Mischief

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

They warn us about culture clashes, especially the dangers of exposing primitive cultures to advanced technology. My mother went with the concept of “one being’s magic is another being’s science”. Ever since, if our devices are too much for the locals, we present ourselves as sorcerers or shamans hired to protect a merchant. It’s stupidly effective, too. Fireworks and hologram projectors have saved my life more times than weapons and violence.
I remember her telling me that Fiona seemed more fairy than petite low-gravity worlder. Said she had a talent for mischief. Tonight, I’m probably going to have to intervene, but the mischief is gold standard.
The hulking barbarian points to the media box in her hand.
“Does making the lights go out kill the little men in the relic?”
“Yes, but not the little women. They fall into an enchanted sleep until you make the lights come on again. Then they conjure the ghosts of their favourite men back to life so they can cavort with them some more.”
“They are comely lasses. How does one take service with them?”
“Surely you don’t want to limit your adventuring spirit by living a life of leisure in a little box full of women?”
“After the winter I’ve had? You can pour that adventuring spirit over your backside and light it.”
Fiona flashes me a ‘dug myself a hole’ look.
I shrug, watch the look of panic cross her face, then grin.
Closing my eyes, I interface with V-space and get the Dragonfly to patch me through to our equatorial trading team.
“Tony! What’s Fiona baited into a fury this time?”
I grimace.
“Nothing yet, Larsen, but her current plaything is nearly three metres across. He’s some barbarian who does a guard boss thing during off seasons. Pretty good at both, judging by the quality of his gear.”
“Part of his face got green tattoos?”
“At least half.”
“That’s a Drashtyn Battlemaster. Think medieval special forces with command skills.”
“Man needs a job somewhere warm. Got anything?”
“We’ve a jolly merchant lamenting the lack of toughs to head up his next expedition. That do?”
“Tell him you can bring him a veteran Battlemaster from the northlands using our tame elemental. Providing he pays us full finder’s price.”
“Fiona going to puppet the barbarian?”
“Yup. He’ll be oblivious to being flown in the Dragonfly. We’ll tell him it was elemental magic; he’ll be fine.”
“Tasty. Peggy and Regan and can fake a summoning to give you a landing zone.”
“Perfect. See you tomorrow morning.”
“We’ll be ready. Come in on my beacon. Be sure to land inside the circle of flames.”
“Got it.”
I open my eyes. Fiona is sitting on an enormous knee, looking like a nervous pet. I stand and wave my tankard to get his attention.
“Battlemaster! Before you succumb to a Sprite’s Bargain, I can offer you employ in Wishtar.”
He comes up fast. Fiona rolls out of an untidy landing to tuck herself behind me.
“Gently, now. You know sprites can only do as their natures dictate.”
The massive brow furrows.
“I’m aware, merchant. What’s the job?”
“Trail lord for an expedition.”
“I accept.”
Fiona dashes forward and slaps a control rig in with a low blow. He stiffens, then walks from the tavern with jerky movements, Fiona at his side.
She walks him all the way to the Dragonfly and lays him down in the cargo bay. He starts snoring immediately.
I grin.
“You need to work on the walking, but nicely done.”
“We off to make money?”
“In the warm, too. Wishtar, here we come.”

Via Tenebrae

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

We spent a century looking for life on other worlds. Found some, too. Most of it wasn’t happy to meet us. Us being us, we got round that with our usual bonhomie and genocidal violence. Until we met the Pesserac. They kicked our murderous fleets clean out of space, and eradicated every colony we’d established through force. Then they politely informed us that peaceful colonisation was welcome, because we had a lot to offer. However, until we evidenced the ‘fundamental societal changes’ needed, we were also banned from participating in interstellar trading or receiving aid.
We were a pariah race. Despite the clear warnings, we often pushed our luck. They had clearly dealt with our kind before, and fallen foul of the lies told. We never had any survivors.
It took Earth a century to sort itself out. Afterwards, things generally went well when we ventured into space. Then the first ship with cordallium-windowed viewing galleries journeyed into the long night and humanity discovered a reason to behave, and to believe. For any to cause denial of access to this wonder swiftly became inconceivable.
“Ma’am. They’re here.”
Streamers of light twist past the gallery windows. Tourists crane their necks to try and see ahead. There’s some pushing and shoving.
“Stand easy, people. You’ll see them soon.”
As if on cue, a whirl of colours comes to a halt by the largest window. It presses close. People step back. They can’t help it. I couldn’t, and I’ve seen this countless times.
In proximity to the glass, the colours part to reveal the outline of a figure. Completely negative, no reflections, nothing. Just a rainbow aura about a darkness that comes in varying shapes.
“Marla.”
A man on my left sobs the name and collapses. Every time, with no exceptions, a revealed form will match someone’s recollection of a lost loved one. It works with animals, too. Not that all animals can express grief or distinguish individuals, but recognition behaviour, pack calls and the like have forced the acknowledgement of this phenomenon.
Another whirling form presses close. A shorter, more rounded figure. A family to my right clutch each other tighter and burst into tears together.
The eerie event continues. So many people come each time. Most don’t get the encounter they hope for. All of them see enough to be convinced.
These things are like dolphins, riding ahead of our ships, shedding ribbons of light. How long they’d done this before we could see outside bare-eyed, we don’t know. We can’t detect them in any other way than with human sight. Several scientists I know surmise it’s actually some interpretive quirk of the way our brains process light after it passes through cordallium crystal.
This new field of science is inconclusive and ongoing, but people don’t care. The entities, or effects, or whatever they actually are, have been named ‘Delphine’ in some strange hybridisation of religion and perceived characteristics.
A faster-spinning mass of light presses to the window near me. The outline of my sister quirks her head in the way she used to do. It straightens up and, just before it whirls away, I swear there’s a flash of light like the edge of a silver eyelid closing in a quick wink.
Every time I see, I’m sure it’s somehow learning from me how to represent her. My suspicions about that sort of behaviour have been dismissed so many times I’ve given up.
Much as I can’t stop myself visiting, I’m increasingly convinced we’re missing something. I’ve no idea what. But, in the moments before I sleep, it scares me.

Witch Hunts

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I didn’t want to write this, but here’s the thing: I have to.
Sitting in my study, looking out the window at a glorious sunny day, with kids running riot in the playground and old folk sat on benches watching the world go by, it’s what many would call perfect.
Which is the root of my quandary. It’s the 22nd July 1952. How can I tell them it’s not going to last? The wondrous future of leisure supported by advanced technology that everyone talks about is a lie. I’ve seen it: the computers, the prosperity, the inequality, the Nazi trappings. For the majority of people, it’s a dystopian ‘work until you die’ future, and it’s less than eighty years away!
The machine doesn’t have the ability to let me see how we get there. In truth, getting the view I have was a miraculous accident. Einstein had some ideas about the future being set, and viewable. I might have confirmed some of them.
What puzzled me is that what I see changes each time. Initially I thought it was because my act of viewing enacted some Heisenberg effect upon what I saw: either due to my observations, or possibly knowledge of what I have done and seen becoming public.
Then I thought it because of me viewing on different days – which may have some bearing, I admit.
I am now more of the opinion that Einstein’s fixed universe view is not entirely correct. I believe the view changes each time because I am seeing the various possible futures that could exist at that point, depending on which significant events transpire or fail between now and 2032.
My greatest horror is that not one of the futures I’ve seen differs in the fundamental composition of society. After all the sacrifices of the last decade, it seems the fascists will eventually triumph. The uniforms may differ, but the words, the targeted hatred, the cowed populations and ruling elite are unmistakable.
I intend to continue to document my work for a few more days, then prepare an initia

The man finishes reading, then reaches over the body to pull the page from the typewriter. He turns to the woman who is rummaging through the cluttered bookshelves that cover two walls of this small study.
“No need. The whole place will have to go. We can’t afford to miss a thing.”
“Thank God.”
She drops the papers in her hand with a sigh of relief, then waves to indicate the room.
“Is it that serious?”
“From what I just read, he’s a dyed-in-the-wool communist crank. Looks like another scientist driven doolally by his work.”
“Senator McCarthy might be overstating, but he’s not wrong. I’m beginning to wonder if all this science is such a good thing, either.”
He turns and pretends to check outside the window so she doesn’t see his smile. Turning back, he pulls out a lighter. She opens a slim silver case, extracts a pair of cigarettes, and puts both between her lips. He lights them. Then, with a little flourish, he sets fire to the page and drops it on the floor.
They step out of the room as the fire starts to spread. He takes the cigarette she holds out. After waiting long enough to be sure the place is well alight, they leave. Walking a short way down the road, they duck into a black DeSoto and drive off.

Proximity Causes

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“We all call it ‘safe space’. The inventors of the concept called it ‘social distancing’. It was only two metres back then. They used it, along with increased ventilation and personal masking, to slow some respiratory epidemics. Sociologists still argue about the long-term effects on everything except health.
“But I digress. Which is something you’ll get used to it if you choose to enrol in this course.”
The scruffy woman standing by the lectern looks out at the packed hall. Standing room only. Every person verified to be in good health by the scanners at the entrance to the venue. She knows more than half of the attendees are here simply because it’s an authorised proximity gathering. They just want to feel a crowd about them.
“So, here you all are, crammed in like venues used to able to do all the time. No screens, no grids, just a mob and a speaker. I know many of you don’t really care about what I have to say.”
She sees rapid movement. The security team is pushing through the crowd towards the front. With a swift double blink she drops monitoring lenses over her eyes.
There! Third row back, next to the aisle. A seated body is already at ambient temperature.
“Okay, folks. We have a little situation and I need you to do what I say. This is a Compliance Directive for the entire Grantham Hall Complex.”
That gets their attention. CDs are instant emergency laws, applicable for no more than four hours, and only for clearly delineated areas.
“Everybody standing, please stay where you are. I know it’s going to be difficult, but please do so with a minimum of moving about.”
Liaden, the security lead, reaches the figure. He quickly checks the body, then looks her way and nods.
“Your attention, please. Looks like we’ve had a narcodeath. Please follow the instructions of our security personnel and you’ll be on your way in no time. Tonight’s presentation will be rescheduled.”
She sees accepting shrugs and resigned looks. Overdoses and poisonings from self-medication with black market pharmaceuticals are on the rise. You only get advice for free from the NHS, and dealers are always ready to peddle cheap remedies.
It’s a bitter irony. NHS sites and lines are always busy. Medical personnel in other countries contact them when they need accurate recommendations. Treatment advice that often results in deaths here frequently saves lives abroad.
Tonight, the drugs are actually beneficial. A useful cover, because a body gone cold that fast has been drained.
Pholmor have lived among human populations for millennia. After learning how to restrict their energy stealing so they didn’t grow to outlandish sizes, they just blended in, faded from history, and then from mythology.
They are the precursors of vampires, succubi, incubi, and every other legendary thing that steals life from humans. An energy transfer that only needs skin to skin contact. They can consume everything we do, but their rudimentary digestive systems extract no nutrients. They sustain themselves by bleeding energy from us. The authorities keep their existence secret, because the toll of erroneous killings that would occur should they ever be revealed is hideous to even contemplate.
For anyone weakened by illness or another condition, an unexpected loss of vitality can kill: like tonight.
A scuffle breaks out. There’s the crackle of a suppressor, followed by an inhuman scream that makes heads turn. Another Pholmor for the fenced valley below the research centre in the Scottish Highlands.
“Please stay calm and co-operate, folks. There’s no reason to get excited.”
Not tonight, anyway.

New Friends

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“A different feeling since you’ve been gone.” Yeah, that’s it. Too many times I catch myself looking down and back, only to find some scrub looking horrified, or empty air because one ran off.
“Ten, left.”
This one has a different feel. She’s got this lilt to her voice. Fluent in some old language, too. Well, the swearing bits. Yet, when we’re in the thick of it, her accent disappears. Just this monotone that delivers what I need, when I need it.
“Seven, centre.”
Incoming. I rest my assault rifle against a building, taking the essential pause to make sure the building can take the weight, then crouch down, wind my arms back, preload my pectorals, and wait.
“Five, centre.”
I glance back.
“Take three steps left, miss.”
“Call me Riley.”
“I’m Olaf.”
She nods, then moves as instructed.
“Two, square.”
It’s coming right at me.
The shadow of wings flashes over us and I unwind, my arms swinging in so fast the air screams. I time it perfectly. The Gakdarbu is where it needs to be. My fists land on either side of its tubular head like gigantic hammers. Brutally effective: even if I get it wrong, I’ll stun it, maybe paralyse it.
I get it right. The skull compresses, then explodes. Purple brains, green flesh and pink blood spray everywhere as shards of black bone strafe the area like a warm rain of obsidian daggers.
Amazing mess. So pret-
Something slams into the back of my left knee. I stagger that way and the hurtling body only clips my shoulder, instead of hitting me square in the chest. Even that love tap knocks me flat. I might be a bioengineered war giant, but taking five thousand kilos of headless alien raptor dead centre will spread me like chunky salsa.
There’s a lot of incomprehensible swearing. I hear her take a huge breath, let it out, then something pounds on the side of my calf.
“Do you pause to watch the rain of bloody shite every time, or do you only indulge when it’s likely to get you killed, Olaf?”
I look down. She’s pinned under my leg, beating on my calf armour with the butt of a pistol. I can see sparks where her impact field is having trouble keeping my leg from squashing her like a bug. Looking closer, I see her right shoulder is dented, and lower than it should be.
“You tackled me?”
“Yes, you gigantic idjit. Can’t have you dying on my first day as your spotter. Now could you puh-leeze get the feck offa me?”
Oh, yeah. I move my leg.
“You need something for that shoulder?”
She nods, rolls to her knees, and shucks the shoulder plate.
“I need you to straighten that while I deal with my wandering joint.”
Grabbing her right arm, she twists it, and then slams her right shoulder into my calf armour. There’s a wet ‘pop’. I feel a little sick. She screams.
I pick the armour plate up and carefully squeeze it back to true, then offer it to her.
She wipes her eyes and takes it. After locking it back into place, she grins.
“Nice job.”
“What next?”
“At least being nearly crushed kept me mostly free of shite. There’s a lake over in what used to be the city park. Wanna rinse?”
“Good idea, Riley.”
“Too right it is. I’m stinky. You reek.”
What? I take a deep breath and get a whiff of myself. Oof. The lady holding her nose and laughing at my expression has a point.
I like her.