-white spume that tops this towering wall of grey water, I realise I am a tiny being and for all that I’ve endured, the depths of my terror had not been plumbed until this moment.
“Ketse! Stop staring! Get your sodden butt in here so we can close up!”
Christa, captain of this tub, grabs my belt and hauls hard. Once she gets me moving, the spell is broken. I don’t want to stare into the abyss anymore. I nearly knock her down as I scramble inside and throw myself into my couch. With a rapid series of hisses and clicks, the harness engages.
She slams the hatch and slaps the locking lever down under its restraint. Throwing herself into her own couch, she shouts over the mounting noise.
“This one’s going to be bad. Brace up, there’ll be good finds after this tide!”
“Bigger the wave, bigger the fortune!” Gerder’s cry is greeted with cheers.
The treasures to be found in its wake are small consolation as a wall of water nine hundred metres high descends upon the rain-scoured piece of misery we’re tethered to with the sound that white noise wants to be when it grows up.
I’m spun, shaken, hurled, and dropped. Strapped down inside a thousand tonnes of salvager, being thrown about like this makes the forces at play outside terrifying.
There’s an impact that rattles my teeth and I see Christa go pale as the damage data reaches her via neural link.
I shout across: “One more like that?”
She grins: “Two! What do you think this is, some orbital utility scow?”
There’s a period of freefall, then a second impact that’s harder than the first. There are screams and curses from the crew. I catch Christa’s eye. She mouths: “No more.”
We’re dragged a fair way across something bumpy, then the nauseous, sweeping rush-and-lurch of surfacing behind the wave lets us know we’re going to see another day.
“Time to earn your keep!” She’s not giving us time to celebrate because she knows it’ll turn maudlin. Only failed waveriders live to see old age.
A salvager is a submersible ship designed to resurface even with a few holes in it. In this case, we find our redoubtable vessel – The Kelpa – is about a metre shorter, with the bow having been crushed into an even denser mass of ceremetal laminate.
In the afternoon light, the sea about us moves languidly, whilst the pitiful excuse for an island is festooned with drift caught in the gigantic nets and steel grapples we set up for just that purpose. A gigawave is birthed from the influence of four moons on the benthic deeps. It brings with it the remains of the civilisation that ruled this world before the seas claimed them.
“Treasure ho! Christa, we’ve netted a vessel!”
Emelda’s right. Lying athwart the promontory to our right is something not made by human hands, the nacreous curves of its piscine form catching the light as water continues to trickle from it.
Christa turns to me: “Looks like you’ll be back in space soon. This’ll make us all rich.”
I look about, then nod toward the alien vessel.
“I’d rather spend it on finding a way to get down where that came from.”
She grins: “I knew this place would catch you too.”

They Think It’s Art

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The way it filters the light through dizzying shadows within to cast patterns on the ground like sun through stained glass. To them, the seemingly impossible tessellation that never repeats a shape, no matter which direction it is observed from, has to be an artisan’s realised vision.
“A masterpiece” is how guides describe it to fascinated visitors. What makes it more intriguing is its warmth to the touch: the result of some honeycomb-like structures within its tubes, they are sure.
The size of a small building, it appeared overnight. A simple placard declared it as ‘an anonymous gift to those who appreciate true art’. Initial ridicule gave way to puzzlement, which turned to awe as the complexities of the piece were realised.
It is impervious to scanning. Attempts to sample or vandalise it have failed. It is set seamlessly into the ground. In certain circles, concerns are still being raised, but the passage of months has dulled their urgency.
Many wonder as to the benefactor, but no answers have been found. It is an unexpected bonus, this affectionate interest. It frustrates the negative attentions that might provide warning.
In the heart of a metropolis, a virulent bacteriological weapon slowly adapts and ferments amidst popular acclaim for its design. When the pressure within reaches a certain point during the cool of a night, the contents will decant through micropores revealed as covers fall away – the retaining materials disintegrating under a combination of pressure and corrosive payload. A mutating contagion will spread on the wind.
As the first reports of mysterious, spreading catastrophes circulate the globe, our remotes, rising from concealment, will ruin every major source of fresh water.
By the time resource wars, our manufactured plagues, and anarchy have winnowed them, the armada will have arrived. What they have left will pose minimal resistance.

Lay Me Down

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Vapour coils along the bough, drifting away in little skeins of dissipating light. Tobias grins. Luminous breath: sure sign of irrevocable infection.
“How do you feel, my son?”
He looks up at the white rectangle glowing at the throat of the padre’s power armour.
“I’m fine, father. Some kind of feel-good side effect, I guess. Never felt better, to be honest.”
Spinal segments click as the helmed head nods.
“You’ve indicated you’ll not be wanting last rites?”
He waves his hand at the swamp about them: “Seems pointless, father. This far from Bethlehem, feeling this good, I’ve got to be closer to rapture than any man has ever been.” He grins as he finishes, taking the blasphemous sting from the words.
“You’ve been a righteous sinner, that much I’ll grant you, Tobias Ghent. Had more than an even share of prayers offered for your deeds.”
Tobias sits up, trailing luminous exhalations from both nostrils.
“Nothing that hasn’t been done by many others in service of the Great Crusade, father. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the urge to move is setting in.”
“Go with God, Trooper Ghent. May you find peace within his Grace before long.”
He swings down from the fallen tree and lands up to his calves in the pale amber waters of Naknarden Swamp – named after the first trooper to disappear into it. For some, the restless phase can last a long time. Sufferers are permitted to wander off as confinement produces a madness that has been deemed ‘unholy’. Therefore, the afflicted must surely be allowed to go forth, trusting unto God for their salvation.
He walks and smiles as the water deepens and the night stirs about him. The silence that surrounds the outpost being aberration, not norm.
God. He’s fought in his name and seen miracles occur on many battlefields. But the times he felt closest to his Lord was in the deep dark between the citadels of Heaven, as the vessel rested and recharged before daring the byways of purgatory once again. He could stand at a viewport, watching the endless night pass inexorably by, and feel the spine-tingling touch of divine attention.
He walks on as the night deepens about him, feeling unseen life surge past his legs. Nothing attacks. Moonrise finds him further afield than any who have ventured out upon this swamp-girdled planet. Great trees reminiscent of willows line his path, the firemoths amidst their hanging branches providing sufficient light for him to make his way.
Beyond the trees he strides out into what looks like a partially submerged meadow, long grasses waving above the waters that cover the ground. He coughs. The luminous breath is ruddy, his chest feels tight. With a smile, he looks about and chooses a circle of clear water amidst the verdant expanse.
Taking a knee, he bows his head.
“I am what I have become in willing service for those who will never know my name. To quiet waters He hath led me, to these still pastures, that I may seek no more.”
The next cough leaves him shaking in a cloud of ruby mist. The one after that sprays blood into the waters. He kneels and looks up. Stars he cannot name wheel drunkenly above as a fourth cough emits pure white vapour and a feeling of peace rushes through him so violently he knows what’s next.
“Am-”.
The grasses nod to the languid echoes of a tide against a far-off shore. A soft breeze ruffles dark hair as moonlight sets a ring of silver about the body that used to house Tobias Ghent.

Trick of the Light

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

He gently places a finger on her hand.
“Now try. Over there. No, don’t look back, you won’t see him. Look in the window. He’s just to the left of Mrs. Bakker, kissing her shoulder.”
Krista stares around the room, at Connor, then at the window. There’s her, there’s an empty chair where Connor should be, there’s Amanda Bakker, and there-
She stares at Connor: “He’s in your shipsuit!”
Connor nods: “Seems he doesn’t have access to a wardrobe in reflection world. Just glad I had a shower before we made that run.”
She can’t help it and looks back. He watches her head tilt and a smile form: “Widow Bakker seems to be enjoying life on the other side.”
He nods: “I’ve seen her with him in the reflections in my room, and in my shower. A couple of the reasons why I’ve painted out every reflective surface at my place.”
The celebrity dinner swirls and shimmers about them, seemingly the only sombre people in the ballroom.
“Take me through it again.”
He sighs: “The first FTL run, when it overperformed and unleashed that anomalous burst of black-body radiation. The evening after I returned, I looked in the mirror in my room and saw my reflection sitting on the bed reading a book. I reported it, but they can’t see him unless I’m in physical contact with the observer. Therefore, they’ve concluded it’s a localised issue and I’m still being subjected to tests while they try and find out how I suppress my reflection.”
She looks up to see Reflected Connor passionately kissing Reflected Amanda. Around them, the event swirls in a proper reflection of the reality she’s in. Just a moment-
“Where’s Amanda?”
He grins: “You spotted it. She died a week ago after a period of ‘erratic behaviour’ that started just after my return from the mission.”
Krista takes a big gulp of her drink.
“How can I help?”
Connor smiles: “I’m not asking for help. I think that’s beyond current science. I’m taking the opportunity to get closer to a woman I’ve been in love with for years, hoping she’ll accept my oddities and we can have some fun regardless.”
She takes a bigger gulp of her drink. Puts the glass down. Pauses. Picks it up. Drains the glass. She smiles at him: “How can I, as a scientist and hopeless romantic, resist that and the mystery you bring?”
He leans in. With a smile, she places a restraining hand on his forehead.
“Easy, tiger. You mentioned ‘oddities’, as in ‘more than one’. I’m almost scared to ask, but what on Earth can top that?” She points toward Reflected Connor escorting the reflection of a dead woman from the mirror image of the event they’re sitting in.
He sighs: “I hoped you wouldn’t notice my slip.”
Krista leans a little closer: “Your secret is safe with me, especially if it’s as interesting as the other one.”
He smiles: “Where the fuck is my shadow?”
She reaches, grabs and downs his drink.

Apples

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The moon picks out bright lines from the vegetation-shrouded hulks at the sides of the road. High above, our Night Ravens duel with watch drones. So high that any kills fall outside our ken, leaving the night undisturbed.
“A long time ago, they had names for every living thing.” Dappen nods as he works the wheel.
“Everything?” Graea’s unconvinced.
He nods: “Everything. Had a special language for it, too. Called it ‘Latin’. Never got on with it myself.”
“You learned Latin?” Too much!
He looks at me with a grin: “Never did. My grandma had a smatterin’, got it from her grandma. I sided with me mum; it’s past. Best let it go.”
Graea leans forward: “Everything? We still got that. I knows oaks and hornets and jackdaws an’ such.”
Dappen reaches back and ruffles her hair: “Not like that. This language told how things came to be and where they came from, making great big chains of what became what from where.”
“Why?”
He looks at me: “There’s the question. Hang on.”
The rig swings wide round the forested hill that sticks up from the centre of this expanse of cracked blacktop.
“Used to call this the A24, back when they named everything. Funny how the oldest bits last longer.”
“Cheap tradesmen?”
He grins and reaches out to ruffle my hair, but I duck out of reach.
“Likely as any other theory.”
With a sigh, he brings the rig to a standstill. Midpoint. Letting the Night Ravens clear the skies for our run down to the coast.
“Right, while we wait. Why did they name everything? I don’t know. But I’ll guess what it did. Made them think they had a handle on everything, like the ancestors really did back in the times of power when naming something gave you control over it. Except, with these new names, it didn’t. All it did was give them a feeling of comfort, like when you collect stuff. Don’t do nothing but make you feel a little better.”
“Like Dee’s rocks-in-a-row?”
I feel myself blush.
“Just like them. But, for these folk, they were so sure they understood how everything worked they put names to all the stuff they couldn’t see as well, then pretended like they knew how it all worked together.”
“Don’t seem clever. Some of the stuff they guessed at might have turned out grimmer than they thought.”
He grins: “Why do you think we’re sitting in a century-old truck about to drive down a road that’s even older while our patched-up robot birds destroy the enemy clan’s noisy flying discs? All we got is what survived when them what gave the names ran out of words against the fury. Too many people, too few things to keep them alive. Nothing left but the children of the lucky and any technology that was useful. Everything else got left in the ashes.”
Graea leans on my shoulder: “So we’re the lucky and we don’t need to know the names of everything?”
I look across at Dappen: “Not quite. The lesson I get is that knowledge is pointless on its own.”
She claps her hands: “You got to do something with it, not just collect it.”
Dappen nods: “Close enough. Dee used her knowledge to find a possible orchard on an old map. Doing something with it means we now need to get this haul of apples home.”
He swings the wheel and the truck moves ahead. With a chuckle, he glances over at us: “One of you two needs to make tea for the driver. I know he’s parched.”