Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
We dash around a long curve that should get us out of their sights for a while.
“In all those old films we watched, fighting the evil empire involved a lot less running away from angry warriors with frighteningly accurate weapons.”
Freya looks back, snaps off a deterring shot, grins at me, then looks ahead before replying: “The accurate ones are million-credit death machines. They won’t risk them in pursuing rabble.”
“We’re rabble? I thought the word was ‘rebel’?”
“Semantics, Paul, semantics. We’re the opposition. Any name that distinguishes us from the Roekuld is fine.”
“That’s remarkably accommodating of you. Now, how do we avoid being called ‘dead’?”
She lashes out, flicking the end of my nose: “Less sarcasm.”
We pelt down a featureless corridor somewhere in the outer hull maintenance spaces of a Margantor-class interstellar dreadnought, the pinnacle of Roekuld interstellar warships.
“What makes you fight, Paul?”
I go cold. She glances at me as we continue to run. What a time to be found out.
“I joined because you did. My dad’s in the Watch. I would have joined him, but-”
She pulls up short and trips me. Automated pest-suppression beams crackle through the space where we would have been.
Sliding across to lean on my chest, she stares into my eyes.
“But you fancied my lively brown eyes and ready smile? Or was it my pert arse and long legs? Maybe even my passable intelligence and rapier wit? Oh, you wonderful fool. You still don’t know, do you?”
She rolls off me.
Stung, I try to save a little face as we scramble up and get back to running.
“What makes you fight, then?”
As we turn a corner, I see an aperture, the pale blue glow of its containment field glowing, down by the next corner.
She slows as we approach that corner: “It’ll do, providing they haven’t got ahead of us.”
Firing up our atmosphere helms, we peek round the corner and see the svelte forms of a pair of Craszen combat droids at the end of this corridor.
I do some calculations in my head: “We’ll still be in range when they make it here. There’s no cover within any distance we can achieve.”
The boot to my lower back propels me through the field before I can grab a hold.
“Not if someone who knows how to fight holds them off.”
I spiral out, rotating so I can see her face.
Her voice is quiet: “You want to know why I fight? I fight because someone has to. Humanity is not done. Every act of defiance gives hope. Every person who lives to fight another day carries stories of those who gave their lives for that.”
I hear her sniff.
Then she whispers: “So every Paul I’ve come to love, only to find he joined up for the wrong reasons, can find a cause or quit and go back to the life he should have had.”
She smiles, then spins and falls prone. I see the lilac flashes of her – I check my belt – and my blaster. Engaging full boost on my thrusters, I orient myself to witness her last battle for as long as possible.
Commander Ettisen gave her life for me. Me! Naïve and horny from the same college on Tammaloren.
I found a cause, Freya. There will come a day when those I lead will need me to do what you just did. If the Summerlands you spoke of actually exist, please wait for me.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The bridge is quiet. After the last escapade, everyone’s resting in some way or other. I do my down time relaxation up here, working through the after-battle reports to assess where we can improve.
I look up and back to see Scarven, our Edmari pilgrim, floating serenely in the middle of the observation dome, fronds curling and uncurling with hypnotic grace.
“Yes, Holy Scarven?”
It sculls itself about so the primary eyes can regard me.
“Scarven will do. We are both peer-ranked dignitaries, in our ways.”
“Thank you. How can I help?”
It back-paddles to stop its drift toward me.
“I have spent many homeworld-duration years contemplating humanity in all it’s diverse forms. I have come to appreciate the loud art you call music and understand the reasons why you are enamoured of fighting. But, in this moment of quiet contemplation between police aggressions that you call down time, I find myself returning to a human-centric conundrum that has haunted me for a long time. I was wondering if you’d care to share your insights on the topic with me?”
Sounds serious. The holy fronds from Edmari having an entirely scent-based humour, so it can’t be anything light. That little speech indicates a depth of puzzlement I haven’t encountered before.
“I’d be honoured to shed what light I can.”
All twenty fronds snap-curl, then roll out slowly.
“‘Shed light’. What a deliciously apt concept and usage. Thank you.”
I’ve just made a lifelong friend. Edmari ‘collect’ words and phrases. To use an unheard verbalisation that is applicable to the sacred photosynthesis of their archetypes is considered a gift of overwhelming worth.
“Let’s see if I can keep up the good work. What’s your question, Scarven?”
The Edmari becomes still.
“Bakers bake. Cyclists cycle. Millers mill. Why do carpenters not carpent?”
Of all the possible questions that had flashed through my mind, that wasn’t amongst them. I sit up and route a priority query with light encyclopaedic collation through to the nearest datahub. When it resolves, I look up and smile.
“I’m guessing you’ve only travelled on mainstream ships, where English is the trade language. Our diversity also extends to the languages we speak. Earth has had thousands of spoken languages that have evolved or fallen into disuse over the centuries. Your late creators engineered your race as an entirety. Thus, the concept of having more than one language is alien to you. ‘Carpenter’ is a word adopted into English from a language we call ‘French’. If you like, I can request that human linguistic history be added to the exchange program for your race.”
The fronds twist and shake, then Scarven sculls closer.
“More than one language? Could there be more words for ‘happy’ than your English contains?”
I grin. ‘Happy’. Something the Edmari had no word for until they met us. Which is odd, because that is, fundamentally, what all Edmari are. Now, they are fascinated with the concept and its application to their views of life.
“Many, Scarven. I would venture hundreds, if not thousands.”
It performs a cartwheel of joy before sculling off toward its biosphere, voice drifting back to me over the cheerful rustling of its fronds.
“Such great gifts discovered during this ‘down time’ you have. Your race is filled with delicious strangeness. I look forward to many more down times.”
Think I just conceded my down time for a while.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
On a far balcony, people are starting to panic. A crystal goblet flashes rainbow reflections as it tumbles, the hand that held it snatched backwards so quickly the goblet falls straight down. The holder was my target: now more a thing of art and geography than a man in an expensive suit.
“Successful removal noted. You are stood down while the projection is reconfigured for this deduction.”
I heave a sigh, drop down, and crawl from the rooftop. The heat radiated by the air conditioning stacks should conceal my presence from thermoscans and my stealth suit will keep me from being seen, providing I move slowly. Laborious manual checking of security footage might find me, but will reveal nothing. Just another anti-corporate fanatic distinguished by the use of an anti-personnel missile instead of a rifle or bomb. They know about the theft of the missiles and will write this off as an unfortunate occurrence of domestic use. I must have bought it from the organisation who stole the weapons.
We stole them, and will use them with care for targets we cannot reach by other means. Ideally, our work should be achieved without overt displays of murderous violence. As little disruption to the everyday as possible is the aim.
“You have three minutes to get below ground. They’re instituting an area-wide snapshot.”
For a victim of his standing, it’s not surprising. The proximity of enough satellites to allow it is inconvenient, but lift shafts are ideal for plummeting thirty floors. The trio of crash foam grenades combine with my armour to ensure I’m only going to be bruised tomorrow.
Scrambling from the foam, I exit the shaft into a basement car park. It’s the work of moments to pop the lid on a drain and quickly make my way out, disappearing into the sewers.
Our founder, Jason S, enshrined our duty: “Corporates are not evil. Governments likewise. Only people can be evil. Presented with a regime where moral codes are at odds with accepted mores, the influence and protection of the pack will encourage aberrant behaviour. The mission must be to remove those who would enable environments of evil within the organisations they influence or lead. No casual slaughter, no public presence.”
His influence inspired the work that led to IDEAL, the program that assesses the power balances and shifts that wrap our world in layers of influence and reliance. From its impartial assessments, there comes a list of targets and a sequence in which they need to be removed. Each success results in a re-evaluation of the remaining target pool. Some targets drop as the one who would have led them to do evil has been removed. Others rise as a new evildoer rises to prominence in the inevitable power-vacuum created by our action.
It’s a slow task. To be sure, we have to be meticulous within an application of predictive mathematics like never before.
We’ve made mistakes. Two of our own have had to be targeted and killed. There is much about this work that makes many of us uncomfortable. But, we are agreed: what mistakes we make are still better than the evils we prevent.
I often ask myself if we are the ultimate necessary evil. If IDEAL targets us as the final targets of our work, I will have my answer.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The tip of the cigarette glows red as I slowly inhale. The taste of the black tobacco momentarily overwhelms my receptors. I wind their sensitivity down and cancel the ‘inhaled toxin’ warnings.
The second drag goes down without alerts. I exhale and look about the swamp. A lone raptor, some serpentine vulture, is target marked, identified as ‘Pargorn, male, mature’, and then dropped from targeting as a non-threat. Apart from the lizard-bird, the sub-tropical wilderness about me is devoid of anything bigger than the occasional ‘Rogan’ – a bloodsucking mosquito/dragonfly hybrid that strikes like a high-velocity bullet.
I see one land on my forearm, slam its proboscis down, and watch the rebound crack the back of its tiny skull. It falls off, adding itself to the scattering of brain-impaled Rogans on the ground around me.
My third inhalation raises that question again: why do I smoke? I’m a cyborg. My only organic bits are inside a brain case that a nuclear blast couldn’t penetrate. The question baffled me for a while, until I realised I was missing the point behind the dichotomy of being a robot smoker. I’d carried on after my lungs got replaced because of a gas attack on Bantulan. Back then, a few bits of me still needed oxygen and I could get a bit of a nicotine rush. I just forgot to drop the habit when breathing became irrelevant.
But, I’ve realised the act of smoking helps me remember I’m human, despite the eternal architecture I inhabit. I’ll admit there are valid links to the post-coital cigarette at times, although I’m no longer sure it’s a worrying thing that I associate memories of sex with the achievement of killing. After all, I can only ‘let go’ by killing things. Sparring is not a hobby for beings with as much killsoft on board as I have.
I should be worried about that. My military service is classified and has been erased from my recollection. However, under the Terminus Road statutes, they may not remove anything that ‘compromises the fundamental nature of the artificial element’. Which means they weren’t allowed to uninstall anything. Guessing from my range of combat abilities, I think I’m better off not knowing the details of my career as a distributor of wholesale death.
Another Rogan hammers it’s brains out. My smoke is done. I flick it away, watching the glowing end spin as the butt describes a long arc. I remember the briefing note about low-lying flammable gas pockets in time to bring my arm up and shield my optics.
After the explosion, the Pargorn and Rogans are gone. Just me and the prone form of my target, Christine17. I could have killed her a couple of worlds ago, but the contract offers a big bonus for making sure she remains only inoperative, so her quantum trigger won’t wake up Christine18.
Lord above, I hope I never annoy anyone that much.
At least she’ll be able to watch aquatic life and passing flying things in the pool I’m about to sink her face-up in.
Before getting to that, I think I’ll have another cigarette. It’s not like these things can kill me.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
“If any can show just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let them now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold their peace.”
The traditional silence falls. Then a grating voice sounds in everyone’s minds.
“I speak for the dead. Conrad Conal Mulligan, your debt is due. Before whichever god is invoked and these witnesses, they call blood toll upon thee.”
Heads turn as the groom spins on his heel, away from the bride. The best man lunges to catch her as she collapses.
Three white-masked figures stand at the end of the aisle. Candlelight flickers on demonic faces and reflects from the polished surfaces of weapons. The robed giant on the left and the suited midget on the right cradle blasters. The kilted figure between them clutches a long knife in a white-knuckle grip. It lowers the blade and steps forward with left arm extended, clenched fist dripping slow drops of crimson rebuke onto the worn flagstones.
Francesca looks up from where she crouches in Wren’s arms, tears ruining her makeup and voice punctuated by sobs.
“For pity’s sake, Conal. Tell these idiot kitsune they have the wrong wedding.”
He looks down at her and smiles.
“They don’t. Conrad was my name.”
The smile vanishes. He squares his shoulders and turns his attention back to the interlopers.
“Today was to be a new start. While it’s become an end, I dispute any finality.”
The giant moves to one side. Into the space vacated steps a slight figure. Black-tipped ears poke through hair the same shade as Francesca’s. Except this hair moves of its own accord, surrounding a vulpine face dominated by enormous violet eyes.
There’s a shocked murmuring: another kitsune from some Aranoshi Reaches clan, but this one stands bare-faced!
Conal’s skin turns ash-pale.
A reedy voice chimes in the minds of all present.
“You slew my clan to steal my sister, convinced of her affections. When you continued to ignore the truth, my twin chose the void. Still you did not regret. The deaths started as a sad misunderstanding. They became murders when you took Leshtari from our home and drove her to leap into the sunless dark to escape your obsession. Murders capped by an unforgivable act of selfishness. Yet, ‘just another failed romance’ is how you term it. Never revealing it as the reason why you dare not fare off this planet.
When sympathisers sent me the marriage notice containing your picture, I quit the mountains of my home, bought a ronin ship – as they will defy laws to serve honour – and came here to end your charade. My sister’s memory shall not be sullied further. Blithe liar, I contest your dispute with my blood. Blood that stands alone, last in line, by your hand.”
Conal staggers as if struck, turning back to look at Francesca.
His tone is resigned: “The past I told you skipped a few things. Besides, with you, I found the love that damned fox denied me. Couldn’t pass up on that.”
Francesca blinks, tears drying. She looks at Wren, finds him looking at her. They both turn to look at Conal.
Who steps further away, gesturing for the vicar to step toward them, then looks at Wren and smiles.
“Look after her, old son. I know you’d be together if not for my arrival.”
There’s a flash of blinding white light with a noise like leaves rustling. By the time anyone can see again, the kitsune are gone and there’s nothing but a scattering of bloodied dust to mark where he stood.