Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
I used to lie awake, listening to the wind blowing through the old telegraph wires that criss-crossed our street. That eerie, ephemeral howling could wake me from the deepest sleep. On nights when the rain turned fine, I would wait for the irregular beat of heavy drops falling from the low points of each wire onto surfaces below. I remember once seeing a fox leap high into the air, struck by one of those fat, silver beads. I always wondered about that, until one night I too got hit. That drop seemed colder than the mizzle about me, shocking me with both temperature and impact: heavier than rain, yet of it.
“Come back, Frederick.”
Michaela’s always paired with me because she can sense when my concentration wavers.
I twitch. One of those full-body ones.
She chuckles: “Felt like all points from here. Only brought you back because I want to daydream for a while.”
“Don’t you mean night dream? It is night, after all.”
“Technically it’s morning. Letting your mind wander while awake is daydreaming. The dreams humans have while sleeping are night dreams. That’s the difference, according to my grandmother.”
“Your grandmother is a wise woman, judging by how often you quote her.”
“Mother was too noshboor to be the witch I needed, so granny stepped up.”
“Okay, that’s getting too close to making one of us the character the audience mourns in this war movie.”
“Gotcha. Jog me if something moves.”
“Likely to be the sun coming up at this rate.”
“That works for me.”
She shoves her hip against my thigh, gets comfortable and zones out. She’s not asleep. It’s some trance state. The Taleon do it instead of sleeping. I find it comforting as her body starts to gently vibrate against me. Which, in truth, is why they teamed the alien liaison with me: she doesn’t give me the creeps.
I scan the area from our vantage point. With a little shock, I realise I’m near my grandparents old place. Looking down at the dusty street below, I imagine I can see a ghost of younger me making my way there from school, then stop myself because I’m the one on watch.
Whispering quietly into the night, I smile at the deceptive calm about us.
“Home again, home again, jiggidy jig.”
Which, probably, is what the Cashdar said when the first of their ships returned to Earth after 12,000 years spent roaming the galaxy, looking for new dominions to conquer and fresh provinces to establish. They were shocked to find us primates ruling the roost, and approximate technological equals in everything except space travel. They took proper umbrage over it. Admittedly, some of our politicians involved in the farcical negotiations didn’t help the situation. End result was the pug-nosed lizardmen decided to exterminate all humans.
Within a year of hostilities commencing, we were contacted by the survivors of the slaughter on Taleo. Turns out that deciding to exterminate the sentients of any place they want is the Cashdar way.
Those survivors brought experience and a little advanced technology. Since then, we’ve been holding ground instead of ceding it.
Stupidly, the Taleon are regarded with mistrust. People find their tendency to change colour when experiencing emotional surges disturbing. The fact that humans can lie without changing colour, which causes the Taleon all sorts of problems, is ignored.
So here we are fighting for Earth against those who used to call it home. We’re being helped by aliens who’d like a place to call home.
I’m dreading what happens after we win.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
Massive wings beat the ground as it tears chunks from Devon’s body, the blue glow of its eyes turned purple by smeared blood. We’re all using laryngophone comms so as not to attract it’s attention.
“That’s not my vulture.”
I glance toward Cat.
“Not anymore. Used to be. You can see faded roundels on the tail feathers.”
She nods: “A Calliapteran Model Four. Based on the Cinerous Vulture.”
“Calliapteran? Isn’t that the company who did those mad-dog hyenas?”
“Mad cat, you mean. That would be their Model Two. Seventy kilos of tailored nightmare built from the Spotted Hyena. If the rumours are true, the different strains of Calliapteran faunatech can work together. Imagine that flying horror with ground support.”
Miguel whispers from where he’s watching our six.
“Not funny you should mention that. I’ve got a trio of heat signatures, warm like faunatech, a quarter-click south. They’re problem-sized and coming this way.”
Cat rolls closer to me: “That’s not good. A lone Model Two could do for the lot of us.”
“What are they hunting out here? The front line’s in France. This is Spain.”
“This isn’t Spain. This is the Basque AC.” Miguel points south, “Spain’s over there.”
Cat makes a happy noise and snaps her fingers. Then she stands up and vaults over the edge of our comfy crater.
“Where the bloody hell are you going, Sergeant?”
“Had an idea, Cap. Worst case, you lot can bug out while they eat me. Model Twos always pack an appetite along with their nasty.”
Sam and Col slide into the crater.
“The fuck she goin’?”
Col punches Sam’s shoulder: “Use all the words, big man.”
“What I meant to ask was ‘where is Sergeant Catalin off to now?’”
I grin: “Fucked if I know.”
Miguel sounds astonished: “She’s standing right in front of that threesome and they’re sitting there like it’s some sort of obedience class. Not eating her, for sure. Her mic’s off but I think she’s talking to them.”
Command privilege: I open up a listening line on Cat’s comms. Sure enough, she’s talking, but it’s no language I’ve ever heard. A rare moment of genius drops in and I run a query on her family. It pays off: Cat’s mum was born in the Basque AC.
I waive her muted mode: “So, when did mumsie arrive in the Kingdom?”
“The year before they had to take ‘United’ off the front. She’s been in Scotia ever since dad died.”
Major-General Duncan Catalin is the most recent posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross. He’s the reason the Calais Crater doesn’t have a twin in Kent.
“These are some sort of territorial guardians, aren’t they?”
“Yes. They thought we were sent by factions who still consider the Declaration of Arnaga to be a betrayal. Seems there’s room for a lot of backstabbing while the war rages across Europe. Someone at Calliapteran made an offer. This reassigned faunatech is operated by a Basque subsidiary of Calliapteran. They’re not combatants: they’re testing ‘long-term autonomous patrol protocols and dynamic response scenarios’.”
Sounds a lot like hi-tech gun running with a coat of shiny bullshit to me.
“The hyenas told you that?”
“No, the nice people at the other end of their C&C comms did. They also offered a passably sincere apology and free passage out of the area.”
Arse-kicking revenge aside, surviving to whinge about not getting arse-kicking revenge – and how bloody dangerous the opposition was – is always a winner.
“Get them to stop the birdie eating Devon. We need to bag what’s left of him and get gone.”
“On it, Cap.”
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
He stares from the screen, hair in fashionable disarray, jowls freshly barbered, teeth so white they nearly shine, eyes like glass beads.
“Good evening. I am appearing before you tonight to explain a few things that have been attracting media attention. As the topics I need to discuss are important, all other programmes have been suspended until this broadcast is complete.
“I have attended several meetings to discuss how to tell you what I need to tonight. In the end, we all agreed that truth will save time and provide clarity, despite possibly being upsetting.
“To that end, I feel it best to start with a simple statement: if you do not provide something, you will soon be no longer of use. The delusion of free time is no longer tenable. You need to be either performing useful labour, or engaged in nurturing of the next generation of labourers. Titles and descriptions of what constitutes ‘useful labour’ will appear on the front pages of government websites at the end of this broadcast.
“I know this is going to be a difficult pill to swallow. Some of you with socialist or charitable tendencies may consider some form of protest over the next few days. I would strongly advise against it. The Marutya have no understanding of civil liberties and are liable to respond with excessive force.
“Which brings me to the biggest change that should have the smallest impact, if you act calmly. Earth has been purchased by the Marutya, a race of golden-skinned bipeds from Utya, the planet our astronomers call ‘Teegarden b’. Earth will henceforth be known as ‘Saaitsau’. The Marutya envision no real changes except for the modifications to ‘free time’ as I have already described.
“We, the leaders and rulers of nations, along with business heads and selected other notaries, have collectively accepted the Marutya’s offer on behalf of all of you, and will soon be departing for Utyasaat, where we will establish a colony from which we can act as advisors to the Marutya, should we be asked. Rest assured we will be working assiduously to ensure that centuries of human heritage are respected.
“This planet, Saaitsau, is now a produce world. Your Marutya owners will provide further information, such as quotas and shortfall penalties, to you directly via the sixth-generation telecommunications network that will become active immediately after this broadcast. Should you not have a personal handset, one will be delivered to you within the week. Like all sixth-generation technologies, it will be free of charge or tariff.
“We expect there to be a minimum of disruption during the transition period. The Marutya are experienced civilisation integrators, after all.
“For now, please stay calm and remain in your homes. The curfew will remain in force, along with the restrictions on movement and public gatherings, until the Marutya have finished analysing the labour potential of each neighbourhood. After that, freedoms will be restored based on agreed targets being met.
“Thank you for bearing with us during the difficult times we have endured over the last two years. Be assured things will soon return to a new normal, one in which you and your loved ones can finally achieve lives of rewarding production.”
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
Not for you, but for me.
“Emily, Uncle Karl, and the twins. All together in that great big truck of his. They’ll be laughing and we’ll laugh too.”
Laughter. You’re my only source of that, but I’m not the only cause of it for you. Watching your delight at things I dread, like the mutaflys that flutter by looking so pretty you can almost forget they’re hunting for fresh blood. A swarm can suck a small human dry in the time it takes her brother to run up two flights of stairs, find the insect spray and get back too late to use it except in petty revenge.
“Karl will have one of his flame throwers and he’ll make the garden safe again.”
You love the garden, all the waving leaves and those pointy-edged flowers in the pond. They’re very pretty. Hypnotic. Even a big man can’t resist being lulled off guard and pulled down by whatever waves those pointy-edged flowers.
“The twins will have new dresses and shoes to show off, and ribbons from the market for your hair.”
They’d called to say they were coming to do just that when the last round of mutanukes whistled down, most exploding close enough to the ground to set the tops of the tallest buildings on fire. The luckiest got caught in those fires and died. Everything else was enveloped in a cloud of biological horrors. It caused various maladies, but foaming lung, hypercancer, and explosive dysentery were the most common ways to die.
“We’ll go down to the basement and drink the last of grandpa’s wine, then we can all hop right into that truck and get away from here.”
That’s where I was, down in the basement, all masked up against the dust and mould, cataloguing poor Grandpa Roget’s wine so we could sell it off. I should have been out back, mowing the lawn, snatching glances at you in your flowery shorts and halter top. As usual, you only wore one gardening glove and I’d guess you were singing off-key while you pruned the roses.
“Everyone will be far out of town before evening and we can watch the sunset together.”
The mutanuke that went off high overhead was likely a misfire. I heard the noise and I swear I heard you scream. I scrambled out through the coal chute, leaving the hatch open so we could get inside quicker.
Outside the murk had started to settle. I saw you and the ladder on the ground. You’d either breathed in a little or fallen off the ladder in haste. I dragged you into the basement, closed the top and bottom hatches, then used a lot of the wine to wash us both off. Stinking of fermented, sun-kissed berries, I patched your head wound before carrying you up through the screens at the entrance to the basement.
“There’s beer and ham and cheese, sweetheart. Won’t you come and join us?”
“Join who where, Gareth?”
I look down and see a child’s innocent recognition shining in adult eyes. I was overjoyed when you first came round, convinced you’d get better. Now I curse myself for the selfishness of dragging you inside. Any second now, you’ll smile and I’ll fall in love with what remains of you all over again. I can’t grieve for the family we lost while you laugh as you draw rainbows across the wallpaper. I can’t grieve for you, because darkness waits for me there.
All I can do is tell you lies while you are sleeping, so I can be true when you wake.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
We’re eighty-four days out from Sondehaven before we pick up the right beacon. I get everyone’s attention with a short blast of the klaxon, which prompts a round of rude guesswork as to my parentage and next sexual partner.
“You’re all hilarious. Now, we’re on beacon, so decide what we need to get repaired and fake it. You’ve got about an hour before we enter nosey bastard range. I’ll klaxon again five minutes out.”
The Firefly-class freighters that gad about the free trade routes often provide settings for broadcast soap opera. I presume scriptwriters associate independent minds and close quarters with dubious morals and tempestuous relationships. I wish. While free traders might be prone to cowboy-esque antics, the real problems occur in the freespace habitats. Even the folk on orbitals have the option of getting groundside for a holiday.
In space, no-one can hear you argue. Having to put up with every little foible without respite is a recipe for disaster when you add the levels of stubborn and strange that attract people to living in the big empty. No-one can hear you kick the living spit out of your partner – or partners – either. Cults and abusers love freespace.
I let the klaxon wail fade slowly this time, knowing how the diminishing sound spurs us on to get things completed before it goes quiet.
The moment we get within range, Sarah comes over the comm.
“Emma, we’ve just been double-tapped by lifeform and weapons scans. Both wide spectrum, just inside legal limits for civilian use.”
Indicator number one: paranoid overreaction. Somebody’s expecting something.
“Jahnee, time to turn the macho up and do the aggrieved owner routine.”
I listen in.
“Bluebitch calling beacon site. Bluebitch calling beacon site. Request assistance.”
The voice that comes back is grating: “Bluebitch? Good name for a ship, brother. What can Halla Station do for you?”
“Something in the air scrubbers is fried and none of the fluffies on this tub have enough mechanic to fill a cup.”
“See that too often, brother. A breathable berth and tech access for a day do you? Got decent food if I gee my skirt up, so you come down for a chinwag and leave the fluffies to the scutwork. They’re on your tab, after all.”
“Got a point there. I’m Dean. What do I call you, and can I bring my own waitress?”
The laugh is menacing.
“Name’s Tom. Bring whatever you like, as long as it’s pretty.”
I’m going to enjoy this.
An hour later, Jahnee’s in combat gear, while I’m in a demure little bodysuit that’s a size too small. I call it my ‘fishing gear’.
Jahnee might as well be invisible. Tom’s an eager lad. With him pawing my anatomy, this is too easy.
“Hello, precious. What’s your name?”
Down he goes. Jahnee gets the sedative in fast.
Natalie and Mike dash past, calling for our passengers: “Nameh? Raxon? We’re from Bluebird.”
We help victims vanish into the big empty, off to better lives. As we’re free traders operating under aliases, the abuser has next to no chance of tracking us.
Another thin woman, another boy with haunted eyes, another small trunk of belongings.
“A shipman on your supply run called Bluebird. They monitored things for a while. After they confirmed the shipman’s opinion, they sent us.”
Nameh gestures to Tom.
“What about him?”
“There’s warnings on the courtesan networks and other useful places. He’ll have to adjust.”
She looks at me like I said the last two words out loud, then nods.