Ratings

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I can see the lights of the screens up in the control room as I cross the silent studio. Nothing will be happening down here for another year. Up there, nobody goes home until their replacement is onsite and up to speed.
Kelly once commented that some of them never seem to go home. It’s true. Many of the junior staff don’t have homes. They bunk in the emergency coverage dormitory and everyone turns a blind eye, because everyone has friends or relatives in the same position. Affording the basics of life became a privilege several years ago.
Maybe that’s why ‘Marsville’ is so popular. There’s a ten-year waiting list for auditions. Even those ridiculed as failures in the ‘Fail Harder’ segments are pretty much guaranteed the life of a minor celebrity. To be honest, it’s been the making of me, too. The Eldorado Network pays me well to compere the world’s number one reality AV show.
Why am I trudging up these stairs at three in the morning? Marsville has just started it’s twelfth season. The fifteen contestants arrived a fortnight ago. What with the tension between Davor, Trisha and Garrett, the ratings have already smashed last year’s records. There shouldn’t be anything bad enough to warrant this sort of meeting.
I find Pete, Carnegie, and Horace Eldorado in the conference room. The producer, the head of security, and the owner of the network.
“This can’t be good.”
Carnegie points to his datapad.
“Remember Marcus Trent?”
Takes me a moment: bearded, medium build. Personal trainer. Very popular with the 35-55 viewing audience. I nod.
“He’s dead.”
“Why didn’t I get an alert?”
“He’s in a bath in a derelict hotel in Yarmouth.”
I drop into a chair: “I don’t understand.”
“Police reckon he died a few days before they were shuttled to ISS2. But for a Domestic Army sweep, the body wouldn’t have been found for ages.”
I glare at him: “He was killed after the vetting process. Getting him off campus would be impossible without co-operation. What did your people miss?”
Carnegie shakes his head: “We have video of him leaving with an orderly for a scheduled check-up. The orderly is missing, and was about the same build as Trent.”
“More likely he was tricked. Which means the body of the real orderly is out there somewhere.”
Pete looks across at the board: “The problem being how do we get help to a habitat sited in a quiet corner of a planet 225 million kilometres away?”
Horace grunts.
“And how do we do it without alerting the imposter?”
The door crashes open. Kelly is pasty white.
“We’ve got a flatline and a redline!”
Carnegie’s up before she finishes speaking.
“Who?”
“Marcus Trent flatlined a few moments after Andrea Collins redlined.”
“Where?”
“Low-G spa room.”
The confusion is aggravated by comms lag. About a half hour later, we get the story from Andrea. The ugly weal across her throat gives us a clue.
“He obviously missed the low-G manoeuvring course: lost his balance. I ducked the stranglehold then hit him with a dumbbell.”
Stove his skull in.
Horace leans over.
“What now?”
I grin: “Andrea gets a pass to the semi-finals, and Marcus gets a posthumous win, the share going to his family in advance to help with funeral costs. Portray the imposter as an obsessed fan, no matter what comes out of the investigation.”
He grins.
“Keeping attention on Marsville. The show always goes on.”
Actually, it’s ‘must go on’, but you’re not paying me for historical accuracy. I nod and smile.

Little Evolutions

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The breeze from the windows is lethargic, like everything else in the oppressive heat and humidity. Tutor Phenedras shakes his head in resignation and puts down the cane he’s been using to point out the finer points of ‘Machiavellian Strategies as Applied to Urban Populations within Technological Civilisations’. He’s even working from Ducann’s original text, but it’s difficult to convey his enthusiasm while sweltering in his robes. All he has to do now is find an elegant excuse to declare an early recess.
Something hurtles through the highest window. With a clatter of metal-edged wings, a Pickaxe Head Drake slows as it swings twice round the auditorium, finally settling into a hover at the centre of the open space. Phenedras smiles: that lazy flapping of wings isn’t enough to keep it in the air, let alone stationary. It’s got gravitic implants.
The door slams open to admit a helmless woman in plate armour, blond hair wound in tight braids against her head. As the five cadets amongst his class leap to their feet, right fists snapping inward to land over their hearts, he catches the glint of a thin tiara.
“Knight-Mistress Scopa. Welcome.”
He hears sharp intakes of breath and sees amusement glint in the familiar eyes of the woman before him.
“Much as it’s flattering to be mistaken for my daughter…” Her voice trails off.
Phenedras leaps the lectern and drops to one knee, his right hand pressed flat over his heart.
“My apologies, Eternal Princess. It’s been a while since I’ve been in your presence.”
“You salute like a shipman.”
He looks up and grins: “Funnily enough, that was also the last thing you said to me.”
Rian Rho Scopa crouches to stare into his eyes.
“Captain Phen Dras. So this is where you disappeared to after telling my father to shove his Command Ship up his arse.”
“Whilst it became obvious I wasn’t alone in that sentiment, it seemed wise to remain out of sight.”
“For nine years?”
“I stayed away until my Shierre passed, but with seven years agone, it seemed pointless to attempt a return.”
“I heard she’d died. My condolences.” She looks up: “Just a moment.”
Standing up, she points at the drake.
“Naddamu! Get back to the roost or you’ll be sparring with the Firemouth.”
With a screech, the drake rushes out the window it came through.
She looks at the display screens.
“Ducann? On a day as hot as this? That’s just mean.”
There’s muted laughter.
“I was about to admit my folly when your companion flew in.”
“Phen, you’ve never admitted failure in your life. Don’t start, and do get up. Now, I presume Dean Tironsh will object without better cause than it being too damn hot?”
“Naturally.”
“Then tell him I said it’s mandated by evolution.”
Phenedras waves toward the class: “I’m not seeing it. Do elucidate us, Eternal Princess.”
She raises an eyebrow and smiles: “Don’t think I’m letting that cheeky tone pass. A deferment is all you get.”
He grins.
She continues.
“We are stood here today amidst the greatest civilisation humanity has ever had. After countless cycles of boom-to-bust because of ignorance and greed, we evolved. Onyx, Green, and Gold: the darkness from whence we came, the fertility of our present, and the promise of our future. Seventeen worlds, nine systems, four races. With education for all and greed an outlaw creed, only a lack of adaptability can stop us. Such as stubbornly trying to teach Ducann when it’s over forty degrees outside.”
Phenedras laughs and raises his hands in surrender: “I’m presuming no counter-arguments. Class dismissed.”

Dark Chambers of My Heart

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The fan on the ceiling turns slowly, another kitsch feature of this fake colonial era hospital. I do not know when hospitals started to compete for trade, but the ‘healing ambience’ vogue has been out of control – and good taste – for a while. A symptom of a diseased society: choosing to be treated in a replica of a Field Hospital from the Crimea or the whitewashed walls of a Rehab Centre in Da Nang, or any one of thirty or so other styles. Offering appearances, not authenticity, in every case. No-one wants anything less than the very latest in medical care during their treatment.
“Good morning, Mister Clarke.”
The nurse is cheerful. That stoic happiness you wear like armour, when there is no other option but to put on a brave face to cope with an unwelcome task. Not that I have ever had to do that, but my recent experiences have given me a certain insight. Which means I recognise the sideways glances, the abruptness in her practiced moves. I am an interloper in an otherwise genteel establishment.
“How are we feeling this morning?”
“I am comfortably numb, thank you. Yourself?”
She pauses, flicks me a smile that has a hint of being genuine, then carries on as if I had not asked anything. Her bluff manner continues for the few minutes it takes her to check me over. It is a courtesy, more than a necessity. The monitoring suite can see everything and administer anything bar actual surgery or sexual relief, and I am not convinced it could not be programmed for the latter. I would enquire, but I think it could be a query too far for a nurse clearly holding herself together by willpower alone.
“The doctor should be with you before lunch, Mister Clarke.”
“Thank you.”
She nods and retreats, reaching for the name badge she hid in her pocket before entering. A pointless attempt at anonymity, as the detention drone that squats on the ceiling in the corner will have identified her via facial recognition before she took three steps into the room. If she were unauthorised, she would have been incapacitated before taking a fourth step.
It amuses me, the care with which they are holding me. A rare artefact, to be handled with kid gloves and kept in padded storage while a determination as to its real worth is made. More correctly, an evaluation of the public condemnation likely to occur should it be lost. Less amusing is the knowledge that, even in my advanced state of healing, I could still die ‘from my injuries’.
The media are calling me a hypocrite. I disagree, but it will not change anyone’s opinion. I am the last one standing, and there’s no victory or support in that.
We fought for a fairer society. Son of money, I found myself drawn to a cause that would decrease my father’s income by a few percentage points while helping so many.
Whether the radical elements evolved or were induced, I will never know. The violence was pointless and self-defeating, which makes me believe it was manufactured. The truth got lost in high definition video of shouting combatants. It saves on special effects budget when the blood on the walls is real.
In the end, we died for our cause. They fought to the last. I fell off a roof. I remember looking at the stanchion impaling my chest and trying to laugh.
A mobile trauma team saved me. My father’s health insurance paid for them, and a new heart.
Cold irony echoes with every beat.

Flicker

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

There’s a lot to be said for the feeling of security granted by street lighting. Not overlooking the fact that its arrival heralded mankind moving from a lifestyle largely governed by the availability of daylight or men with flame-in-hand.
Flame. It’s insidious. Inconstant. A wavering light that moves the shadows about. When you’re dependent on shadow, not knowing where the bloody things are going to be from one moment to the next is a real pain in the butt. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I don’t even know where the bit of me you’d call my butt would be. Don’t need to.
So, here I am, one of the longer-lived predators of this fine planet, doing rather nicely off the new upright-walking types who seem to be losing their fur in most places. Then one of you bright-eyed bipeds goes and makes the connection between spark and flame. That tore it. Nearly three millennia of you lot making your way through the dark by whatever fashionable form of flame-in-hand you could come up with.
It wasn’t all bad. Some sections of your population preferred unwavering light, using reflective surfaces to stabilise their moving flames. Wonderful! Fixed shadows and darkness once again. Many a troupe of you, huddling about a motley fire, gazing longingly toward the big house with its bright windows, had no idea your ‘poor’ state meant we passed you by on the way to feeding on those in that big house.
The ever-changing light you so love, the heart of the fire, is what we can’t adapt to. Our changeable, light-hating forms cannot move quick enough to avoid injury or death as what was a shadow we could flit through becomes lit, while what had been deadly bright becomes the dark we need. Maddening. I’ve lost so many friends.
Then streetlights appeared. Flames on poles, of all things. As they got better and more widely used, you left your flame-in-hand behind. Became reliant on the lights on top of the poles. By doing that, you made us new lurking grounds.
The brighter the light becomes, the stronger the shadows. That dark hides us. That dark is us. The reason why some of you walk into the dark and don’t come out? Is us.
What are we?
I don’t know. You don’t have the science or the superstition to make the right words. But, since I’m borrowing one of your languages for a while, I’ll try –
Old.
Hungry.
Waiting for your lights to go out.

Look Like Them

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The sirens start to wail.
“Run!”
John turns as he shouts, swinging a rucksack of stolen provisions onto his back. By the time we see torch beams flicking about in the hands of guards heading this way – the section where their spotlights aren’t working – we’re all running for the fence.
“Keep up, Jinny.”
Easier for you, Em, you’re taller and it’s all legs. Back here in the shortarse division, we get to dodge and hide more often.
Which is what I’m off to do. There’s no way I can make the fence. I’m not convinced Em can, but at least she has a chance.
Sliding under an overturned truck I pull myself up against the back of the cab, hopefully merging the outline of my form with the accumulated crap already under here.
I hear a shot. Nothing to do but wait. Hopefully they aren’t led by zealots determined to exterminate the evil scroungers threatening the glorious New Era government by stealing a few cans of food.
The night is criss-crossed with searching beams.
A scream. Em! Sodding hell, how am I going to tell Trev? Little Em will be five next week.
Footsteps approaching: one person, no torch.
“Vardy!” The shouter is a long way off.
“Here!” The owner of the footsteps.
“You get that screamer?”
“Body went down into the scrap. You want it, come out tomorrow.”
Oh, Em.
Footsteps pass the overturned truck, then come back.
Another shout: “Not worth it. Come in. We’ll do a final sweep to the fence line.”
“Gimme a moment. Breathing’s playing up.”
The footsteps stop and someone leans against the truck.
Same shouter, further away: “Catch up when you’re sorted.”
“Roger that.”
I hear Velcro rip and then the sound of someone taking a big pull on an inhaler.
“The problem with sliding under something in a hurry is that you leave a big skidmark if you forget to brush it away.”
I’m dead.
Footsteps crunch and scuffed boots come into view. They start kicking about, obscuring the trail I left!
“Your tall friend has broken her ankle. She’s flat out in what’s left of the grey container between here and the railway line. Wait until the follow-up sweep passes in about twenty minutes, then you can retrieve her. They won’t try to fix the gap in the fence until daylight, so you’re good to get out that way. Mind the sentry drone. They rotate for recharge every hour or so and the procedures are slack, so they bring one in before sending a new one out. You’ll have a ten-minute window.”
I can’t believe I’m about to chat with a Domestic Army trooper.
“Window?”
“The time you’ll have to get through that fence and leave the area.”
“Why are you-?”
“Too old to run with the resistance, and my lungs are too fucked anyway. My choices were Pensioners Workhouse or Domestic Army. I chose the one that lets me look like a loyal citizen while making sure the system doesn’t work like the New Era Mandate says it should. Damn sure there are more like me, but surveillance means we can’t trust anyone. In a way, it makes the disruption better: it’s all disjointed, and they’re looking for an organisation.”
He sighs.
“Some days, I do things I’m not proud of. Other days, like tonight, I get to do a little good. Anyway, I’m off to look for intruders I’m damn sure I won’t find. You have better luck next time. Ciao.”
The footsteps retreat. Our unknown saviour is gone. What a way to survive.