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?

Ratings

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I can see the lights of the screens up in the control room as I cross the silent studio. Nothing will be happening down here for another year. Up there, nobody goes home until their replacement is onsite and up to speed.
Kelly once commented that some of them never seem to go home. It’s true. Many of the junior staff don’t have homes. They bunk in the emergency coverage dormitory and everyone turns a blind eye, because everyone has friends or relatives in the same position. Affording the basics of life became a privilege several years ago.
Maybe that’s why ‘Marsville’ is so popular. There’s a ten-year waiting list for auditions. Even those ridiculed as failures in the ‘Fail Harder’ segments are pretty much guaranteed the life of a minor celebrity. To be honest, it’s been the making of me, too. The Eldorado Network pays me well to compere the world’s number one reality AV show.
Why am I trudging up these stairs at three in the morning? Marsville has just started it’s twelfth season. The fifteen contestants arrived a fortnight ago. What with the tension between Davor, Trisha and Garrett, the ratings have already smashed last year’s records. There shouldn’t be anything bad enough to warrant this sort of meeting.
I find Pete, Carnegie, and Horace Eldorado in the conference room. The producer, the head of security, and the owner of the network.
“This can’t be good.”
Carnegie points to his datapad.
“Remember Marcus Trent?”
Takes me a moment: bearded, medium build. Personal trainer. Very popular with the 35-55 viewing audience. I nod.
“He’s dead.”
“Why didn’t I get an alert?”
“He’s in a bath in a derelict hotel in Yarmouth.”
I drop into a chair: “I don’t understand.”
“Police reckon he died a few days before they were shuttled to ISS2. But for a Domestic Army sweep, the body wouldn’t have been found for ages.”
I glare at him: “He was killed after the vetting process. Getting him off campus would be impossible without co-operation. What did your people miss?”
Carnegie shakes his head: “We have video of him leaving with an orderly for a scheduled check-up. The orderly is missing, and was about the same build as Trent.”
“More likely he was tricked. Which means the body of the real orderly is out there somewhere.”
Pete looks across at the board: “The problem being how do we get help to a habitat sited in a quiet corner of a planet 225 million kilometres away?”
Horace grunts.
“And how do we do it without alerting the imposter?”
The door crashes open. Kelly is pasty white.
“We’ve got a flatline and a redline!”
Carnegie’s up before she finishes speaking.
“Who?”
“Marcus Trent flatlined a few moments after Andrea Collins redlined.”
“Where?”
“Low-G spa room.”
The confusion is aggravated by comms lag. About a half hour later, we get the story from Andrea. The ugly weal across her throat gives us a clue.
“He obviously missed the low-G manoeuvring course: lost his balance. I ducked the stranglehold then hit him with a dumbbell.”
Stove his skull in.
Horace leans over.
“What now?”
I grin: “Andrea gets a pass to the semi-finals, and Marcus gets a posthumous win, the share going to his family in advance to help with funeral costs. Portray the imposter as an obsessed fan, no matter what comes out of the investigation.”
He grins.
“Keeping attention on Marsville. The show always goes on.”
Actually, it’s ‘must go on’, but you’re not paying me for historical accuracy. I nod and smile.

Little Evolutions

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The breeze from the windows is lethargic, like everything else in the oppressive heat and humidity. Tutor Phenedras shakes his head in resignation and puts down the cane he’s been using to point out the finer points of ‘Machiavellian Strategies as Applied to Urban Populations within Technological Civilisations’. He’s even working from Ducann’s original text, but it’s difficult to convey his enthusiasm while sweltering in his robes. All he has to do now is find an elegant excuse to declare an early recess.
Something hurtles through the highest window. With a clatter of metal-edged wings, a Pickaxe Head Drake slows as it swings twice round the auditorium, finally settling into a hover at the centre of the open space. Phenedras smiles: that lazy flapping of wings isn’t enough to keep it in the air, let alone stationary. It’s got gravitic implants.
The door slams open to admit a helmless woman in plate armour, blond hair wound in tight braids against her head. As the five cadets amongst his class leap to their feet, right fists snapping inward to land over their hearts, he catches the glint of a thin tiara.
“Knight-Mistress Scopa. Welcome.”
He hears sharp intakes of breath and sees amusement glint in the familiar eyes of the woman before him.
“Much as it’s flattering to be mistaken for my daughter…” Her voice trails off.
Phenedras leaps the lectern and drops to one knee, his right hand pressed flat over his heart.
“My apologies, Eternal Princess. It’s been a while since I’ve been in your presence.”
“You salute like a shipman.”
He looks up and grins: “Funnily enough, that was also the last thing you said to me.”
Rian Rho Scopa crouches to stare into his eyes.
“Captain Phen Dras. So this is where you disappeared to after telling my father to shove his Command Ship up his arse.”
“Whilst it became obvious I wasn’t alone in that sentiment, it seemed wise to remain out of sight.”
“For nine years?”
“I stayed away until my Shierre passed, but with seven years agone, it seemed pointless to attempt a return.”
“I heard she’d died. My condolences.” She looks up: “Just a moment.”
Standing up, she points at the drake.
“Naddamu! Get back to the roost or you’ll be sparring with the Firemouth.”
With a screech, the drake rushes out the window it came through.
She looks at the display screens.
“Ducann? On a day as hot as this? That’s just mean.”
There’s muted laughter.
“I was about to admit my folly when your companion flew in.”
“Phen, you’ve never admitted failure in your life. Don’t start, and do get up. Now, I presume Dean Tironsh will object without better cause than it being too damn hot?”
“Naturally.”
“Then tell him I said it’s mandated by evolution.”
Phenedras waves toward the class: “I’m not seeing it. Do elucidate us, Eternal Princess.”
She raises an eyebrow and smiles: “Don’t think I’m letting that cheeky tone pass. A deferment is all you get.”
He grins.
She continues.
“We are stood here today amidst the greatest civilisation humanity has ever had. After countless cycles of boom-to-bust because of ignorance and greed, we evolved. Onyx, Green, and Gold: the darkness from whence we came, the fertility of our present, and the promise of our future. Seventeen worlds, nine systems, four races. With education for all and greed an outlaw creed, only a lack of adaptability can stop us. Such as stubbornly trying to teach Ducann when it’s over forty degrees outside.”
Phenedras laughs and raises his hands in surrender: “I’m presuming no counter-arguments. Class dismissed.”