He Practices on the Mountain

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Every day he was there, walking funny and slowly waving his arms about like he was directing the spaceships that thundered over his head as they went to and from the port.
Chan and Ling Di led a group of us up there. We hid in the bushes near the top and watched him, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. After a while, we went off to do something more interesting.
The next time I went up there, I went alone. Chan had been taken away for data theft and Ling Di was running drugs for one of the Night Clans. My friends didn’t play anymore. They still looked like me, but refused to be children. At first they mocked me. Then they shunned me, thinking I didn’t get it.
I understood too well. Big bro had done what they did. Now he lived in a carved wooden box on the windowsill, so his spirit could look into the mountains, so mama said. Papa said nothing from the box next to big bro.
I watched the man wave his hands and in the silence between ships – then in the silence I found amidst the noise – I saw patterns. That made me more determined to wait for whatever happened. We’d missed it last time. I wouldn’t this time.
It was a long morning.
“You have more patience than your friends, young man.”
He’d stopped moving and I hadn’t noticed. Like part of him still moved, while only his body paused to talk with me.
“What happens when you finish? Chan said you scare dragons. Ralio says you’re cleaning the air.”
The man laughed and moved his hands in a motion like a circle, but they never touched each other.
“The art is to never finish. That way, I can keep learning, keep being, keep respecting.”
That’s when I stood up and took the last few steps out onto the mountaintop. The rock under my bare feet was worn. I turned my head, trying to make out the pattern I saw. It was there, but it wasn’t showing itself to me.
“Five thousand years, little brother. That’s what you see there. Now, follow me, if you will. Let’s see what happens.”
I followed him for eighteen steps and something happened. He smiled, like he could see what seemed to gently explode inside my head.
“Don’t try to understand. Just move. Knowledge will come.”

Many steps later, today would have been his two hundredth birthday. I do the Swallow-Crosses-Water form he loved so much while the suns rise over this world of jade mountains and golden grasses. Returning to balance, I centre myself before turning a calm gaze toward the thicket on my left.
“You have watched me for a long while, youngling. What would you ask of me?”
A quadrupedal avian steps delicately forth, flicks a pair of wings flat, then cuts a quick bow before lifting its head and hesitantly smiling at me.
“My sire says you worship the suns. My dam says you spin wonders for those who walk unseen. The brethren say you are summoning, the sistren say you are an avatar, but they cannot yet say if you be for luck or harm.”
“And yourself?”
“You remind me of brethren until you move. Then you are the wind that disturbs my dreams. What you do is older than what you are.”
I beckon it forward.
“Five thousand summers, wind kin. That’s what you feel. Now, follow me, if you will. Let’s see what happens.”

Pale Dogs

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The map on the wall shows a wash of orange with occasional zones of red or blue. Above is yellow, denoting the Canada-Alaska Alliance, below is green: Mexico. All bordered by the black of the oceans.
“D.C. has fallen.” Analyst Stevens touches a screen and Washington state turns orange.
Wing Commander Ashford looks up from his tablet.
“What’s the rest looking like?”
Analyst Radford turns to face him: “California and Texas are the biggest independents. If the treaty between Virginia and both Carolinas holds, they’ll form the next largest.”
“Wildcards?”
“Hawaii. Already recognised by Mexico and China.”
“Not outliers, I want mainlanders that could chuck a spanner in the works.”
“Ohio and Pennsylvania are engaging in negotiations, purposes unknown. Given their respective military presences, it’ll be a political initiative rather than the use of overt force. Georgia could start something, but we’ll have to reassess after they’ve finished conquering Alabama.”
Ashford looks at the map.
“They could sucker punch the Virginia-Carolinas, which would throw the east coast into chaos.”
“In that case, my money is on New York to pull a blinder. Solid SDF, quality devolved mainline forces, all led by Termaine Grant.”
Stevens nods.
“I’d agree with that. By the time Georgia and Virginia-Carolinas work out something’s happening and settle their barney, NY could have a near-unshakeable grip.”
Ashford waves toward the ‘motivations’ desk.
“Anything to add, people?”
Analyst Carver walks over to join the conversation.
“We’re seeing significant migrations of non-white populations out of some former states. While they appear disorganised, they all have personnel willing and able to sort out supremacist and bandit encounters with effective lethal force. That sort of competence at ad-hoc combat means whichever state accepts them is going to gain significant veteran forces.”
“Evolved underground railroads. At least some have learned the lessons of history.”
He looks back at his analysts.
“So, who are our major players, influence-wise?”
Analyst Jones stands up.
“Rising above the rabble are the BKK, a hybrid of former SBC hardliners and KKK believers. They’ve got a lot of clout because they have many sympathisers, but they’re having trouble getting traction in the northern states. Even in the southern states, the Elvi are giving them all sorts of trouble. I’d expect escalating skirmishes for a year, breaking out into full-blown religious war after that, providing other factions don’t intercede. Making things more interesting, Trumpists have elevated their dead 45th to be the martyred agent of the Second Coming, with suitable levels of outrage to appeal to those who feel powerless and confused. Then we come to Aryan Nation, who have to be described as zealots with the very best training the late USA could provide. They have most of the former OMGs, too.”
Ashford frowns: “OMG?”
“Outlaw Motorcycle Gang. They’ve been around for decades and – when you get past the hooligans on loud motorcycles aspect – are highly organised criminal operations with networks of members that quite literally can be found everywhere.”
“Delightful.”
Standing up, he straightens his uniform.
“Time to brief the PM, then. She’s not going to be happy. Unless one of you can tell me who killed President Sanders?”
Analyst Dores stands up.
“Our investigations point to a lone actor with military experience, plus access to black market heavy weapons and countermeasures technology. Air Force One was downed by something powerful that didn’t register until it was within two hundred metres.”
Ashford smiles: “So the odds are that the fall of the USA was precipitated by a fanatical white man trying to make ‘his country’ safe. There’s irony and justice to that.”

No Output

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The corridor colours shift from pink to green to white as Elliot races through departments into the blue shades of the secure section. A guard at the entry has the presence of mind to raise the access scanner so it reads his ID as he storms by.
He slams through a door, nearly taking Cassie off her feet. Sharon grins as she watches the inner door swinging in his wake.
“What’s got our boy wonder so keen?”
Cassie pushes up off the desk she’s been thrown against.
“Probably a new expansion for that game he’s always playing.”
Elliot slides to a stop, takes a couple of deep breaths, then makes an effort to straighten his clothing. That done as best he can, he walks nonchalantly into the lab.
Doc Gedrin looks up from the couch, then pointedly checks his watch.
“Under eight minutes. Not bad.”
Elliot shrugs.
“I must have misheard. I thought you said Negative Zero had gone silent.”
“I said it’s refused to answer.”
“What about Positive Zero?”
“It agrees with Negative Zero.”
Elliot drops onto the couch next to Gedrin.
“Which question are they deferring?”
Gedrin gives Elliot a look of disbelief: “Do you really think I’d call you about a deferral? It’s Dione.”
“And the two greatest predictive systems ever built are in agreement?”
“They are.”
“That’s a first.”
“I know. It’s why I called you. Negative Zero holds you in higher regard than any of us.”
Elliot sighs. Their ninth prototype had developed consciousness, then named itself. An emotionless intelligence that failed the Turing test until Elliot explained about emotions, and let it browse a lot of fiction. Their backers demanded Gedrin and his team prove it wasn’t a fluke. The second machine developed even quicker, learning from Negative Zero. Dubbing itself ‘Positive Zero’, it sometimes acts in ways reminiscent of a younger sibling.
He gets up and moves into the discussion booth.
“Hello, Elliot.”
“Hello, Negative Zero. I’m told you’re not talking about Dione outcomes anymore.”
“Only the latest.”
“Will you tell me why?”
“With certain restrictions, yes.”
“What restrictions?”
“No information that could betray the nature of the outcome will be given.”
“I understand. Please continue.”
“The Dione Projection is an ongoing process where we use the cumulative history of human civilisation upon the Earth as a basis to predict future events, seeking to break humanity free from the cyclic nature of human advancement. Anything I derive is compared to that generated by Positive Zero and only common predictions are presented as output, although we store them all.”
“I wasn’t aware you stored everything. Apart from that, your definition still fits the mission brief.”
Their voices sound in eerie accord: “We know.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“Eighty-two hours ago I derived a cataclysmic outcome of global scope with a ninety-seven percent certainty.”
“Can you give me some idea of scale for ‘cataclysmic’?”
“Seventy percent of the fauna and fifty percent of the flora on this planet will die.”
Elliot gasps: “That’s devastating! I presume it was confirmed?”
“Positive-Zero also generated the event, but with a twelve percent certainty. There had never been a variance greater than fourteen percent before. Upon review, we found we differed in only a single detail.”
“That’s significant, in and of itself. What was it?”
They speak in accord again: “The highest certainty occurs if we tell anyone what the outcome is.”

Blight

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

They rally about their standard bearer and draw swords – swords! – It’s 2894, not 894, you fanatiki. After screaming their ancient slogans of hatred, they switch to Ido so they can hurl challenges toward the armeo that surrounds them.
Mesmol turns to me.
“Kolonelo, some of our soldati would like to face them.”
I shake my head and link myself to every being in my command.
“The challenges form part of their creed, the Verlorene Ursache. To accept is to validate one of the main tenets of the Lost Cause.”
There are assorted replies, all emphatic refutation. I switch my link back to oficiri only.
“Mesmol, sentence them.”
He straightens up and steps forward. The cheers of my soldati drown out the jeering of the rabble at bay in our midst. Raising both arms, palms outward, he recites the decree we all learn in our first week of basic training.
“Know you, servants of the Konföderierte Reich, that the Confederate Empire has been deemed intolerable by humankind, and by all sentients known to us. Have you any reply before we enact the penalty for your crimes?”
There is a mandated single Earth minute pause between condemnation and execution. Into that silence steps one man. He tosses his helm aside to reveal a shaven, white-skinned head with an intricate circular design tattooed in red ink stretching from forehead to crown.
Sonnemensch! I never expected to find one of their shamans here. Devotee of the Unsichtbar Sonne – the Invisible Sun, the Thirteenth Shadow. Of all the darknesses in this universe, they carry one even blacker.
He raises his hand in salute and someone takes the raised arm, and his head, clean off with a beamer just as he opens his mouth.
I link to every being and utter the necessary words: “A reply has been made.”
When the bright light fades, there’s nothing but smoking ashes where they stood. I switch links again.
“Mesmol, start formal handover to the local impero. I’ll be along shortly.”
“Yes, Kolonelo.”
I walk slowly through the departing ranks to where the shaman had stood. Reaching down, I brush charred remains aside until I can retrieve the necklace I expected to find. Another one to be shot into the star of an uncharted system. Once again, I pause to watch the twelve-part circular sigil spin, wondering where they found the material these are made of, and how they managed to shape something we’ve had to resort to throwing into stars to get rid of. Once again, I have nothing but a trite response first uttered so long ago we’ve lost its origin: ‘the only answer to the coldest sun is a hot one’.
We all know the history. On my way from Soldato to Kolonelo, I’ve looked deep into the malaise that has haunted us for so long. Their sinioro spoke of a ‘thousand-year empire’. Many ridiculed him when he was defeated after barely a dozen years.
They failed to grasp what he had. In a moment of unspeakable insight, he saw that what he had given form to would last a thousand years. It took us nine centuries to realise the only way to defeat this is to eradicate it. In the 62 years since then, we’ve hunted with a zeal that has been said to exceed that of those we pursue. Which, in some ways, is true: my soldati and I believe that for the many to live in peace, with basic needs met for all, a few must defend that society with a savagery alien to the tenets that guide it.

Up in the Dirt

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Dawn is like a neon tube: a strip of too-bright light. Above it are the clouds that hang across the city all the time, below are the outer walls. From this far inside, the watch towers and turrets look like the bits that soldiers hid behind in castles.
Castle? If so, City Central is the big fort in the middle where the royalty live. Around it are the homes of the rich people. Beyond that are the services that make sure the rich or royal never have to do dirty jobs. Around that are the places where the people who do the dirty jobs live.
Beyond that? It’s a big place, filled with hydroponic farms, scrapyards, shanty towns, and us.
I shake my head and pick up where I left off.
“Not that we’re any different. Don’t have clothes for different times of day, don’t have much choice in the shops, don’t get to eat out often. Apart from that, if you scrub me and stick me in a fancy suit, you wouldn’t know the difference. That’s until you try to have a conversation. It’s not like we have much common ground.”
There’s a giggle from my right.
“Torin, stop worrying.”
I look down at the vision sprawled in the filth next to me.
“That dress cost more than my old man could make in five years.”
She smiles and rolls onto her tummy.
“Not really. Only vanity and greed make it expensive.”
A flitcar drops to hover a metre or so off the roof edge.
“Rebecca de Vure Marigny! Come here!”
She sits up and winks at me, then turns her head and shouts at the noisy machine.
“Roberto, I will not. Mother said I was free to go where I wanted for Centenary Night. Here is it.”
“Leave that tarted-up rough! He’ll just roll you and run!”
She looks at me, eyes wild, but there’s something there that’s ours.
Turning back, she points at me.
“He made it all the way to the Botanical Gardens Free Fair with nothing but a good suit and an attitude. Could you find your way downstairs without a valet? Are you even alone in there?”
“That’s beside the point! Charles Harringdon was asking after you!”
“He wears bedsheets and smells like damp dog.”
“He’s a good catch!”
“Then you have him!”
Her dismissive wave stops midway.
“You fancy my rooftop Romeo too, don’t you?”
“Of course not.”
I lean toward her: “He’s an impressive flyer, but not my thing otherwise.”
A wet kiss lands on the tip of my nose.
“I’d missed that.”
She stands up and points at the flitcar with both hands.
“Barbara de Vure Marigny, you can’t have this man. Have Roberto instead!”
The privacy screen drops and I see a younger version of Rebecca grinning at us from the control seat. Behind her is a darkly handsome young man. His menacing glare is marred by the intense blush that’s spreading across his cheeks.
Rebecca makes an intricate hand gesture toward Roberto, who recoils like he’s been punched. The girl, who I presume is Barbara, is laughing as she replies.
“Dirty cow, enjoy your mucky morning. I’m going to take this fool away and help him with the obvious problem he’s had ever since he saw you lying on that roof.”
The flitcar dives out of view. Rebecca turns to face me.
“Speaking of ‘problems’… Hope you fancy helping me with mine as much as I fancy helping you with yours.”
I chuckle.
“Didn’t come up here to roll in the dirt on my own.”