Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
It really wasn’t clever. Every time that she went out, they followed her together.
On Tuesday morn when she went out, she carried a huge white bag. Not unusual when going to shop, but laden enough to sag. She sallied boldly round the mazes of the Schwarzenegger Memorial Mall, rushing here and browsing there, not really going anywhere at all.
Everywhere that Mary went, the men in grey went too. Barely pretending to browse or pause, waiting to see what she’d do. Her keen green eyes perused so much, but never lost track of her tail. A reflection here, a glance taken there, a peek through a garment rail. So that was how Mary’s day went by, from mall to plaza to café. Two extra shadows in her wake, mirthless all the way.
As evening stained the sky with dusk, some revellers entered the street. Bright party clothes and brighter smiles, each moving to their personal beat. They exhorted Mary to come and dance, to put down her bag and play. Mary just smiled and shook her head, but joined in with a gentle sway.
So Mary, revellers, and grey-suited men went down to the old shunting yard, where illicit pleasures and loud release could throw anyone off their guard. Amidst that colourful throng, Mary laughed and danced a little bit. Never letting go of the heavy bag, nor showing what was in it.
When twilight turned to night the partying turned serious: three hundred happy lawbreakers became ever more delirious. While at the edge of that gay throng, two suited figures stood stern. People thought they were security – they didn’t cause concern. Until their guns came out, and drones dropped from the skies. One of them had met the gaze of this Mary with blue eyes.
Agents stormed in and the crowd erupted, people running all over the place. But no-one managed to get by, everyone compared to her scanned face. The blue-eyed Mary smiled as she showed the white bag full of jewellery and cash, with a rumpled mess of discarded dress and nice shoes left atop the stash.
They searched high and they searched low, all night and on to midday. But all they found at the end of it all was that Mary had gotten away.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The pavement shimmers gently in the afternoon heat. The baristas have been reduced to serving nothing but iced coffee.
Alec looks up to see someone with a vaguely familiar face take the seat opposite, then a waft of cigarette smoke makes him sneeze.
“Ah, you’re sensitive.”
The man now sharing his table stubs his cigarette out in the sugar bowl.
“Do I know you?”
Eyebrows raise: “Username ‘Peacemonger’. You did say to come find you.”
Alec sighs. Another troll. Will he be able to get rid of this one without police intervention?
“Peacemonger? I thought you were joking.”
The man frowns: “Disappearing people is no joke. Ergo, when you disagree with my contention and issue a challenge, for me to ignore either could be taken as tacit agreement. Therefore, here I am, and… 944,013.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“The number of humans who disappeared without trace in the last year, worldwide, as of the last midnight in this time zone.”
Alec saves his document and closes his laptop.
“That’s precise. I doubt even the various interested organisations could provide that. Especially for anyone who disappeared yesterday. How can you be sure they’re gone for good?”
Peacemonger smiles. Alec sees he’s had cosmetic dentistry: his upper outer incisors appear to be canines.
“Surely the question is ‘how do I know’ rather than ‘how can I be sure’?”
Alec grins: “I presume you’ve come to prove it.” Under the table, his thumb hovers over the ‘Call the Police’ icon on his mobile phone. He’d written the app himself after a previous troll hunted him down.
“I am, and by using one of the theories you challenged. See the corner behind me? It’s the one Susan Ceczyks rounded a minute ahead of her boyfriend, nine years ago. When he rounded the corner, she was gone. You contend she ducked into a vehicle. I say a dimensional anomaly whisked her away to fight for her life in the Sleastax system. I also said the anomaly is cyclic, and selective. Therefore, if I venture round that corner in six minutes time, I will vanish. All I ask is that you follow one minute behind to witness my proof.”
Alec stares at the maniac in an ill-fitting three-piece suit. He’d known that alien abductions and unexplained disappearances had a dedicated, factionalised following. He hadn’t realised the number of lone nutters who regarded logical investigation of their pet disappearances worthy of offline confrontation.
“So, if I tail you round that corner in a few minutes time, you’ll be satisfied?”
“Yes. I shall simply leave you to work out how to report the revelation I will have shown you.”
Alec shakes his head slightly and he finished his frappé. If necessary, he can run back here. The server collecting the empties and the one cleaning the floor look beefy enough to fend off this lunatic.
They sit in the sun, Alec pretending to busy himself with his phone to avoid further conversation.
The man gets up and walks to the corner, then stops and looks back at him.
Let’s get this over with. Alec walks to the corner, stopping a couple of metres short when the man raises a hand.
“Remember: you follow in one minute.”
The man turns the corner and disappears from view. Alec waits a little while – less than a minute – then follows.
Peacemonger lights a cigarette and walks off, a wry smile on his face. Works every time.
Alec sprawls in maroon sand, his laptop embedding itself nearby. The crowd hoots and howls, waving their tentacles enthusiastically.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
To our right, there are five rows of aircars just hanging there. In addition, there are six layers below and five above. All sleek, shining, and not moving.
“Look at it. Six by twelve, going nowhere.”
Tish’s right. We picked the wrong time to leave and are now stuck in M25-7-1. At least it’s an edge lane, so we’ve got a view over Croydon Hub toward the lights of the City Wall. It looks kind of tranquil: all the twinkling lights on buildings and shops and whatnot. Everywhere has light all the time, like being unlit is some form of failure.
“You’re sidescreening again.”
I bring my attention back within the Skaelan and smile at her, taking in the patterns playing across her bodystraps.
“Tone your content down: that’s nearly pornographic.”
She pouts and her straps turn black, ceasing dynamic displays and holographic panels.
Swallowing hard, I whistle: “Just the displays, not the privacy stuff, and did you mean to come out without underwear?”
“Stop pretending you don’t like it.” She looks down at herself and smiles: “S’pose it is a bit sparse. Hang on.”
She pulls a wad of lacy cloth from her purse and I look away. Putting complex underwear on in a car is inelegant and she’ll get embarrassed if I watch. The Skaelan moves a whole car length before she speaks again.
“Lingerie and privacy on.”
I turn back and she appears to be in a minidress with inset video screens and a high amethyst collar that curves into a tiara.
“What are you actually wearing, oh arbiter of modesty?”
“Leggings, utility belt, tabishoes.”
“Huh. I’ll let you off. Wish I could go topless.”
“I wish you could, too.”
The car moves forward half a length. At this rate, we should arrive fashionably late for tomorrow night.
“The way the salesman talked, I thought traffic just parted for the awesome Bentley Skaelan.” She grins. The salesman had just started to make my skin crawl when Tish said she’d probably like it if they did it in white. I’d stopped idly browsing the options at that point and told him to get us a white one and we’d have all the extras.
All the extras-
“Tish, I’m an idiot.”
She grins at me: “I know that. What’s the reason this time?”
“A fully loaded Skaelan. Like on ‘Kyrie P.I.’”
The Skaelan responds: “Active and linked. Specify destination.”
We settle back as our seats recline: “Tuckersen Lounge. Party of Trudi Hammond.”
“Target venue requests ID.”
There’s a momentary whirling mass of colour, then our holographic avatars are standing in the vestibule of the Tuckersen.
Trudi looks up as we appear: “Traffic that bad? Come and mingle until your physbods arrive, then you can get down to it.”
Tish’s voice sounds in my mind: “Should we tell her we got the pharmacy option in the Skaelan, so we could arrive drunk and high?”
I run a scan over the throng and identify no IDs of interest.
“Gods, no. Did you see the size of her pupils? She’ll demand we bring the Skaelan in to impress the mob.”
Her avatar nods: “Point.”
Trudi looks up: “You say something?”
V-Tish smiles: “Nope. Bandwidth hiccup.”
Trudi turns away and Tish’s voice comes through again.
“Why do we bother?”
“Keeping up appearances. Give this lot two hours and they’ll all be off their heads, so we can fade out and leave. I expect the Skaelan will still be nearer home, anyway. Everyone will simply assume we partied as hard as they did.”
“Good plan. Let’s do that.”
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
You can stalk the worlds like death incarnate, should you have the technology and the psychological issues necessary. You might even descend upon worlds in fire and fury in an attempt to become some sort of manifest divinity to the primitive souls thereon.
But you start waving a great big metallic weapon above your head after landing on a mountaintop during a lightning storm and you’re going to have a close encounter with physics. No matter how good you look, lightning doesn’t care. The blast from Numeniaro the Godslayer’s gear going up spread his remains across the mountaintop and down into the valleys on either side.
As if on cue, a deluge commences the moment we touch down.
Porto glares at me: “Didn’t you file a ‘clear skies’ request?”
Sheena beats me to it: “If godbastard the homicidal had nice weather, he’d have caused panic. So no, of course our beloved leader didn’t ask for that.”
Garbin joins in: “Your delicate constitution will just have to cope.”
Porto mutters something and jumps out. We follow.
“Okay, people. Priority is on retrieving any tech too strange for this world. Crispy critter will be regarded as a delicacy by the local wildlife, so his remains are not a problem, unless it’s a big bit. In which case, turn it into little bits and move on.”
“What’s too strange?” Porto, asking a sensible question for a change.
“Everything. Clothes of tiluden.”
Sheena whistles: “Woven spider silk set with bonded microdiamonds. Ostentatious.”
“This maniac had a following, some of them wealthy. Which brings me to the next fun fact: there will be fanatics looking for souvenirs. As this is a closed world, we can shoot them, but they might fight back.”
“Leave them to me.”
I hope I’m right about who we’ll encounter.
“Okay, beings. We’ve got a job to do. Move out!”
Four hours of miserable scouring later, a tree next to me goes up in a cloud of splinters and steam. I duck. There’s a loud gunshot.
I sit up and look toward the woman who spoke. She’s reloading a huge handgun, her dark suit seemingly immune to the downpour.
“English is fine, agent. I thought there was an outpost here.”
She smiles: “We have seven. Still investigating the reason for the outrageous number of visitations this world gets. What brings a Pangalaxus Stability Unit here?”
“Intergalactic technopsycho with a following looking for a world to rule. Met lightning. Got fried, then detonated. We’re picking up the exotic bits.”
She waves toward the five-armed yellow lizard with a sizeable hole between its compound eyes: “A devotee?”
“Or relic hunter. Makes no difference.”
I nod. We move out.
An hour later, I think we’ve about finished when something shoots Porto, then Sheena. We race to assist and see Garbin fall as we arrive. Our opponent is a Sandus in a deflector suit. My team only carry energy weapons to minimise traces. Against that suit, we’re as good as unarmed.
It roars out: “Give me Numeniaro.”
My companion shoots it three times. Each projectile punches a hole in the suit and rips huge holes as it exits. Sprays of alien blood mix with the rain. The Sandus looks more surprised than hurt as it collapses.
She smiles: “Pro tip: always have a cannon available.”
With her help, I get team and remains back on board.
I grin: “‘Sandra’?”
Laughing, she waves me away: “‘Secret’, but you’re close. Now get off my lawn.”
“As you wish.”
She raises an eyebrow as the airlock closes.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
There’s an expectant pause as the screen fills with blurry grey patterns.
Martin gently places a finger on the forearm of the dishevelled man to his left. Thumbs stop flicking across the screen of a smartphone. Bleary eyes lift to briefly focus on Martin.
“Mister President. The drone is back in range. It’s sending an update.”
The President looks back to his smartphone and whispers: “Still no signal.”
Martin sees the looks from those nearby. It’s a problem, but not yet bad enough to warrant the twenty-fifth. He glances toward the Speaker, who nods. She understands.
A woman in dress blues stands up and calls across to the group gathered in front of the display.
“Confirmations of functional governance enclaves in the UK, Russia, India, and China are all verified.”
Glances are exchanged. A Representative steps back so he can catch the woman’s eye.
“Captain Everal. What about Germany, Israel, Saudi, Argentina, Australia and Japan?”
The woman glances at her notes, complexion paling.
“Federated Europe is still burning. Israel won’t be inhabitable for several thousand years, and the surrounding territories are suffering the fallout from that overkill.”
“Poetic justice.” Quips someone near the back.
Everal continues: “South America and Australia are dark. Japan doesn’t exist.”
There’s silence. The screen crackles and resolves into a black and white image of a vast field of debris with the ruins of the White House just discernible at its northern edge. The next shot is of the ocean basin where New York used to be. The slideshow continues: a monochrome catalogue of ash-covered devastation.
The president points toward the left of the display: “Cell tower’s down. Get it fixed. Can’t be out of touch.”
The Speaker walks over and touches his shoulder: “That’s in Nevada.”
He pouts: “Still needs fixing. People need to read my words.”
She glances at Martin, then looks toward Everal.
“Are there any people left?”
Her face turns even paler: “Not for much longer, ma’am.”
The Speaker looks at Martin: “When’s the rain liable to stop?”
He shrugs: “Predictions are for precipitation of various types for at least a fortnight.”
Another Representative walks over to join them: “Using the exchange as a diversion for a pocket nuke strike on Yellowstone was genius. Even if it hadn’t triggered an eruption, it was tactically brilliant. I’d bet money they were allied with the bastards who exacerbated the resource conflicts in the first place.”
Martin shakes his head as he beckons a young woman over.
“A resource war was inevitable. Agent Reeves, who hit Yellowstone?”
She looks nervous: “Last reliable information indicates an Aryan Empire suicide squad comprised of former US special forces.” Her eyes go back to the screen: “Not that it matters.”
The Speaker nods, then looks at Martin and raises an eyebrow: “Did the head of the NGA think we’re as extinct as I think we are, Mister Crane?”
Martin sighs: “Mister Sharp was of that opinion, ma’am. His exact words were ‘saved everyone except “we the people”’.”
Reeves wipes a tear from her cheek: “Can we survive by allying with the other enclaves?”
He shakes his head: “Even the most optimistic predictions place the total well below a decent gene pool. Also, the majority of those saved are of less than ideal age and condition.”
The President peers round the Speaker, leering at Agent Reeves: “Only one way to save humanity.”
Agent Reeves beats Martin’s intervening hand. Her slap echoes round the room. The President stumbles and drops his smartphone. The ‘crack’ as it lands is clearly audible.
“My phone!” The President falls to his knees.
The Speaker sighs.