Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The roof is a tarpaulin, sheltering walls braced with lengths of burnt wood and fungus-like runs of building foam. The floor had been churned mud before a levelling blazer converted it to blackened glass. At the centre of the room a figure is tied to a chair, clothing reduced to rags. Wires criss-cross his body. Everything’s covered in dirt, except for the officer leaning on the wall in front of the figure. She’s gazing at a holographic display that floats in the air between them.
“Let’s try again, Captain Thirm. You claim your unit intercepted Major Proth’s retreat. Somehow, despite managing to kill all the grunts, you missed him.”
The figure in the chair spits.
“Interrogator Reed, my reply stands: your commander is a prick.”
The veracity indicator flashes bright green.
“Still telling the truth.” She coughs. “From his point of view.”
The shadowed image in the video window wobbles as a fist slams into the camera.
“I told you to stop him doing that!”
“Commander, the only way to do that will render him unable to reply.”
A face looms close enough for the light from the screen to pick out the shine of his scars.
“I authorise the use of special measures.”
“Commander, we’ve been making this man’s nervous system light up like a Christmas tree for three days. In that time, the only information we’ve obtained is 1,442 reiterations of his opinion of you. The time for psionic interrogation is when the subject’s neurosurgical landscape is uncompromised, where the nuances between truth, lie, and obfuscation can be discerned.”
“I emphasised special measures. Turning him into a vegetable is acceptable.”
“Commander, use of that discipline is an atrocity under the Convention of Mars. I refuse.”
“If you disobey me, mindwarper, I’ll have you shot for treason.”
There’s a pause, then she steps through the holographic display and places her hand on the Captain’s head. His body jerks. On screen, the shadowed figure nods.
Thirm finds himself unable to move. A burning sensation races about in his head, becomes almost unbearable, then vanishes. A voice speaks within his mind.
*Hello, Walter. I see you volunteered for experimental pain buffering. It seems to have worked. I’ve also browsed other relevant memories. I see events occurred as you reported, and can detect no interference. Do you have any idea why the official record disagrees with the truth you participated in?*
Walter struggles for a moment, then works out how to reply.
*We overran this sector far quicker than expected. Proth had to improvise, starting with the decoys my team met. The Commander has fresh scars. From ten years ago? I patched him up after that battle. Also, like most of our side, he has no problem with psionicists. Commander Adams would never use a derogatory term like ‘mindwarper’.*
*You’re insinuating that the Major has hidden himself within our chain of command?*
*Remote warfare has unique hazards. Proth seems to have exploited them. He’s getting the witnesses killed during interrogations. Tell whoever’s going in to be careful. He’ll be guarded by the survivors of his Special Tactics Executive.*
He’s alone in his head, her hand still in place. Minutes pass.
The shadowy figure on screen slumps sideways and disappears. A woman in PsiCom uniform takes his place.
“Initial reads confirm the hypothesis. We have captured Major Proth and one STE operative.”
Her hand lifts from his head.
“Welcome back, Captain. You’re reinstated, and are scheduled to return to duty after a seven-day furlough.”
“Join me for a drink?”
“I’ve been in your mind.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
I used to watch the fireflies, seeing how they flitted and settled. They seemed to go everywhere, but never intruded on the air above the still waters of the mere. Just like the fireflies above that mere never strayed anywhere else.
As time went by, I noticed the fireflies of the mere were unusual in other ways: appearing all year round being the main thing. I also came to the strange certainty that there were a fixed number of them. But I found a peace like nowhere else, sitting on the shore of the mere and watching those fireflies gather near me.
Before I could follow up on the strangeness, the onset of puberty and life in general distracted me. Thus it was many years before a breakup led to a trip home and an evening of melancholy. As heartache often does, it sought nostalgia to dwell upon: my memories of the fireflies.
Which is why I found myself sitting on the shore of the mere tonight, watching as the fireflies came closer.
They seem quicker. Eager, even. But the peace is still here.
I lurch to my feet, spinning to put my back to the water. I’d prefer a wall, but this will have to do. The eerie light of my flying companions shows me very little, until he moves.
“Dunc. What are you doing here?”
I know, but I need him to acknowledge it, or confirm my worst fears – or both.
“You never brought me here. You talked about it, but never invited me. So I invited myself. You know, to be with you. To be us, in your special place.”
He comes closer.
“Dunc, we’re over. It wasn’t working.”
“For you! Not for me!”
He’s got a knife! Too far to anywhere from here. That’s part of the appeal. This isn’t good.
“What’s with the knife, Dunc?” Keep the tone casual.
He looks at it. Then looks at me, at the mere, and smiles.
“Thought we could go together, you know? Show them we had something special.”
His other hand dives into a pocket, emerging with a crumpled envelope.
“Did us a letter. So they’ll know. They’ll all know, those sad fucks who said I was bad for you. They’ll know and be sorry they didn’t have what we had.”
His obsessive streak appealed to me at the start. Big mistake. How do I…?
“Dunc, let’s go get a drink. We can talk about things.”
“No! The time for talking is over. You said that.”
“So it’s time for action.”
The knife comes up as he steps towards me. I back into the mere. Maybe it’s got a drop-off: I’ll disappear before he gets me.
I’m still backing up. He’s in the water too. It’s only up to my knees.
“Help.” It’s whisper, but it’s the best I can do.
Fireflies dive into the water. A glow spreads between me and Dunc, getting stronger with each bug that hits. He wades straight into the glowing patch, then stops.
He drops the knife. Reaches for me. It’s not hostile. It’s pleading. His eyes start to glow. He topples into the luminous water and sinks from view.
The fireflies come out of the water. They’re brighter. One hovers right in front of me. A gem-like body, shining wings that don’t move, and eyes like orbs of mercury.
A reedy voice. Hissing, crackling.
“Never come into the water alone. We’d have no choice.”
I sprint from the place, screaming my thanks.
It’ll still be peaceful.
But never for me.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
I wake with a dagger in my hand. The other end of the dagger is in someone’s neck. Raising my gaze, I see the life fade from his eyes. The moment stretches as details sketch themselves in around the face of someone I don’t know. A ship’s bridge. Crew members staring in horror. A purple and green planet on the view screens.
The nearest person’s gaze flicks to my left. Something hits me from the left. I’m knocked down, dagger seemingly locked in my hand. Blood fountains across my falling view. I hit the floor, then hit my head. Darkness.
“Is she awake?”
“She’s coming round, sir.”
I open my eyes. The ceiling is blue, the lighting soft and indirect.
“Welcome back, Shistal. If that’s your real name.”
“Becky. Rebecca. Rebecca Ethelsdotter.”
“Dotter? You’re from the Scandic Worlds?”
“Why do you have greenish skin?”
I raise my hand. Long fingers. Their colour is wrong. I giggle.
“Eisa said I had green fingers. Don’t think she meant it literally.”
“Eisa got a new boyfriend. Madden Lars. I thought he was a creep, and that was before he tried it on. I told her, she finished with him. He said he’d get me for doing that.”
“How is this pertinent?”
“She said he described his job as ‘cyberpsychiatrist’. We laughed about robots lying on a couch. A few days later, I found out what they do is adjust behaviour with implants.”
A bearded man with blue eyes leans into my view.
“We’ll have to continue this conversation later. Something just came up.”
It goes quiet, then crewmembers come in and wheel whatever I’m lying on into a grey room. I hear the door close with a hiss.
The bearded man reappears.
“Sorry about that. I think I got where you were going with that line of thought. Hold still. We’re about to do a passive scan.”
“Because I think anyone who set you up with an implanted cyber-identity so you could assassinate someone, but rigged it to have you live long enough to realise, is nasty enough to have booby-trapped it. That’s why I moved you to a shielded room: so this Madden or whoever he works for can’t detonate you before we’re done.”
Swallowing hurts; my mouth has gone dry.
He leaves. Time passes. Things hum and stop, then click and stop, then hum again. There’s a hissing noise. Things get blurry. Darkness.
“Welcome back, Rebecca.”
I’m lying in a bed with a raised back. The bearded man is sitting to one side. There’s a nurse on the other. A uniformed man in body armour stands by the door.
“Was I booby-trapped?”
“Very much so. You’d been set up to injure or kill everyone near you. The medical team have taken it all out. Our security team have already extracted enough information to prove that, despite your body being used, you’re not actually guilty.”
“What about Madden?”
“He’s been arrested and taken off Issker for questioning. I also requested a protective detail for your family. Just in case.”
“I thought he meant it, too. But I was preparing for petty vandalism, not kidnapping.”
“It certainly raises some dark possibilities. You’ll be questioned when you return home. They’re sending a vessel to collect you. Until then, you get to enjoy the cruise from this private room in our medical centre.”
Questioning isn’t the problem. I’m more concerned about how I stop being green.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
Slowly revolving like Christmas decorations, sparkling under the spotlights of the Seacole.
The barbarism of those we face brought an old quote back to me: ‘An honest soldier will regard the battlefield as dawn breaks across it on the morn after the battle. He will take in the awful beauty revealed. Set against the death-dealing evidenced by that vista, something he knows full well, having oft dealt such, he must acknowledge the sacrifices made. He should then give thanks unto God for his survival, no matter it be by the fortunes of war or the vicissitudes of rank.’
Every time I come to a field like this, I start by looking at it unfiltered, admitting my relief at not being part of it.
“When you’re ready, Jackie.”
We call the enemy ‘Triclaws’. Not much is known. They’re secretive, ruthless, and never ones for what humanity considers a ‘fair fight’. Merciless, overwhelming force is their trademark. We have some basic descriptions: at least two metres tall, two clawed arms on one side, a giant pincer on the other. There may be other limbs, because they can use our keyboards and the like. They never leave their dead, and delight in taunting us. Every atrocity is capped with some disgusting trophy display. When it comes to space battles, they leave only wings and fins.
“Seacole, I’m going in.”
We search every site. The first clue we got was from a lone tech on an isolated orbital station. She took one of them out. Had to use herself as bait, and kill herself, to manage it. Left us a description and some clues. Since then, re-investigations have revealed many supposed accidents as likely Triclaw attacks.
They aren’t infallible. Horrifically good, hinting at long practice, but not perfect. Their advantage is in leaving so little of themselves behind. One fine day we’ll bury them. Painstaking efforts like this are how it’ll come to pass.
“What are you thinking, Jackie?”
“That we should change our parameters. The Triclaws obviously use heat sensors. I’d guess movement detection too. For anyone to survive a post-battle purge, they would need to be cold and still. Everybody knows, so anyone with the skills and materials would have to be fast.”
“Only if we find them alive.”
“True. We reckon whatever they came up with would be of diminishing effectiveness, too.”
So, my theoretical survivor is hiding in plain sight – or inside plain sight.
“Seacole, give me a 3D map of the debris field. Highlight all remains with an internal volume over a square metre.”
This search would be nonsensical if the Triclaws hadn’t taken everything but the wings. My grid fills with coloured debris.
“How long since the battle, do we reckon?”
“I’m heading towards the nearest. Scan the others for raised temperature. There’s no way to hide body heat for that long without prepared containment.”
Please. I want to prove they’re not perfect killers.
“Jackie, the ventral fin from the ‘HSS Expedient’ is warm! A check of the original schematics reveals it had a manned weapons cubicle that was sealed up during a refit. It’s flashing on your grid.”
That’s a way off.
“Seacole, I’ll rendezvous there. Go get them.”
Darkness returns as the Seacole moves off.
The thing that offends me most is how pretty the wreckage looks in the light of the distant sun.
I take my time and check all the other possibles. Finding two would be a miracle, but I have to be thorough.
“He’s alive, Jackie.”
Here’s hoping he’s got information: another rivet for the Triclaws coffin.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
“Well, now. What do we have here?”
I yelp in surprise and shoot him. He disappears from view. There’s a splash.
“Did he just fall into water?”
“Definitely sounded like something wet.”
“Does that mean we’ve arrived somewhere useful?”
“No idea. Go look.”
“You’re the mad scientist who dragged his family into warp space using a faulty home-made hyperdrive.”
She’s got me there. I lift my tired bones off the bottom of the pool and peer over the edge.
“We’re a barge. In a river. I see boats with flashing lights coming this way.”
“Told you that gun was loud.”
“Dad, our barge is leaking.”
I look down. The turquoise ceramic of the tropical paradise pool has finished translating itself. It’s now the hold of a derelict barge that clearly hasn’t been maintained in a very long time. Still a long way from the garden shed it started out as.
“Looks like we’re swimming.”
“Dad, let’s dive off the opposite side to the flashies. Shoot the hyperdrive as we go.”
“Can’t do that, Nancy, it’s our way back!”
She slaps me.
“Your fucking way got us lost, got my stepmom and Max eaten by some alien monstrosity, then sent Jimmy running off with a Terbulantic dancer. There are no answers in your delusion. Use your busted machine again? Fuck no. We need to get off this ride somewhere liveable before something kills you and I end up dead – or doing something fucking awful to survive on a world I don’t belong in.”
“You swear too much.”
“Apart from that: I’m fucking right, and I’m fucking leaving. Come if you want.”
Nancy runs across the hold, scrambles up the far side and drops from view. There’s another splash. Damn damn… Oh, balls to it. My daughter’s clearly the brains of this outfit. I run across the hold, clamber up on the edge, then pause while I take aim at the flawed device that started all this. I shoot it twice, then drop the gun into the hold and roll off the side of the barge.
The explosions behind are accompanied by a lightshow that makes our short swim easier. I get to the ladder as Nancy reaches the top, and make it halfway up before the final blast flattens me against the embankment. Maintaining my hold with difficulty, I force myself to climb. After clawing my way over the edge, I force myself to ignore the sirens and run with her.
She darts to the left. I hear a startled cry. Before I can gather myself to look, she’s back.
“Got a bag. No, I didn’t kill anyone. Hopefully there’s money in it, and the thing sticking out is some sort of newspaper.”
Who is this? Three years ago she screamed for a day after we had to scramble back to the transformed shed through a jungle filled with insects the size of cars. Two years ago she was hysterical over seeing her dog eaten, but still dragged me away from Anne’s severed leg so we could escape. She was the one who bandaged the wound where Jimmy stopped my arguing with a long knife, hatred burning in his eyes.
We run a long way before she scoots down an alley and settles herself.
“Sit down. Time to turn your brilliant mind to being a criminal. I love you for trying to fix your fuck ups, hate you for not quitting sooner, haven’t forgiven you for getting Max killed, and I’ll leave you if I need to.”
My daughter, the survivor. Hope I can keep up.