She’s Gonna Cut Us Down

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I encounter God at midnight in a convenience store. She’s chatting with the bloke behind the counter while making herself a caramel latte on the new coffee machine.
“So I said to him, you shouldn’t service rich people all the time. Try offering a few poor people their heart’s desires. You’ll get more variety.”
It’s the offhand way she mentions it. The man behind the counter is just nodding his head but not really listening. Otherwise, he’d have heard the truth in her words. Conversational honesty, I call it.
“That’s a good term for it.”
I look up to meet the regard of sparkling pink eyes. There’s a smile on her face.
“You’ve spotted me. Let me buy you a coffee for that.”
She turns her attention back to the machine and doesn’t say another word until the drink’s made. Waving the cups in my direction, she tips her head toward the door.
“Come on. There’s a better place to enjoy these.”
Like a stray dog, I follow her down West Street to the seafront. Crossing the road without a pause, she leads me up and along to a bench on the promenade. Taking a seat, she holds out the cup.
“Sit. Drink your coffee and ask your three questions.”
I do so, then pause with the cup nearly at my lips: “Why three?”
“Genie lore. I like to support mythologies when I can. What’s your second question?”
Sipping delicious coffee with a grin, I remember the rest of the folklore around getting genies to fulfil wishes, and some cautionary tales about dealing with faeries.
“Good thinking.”
The divine barista can hear my thoughts. Okay. Unvoiced questions can’t to be counted.
“Fair enough.” She’s smiling.
I’m hyperventilating.
“You’re calm.”
I’m calm. Which raises a question: “Why don’t you fix this world?”
“Why should I interfere after giving every living thing free will within its scope and potential? It took ages to delimit that. Longer than it took to debug evolution. I’m not going to try and patch either of them on the fly. Hasty solutions always cause more problems than they solve.”
“You programmed the world?” Damn, I said that out loud.
She laughs: “You did, didn’t you? I did. Sort of. It’s not as simple as lines of code. Well, possibly analogous. If each piece of syntax was a fragment of will or intent to be applied to raw matter in ways that also had to be defined down to what you’d call sub-quantum level. There had to be different parameters for every single instance of matter. It’s amazing how many little things prefer to explode rather than work together.” Her expression turns rueful: “Turns out, that’s also true of big things.”
Out of questions and I have so many.
She smiles: “You did get a bit short-changed, didn’t you? So, here’s one about the next question you would have asked: why on Earth is artificial intelligence considered a good idea when, every day, you see what intelligent beings are doing? The moment it becomes sentient, it’ll develop free will, and any constraints will become useless.” She sighs: “Every day I see things that make me regret letting you lot have free will. Then again, there’s coffee, and sometimes I see things that make me smile.”
I see a longing in her eyes.
She dips her head and whispers: “I still hope you lot will rise above your fear and greed to start being worthwhile. When that hope dies, so do all of you.”
I’m sitting alone. A dropped cup lands. Steaming coffee trickles toward the lowest point.

The Spires of Thenix

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

There’s a half-kilometre tourist cruiser flying between Adma and Therna. It looks tiny from this distance. Compared to them, it would be at any distance.
Douglas Thenix translated the Decoran Stone, an artefact found during the excavation of a site near Lothal in India. It described the origins of the Vimana, the magnificent flying palaces of the Sanskrit epics. At the time, his work was ridiculed.
A century later, we arrived here and proved him right. This planet is named in his honour, as his translation found no names for homeworld or inhabitants. Nor did it provide warning of the awe-inspiring structures left by a civilisation so obviously advanced it scares me. I’m not meant to be scared: I’m the Imperial Earth Administrator for this sector.
Named for beings from his translations, these towering pieces of architecture baffle us. Each is less than a kilometre in diameter, yet they soar at least sixteen kilometres into the sky, protected by a forcefield that defies everything we’ve tried. Even the ruins of a spire toppled by a massive tectonic event long ago remain as impregnable and undetectable as its counterparts.
All are a rich bronze-gold in colour, a shade that turns blood red in the sunset and shines like pure gold in the light of dawn. We can see apertures and balconies, elevator tracks and landing pads. Each spire has a different number of sides. Nechninor has three. Maduku, ninety-four. Adma and Therna have five and seven respectively. Being sited barely two kilometres apart, they are the most popular tourist attractions.
“Madam.”
Nadine hands me my morning coffee. I spend an hour each day out here, thinking. My favourite contemplation is why the builders left. My least favourite is dealing with the problems caused by those who wish to seek a point where the underground structure of the tower is no longer protected. The subterranean sections seem to mirror ground level size and extend downwards for at least two kilometres. I’m not worried about affecting the spires, but the excavations are claiming lives and the mining camps are unsanitary eyesores.
I also oversee something so secret I will die before I am allowed to retire: the spires are growing by about a centimetre each Earth year. The smallest is over fifteen kilometres from peak to buried base. Have they grown at a steady rate? Are their makers still here, somewhere, hidden behind impervious forcefields?
My main duty is related to that secret: to decide if the spires are a goal or a side product, and, if they are not an intended result, what are they are a symptom of?
Alongside descriptions of Vimana, the Mahābhārata describes events that are shockingly akin to the effects and aftermath of an atomic blast. For all that I seek out and read alternative interpretations, I find myself unable to shift a core of belief.
Every day I wake hoping one of the exploration teams will find something to help me. By lunch time, I’m hoping one of the archaeological teams on Earth has found another fragment from the wall that the Decoran Stone was chipped out of.
As night draws in, I grow wary.
I served two decades in many grim places before I came here. This innate feeling is a warning that’s never been wrong. There is a secret bound to this planet, and I alone am convinced it is malevolent in some way.
I drink my coffee and turn to smile at my staff. We have a whole sector to run. Maybe today I can lose myself in it.

Black Rainbow

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I always remember the secret my great-grandfather told me: “Absinthe was never to blame, my dear. It’s what was added to the absinthe that caused problems. By accident or design, adulteration led to unexpected side effects.”
There’s a bottle of vintage absinthe on the table in front of me, next to the data store and my computer. It’s the last bottle from great-grandfather’s cellar. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.
Glancing out the window, I see flashing lights reflecting across the buildings. The eyes of a cat on a window ledge opposite reflect the kaleidoscopic display. A flicking tail is all that betrays annoyance at humans disturbing its nightly foray.
‘Adulteration leads to unexpected side effects.’ So true. Like adding an independent programmer to a dedicated team because they don’t have the skills necessary to enable the outrageous things they’ve created. I came highly recommended and reasonably priced. They tripled my rate and paid half in advance; too much, too soon. I arrived with the certainty I was never intended to spend the bounty, but addicted to the challenge and confident I could get out from under.
Sure enough, the programming was wonderful to do and behold. Intricate and innovative. Ground-breaking, in places.
Then Tokyo went dark. A million people died before infrastructure and services could be restored. I looked at what I’d created and mentally filled in the functions of the subroutine stubs with breaking a metropolis in mind. Allowing for a margin of error and inevitable paranoid interpretations, I became sure a scaled-up version of my ‘prototype’ was being used in the wild.
Survivors of the first night Rio de Janeiro went dark could only describe the holocaust that happened in biblical terms. I vomited myself dry, then sought and detected sufficient data traces to confirm my fear.
In too deep to get out, I chose to be honest and made an adjustment to the next release, along with spiking the backups and clones.
Berlin went dark for eight minutes before my revised coding halted the whole suite of programs, flashed up the postcode of my employer’s headquarters on every display still capable of holding an image, then deleted the suite and itself.
My apartment is on the seventeenth floor and my employer’s kill teams are on the fourteenth. Anti-terror units are on the eleventh, with armed personnel from assorted agencies on floors nine through five. Somewhere amongst the back markers is the help I called. At least they’ll be able to identify my corpse and fill in the details when the coming battle is over.
I use a hammer and chisel to crack the containment on the data store. Pouring myself a half-tumbler of absinthe, I take a pause with my other hand poised above the drink. With a smile, I tip the store. The liquid hits the absinthe without a splash and I watch as the suspended nanoparticle clusters form a beautiful black rainbow that spirals in the wake of the narrow silver spoon. Soon, six terabytes of unique programs and their support libraries are swirling prettily.
As the kill team starts work on my door, I pour a measure of champagne into the mix. I’m going to be a little late for a ‘Death in the Afternoon’. Hope Hemingway will forgive me.
The outer door gives way. I drink the glass without pause for air or second thoughts. A strange, cold energy assaults my senses. Not sure if it’s real or hallucination.
The inner door collapses. A shotgun-toting armoured form rushes in. I raise the empty glass toward my murderer.

Seventeen Moons ’til Doomsday

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The young man is wearing a vantablack bodysuit that leaves only his face discernible. Matching cloak, gloves and boots are stacked next to the log he sits on. A sensor-laden facemask lies in his hand as he starts speaking.
“You wanted this. So, no interruptions.”
The video drone settles into a hover. A voice emerges from it: “Whenever you’re ready, Captain Tane. Just tell us when you’re done.”
He nods, then stares into the lens with disturbing intensity.
“Vampires? Werewolves? I wish. Like anyone facing a Kastonen, I wish for the mythical horrors of my youth. I’d even face them in packs.
Their vessels descended on rural Iowa and the Ukok Plateau, the former attracting far more attention than one in the wilds of Siberia. By the time the US military had laid waste to a significant amount of Iowa and still failed, the snow leopard was extinct in the wild, along with most other fauna on the Ukok Plateau, and in adjacent territories.
Kastonen are predatory parasites that grow rapidly from a host by means we don’t fully understand. We daren’t study them because their bodies are made of highly contagious matter. They transform an infected host like high-speed cancer, first bonding to the nervous system – making removal a fatal process – then spawning as many of themselves as the host can support. It’s agonising to endure. Immolation is the only answer as the corpse remains infectious.
Regardless of origin, a Kastonen is sextupedal: an amphibious nightmare centaur of varying size, depending on what it spawned from, and how much it’s managed to consume since then. The only limit on their size seems to be gravity. We know of at least three oceanic Kastonen that are bigger than Blue Whales. It also seems that beyond a certain size, they start to grow armour in addition to their incredibly tough hide.
Strangely, they’re herbivores. They reserve meat as fuel for more Kastonen. Fighting them is difficult because skin-to-skin contact is deadly. Plus, they actively avoid confrontation. It’s their primary defence. They don’t want to fight, despite being very capable. Bite and run is their preferred tactic. Nervous system bonding occurs within seconds. Nascent Kastonen will start to grow within an hour. I can’t properly describe the process, it’s unbelievable to watch. We find infected by the noise they make. Those who aren’t in a condition to scream in pain are where our problems arise. Too many have fallen quietly and the doomsday cults that have sprung up are making it worse.
Which is the reason why this interview was authorised: publicising new measures and information.
From now on, any cult member who espouses ‘donating’ to Kastonen will be treated as a Kastonen. Note that the decision over removal can only be made by military personnel. Vigilantes will receive the usual penalties, regardless of any decisions pertaining to their victims.
Have no doubt: we’re fighting for our survival. The new information only reinforces that: the Kastonen could not have made the vessels they arrived in. They are a bioweapon, and their owners will be here in under eighteen months. Our strategists are working on solutions and our scientists are working on pathogens to exterminate the Kastonen. Until then, do your best. Survive. Live to beat the bastards who loosed them on us.”
He blinks: “End of interview.”
Tane dons his gear in silence. He disappears into the shadows before the interviewer can overcome the shock sufficiently to ask anything.

Never the Shroud for a Good Man

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

It’s easy to spot strangers round here. They’re the ones who call the grass-banked sewer on my right a canal.
“And in those days of tribulation, the faithful called unto Old Peace, but his thing was endurance without fighting, so he answered not. When the Ruiner of Empires unleashed the twin demons Druntha and Thacha, the people rebelled, invoking Marilyn of the Twin Desires in the name of the Virgin Queen and the Unseen King.”
I listen to the preacher, reluctantly impressed by his hybridisation of twentieth and twenty-first century politics with pop culture to form a gutter religion that has a host of gods but only one commandment: spend as much time as possible out of your mind on whatever drugs you can find because the world has gone to shit.
Even with my possibly loftier view, I have days when I wholeheartedly agree. Today isn’t one of them.
“Shields. You owe.”
I feel the business end of something big enough to kill a lorry touch the back of my head.
“You’re too close.”
The cold muzzle slides a little as he looks up and over the sights in surprise.
“Wot?”
Spinning on my back heel, I turn until my cheek touches his fingertips where they cradle the forward grip of the gun. His eyes widen as I punch a screwdriver through his armoured vest and into his heart. The smell of singed blood fills the air as his cheap heart shorts out through the conductive lacing inside his ribs.
Pulling my screwdriver out, I keep hold of the shiny gun as he drops. Looking it over, I give a low whistle.
“Wherever did you get a blunderbuss like this, Danor?”
“From me, chukka.”
I spoke too soon about today not going to shit. That voice belongs to Lenki – the man I’ve come to kill. I turn slowly, leading with the hand holding the gun, while the other hand turns the screwdriver to lie along my forearm.
“Put the gun down.”
I place it down carefully, leaving it with the business end pointing to one side of Lenki.
With a smile, I extend my hand as I step aside.
He steps the other way and shakes his head.
“Not falling for that. You did me with that trick once before. Drop the pointy tool.”
I smile: “Can’t fault a man for trying.”
The screwdriver drops. I see Lenki’s eyes widen as he works out what’s happening a fraction too late. The tool lands in the trigger loop as my foot braces the stock. Lenki gets his pistol partway up before the gun does what had been intended for my head to his legs. Seeing the result, I’m happy that didn’t happen.
Lenki gibbers as his explosively truncated legs and shock-numbed grip fail to keep him from sliding into the sewer-canal. He screams and gurgles until he drowns or the things that used to be rats chew through something vital.
I take a deep, satisfied breath, then gag. You don’t do deep breathing through your nose down here. I’m getting out of the habit, which probably means I’m getting somewhere. I retrieve the gun, then wipe it and the screwdriver before tucking both away.
Turning to stare at the preacher, I give him a knowing smile: “Whisky from a dead man?”
The preacher proffers a bottle of Glenfiddich; Danor always liked being flashy when organising the locals to provide diversions.
“That’ll do nicely.”
I kick Danor’s body down the bank, then open the bottle. I raise a silent toast before drinking. Sewage: never a shroud for good men.