Welcome to Cloneville

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

They stare at me as I go by. Heart-shaped faces, pale skin, a hint of freckles, eyes like summer sky reflecting in still ponds. Every day since I got here, they stop what they’re doing to watch me go by. Still makes me uncomfortable, but it always happens, so I’m accustomed to it. The only thing I can do is keep driving.
I stop at the delicatessen, offload the shipment and back through the doors, sack wheels stacked with wicker crates up to my chin.
“Good afternoon, Caleb. You’re late today?”
I stop by the till and carefully slide the stack off the wheels.
“Sorry about that, Roy. Had to help Roy at the bakery with an oven replacement. It was so heavy even Rita had to help.”
Roy looks impressed. He raises his head and shouts: “Hey, Rita! Caleb says they got Rita to help move one of the ovens at the bakery!”
Rita bustles in from the back, a look of disbelief on her face.
“I’ll believe it when she tells me, and if she did, she’ll be telling everyone for a week.”
I laugh with them, then take my leave. I don’t know how they do it. This is Ritaroyburg. Males are Roy and females are Rita. Never seem to need more than one identifier or qualifier to work out which one of them I’m talking about.
I presume it was the same for me in Carolcalebtown – until my Carol got taken by a catamount. I lasted three days before running from the place screaming, trying to drown out the noise in my head. Started right after Carol died. After the screaming, it got much quieter, but it’s still there.
Since leaving that place, I’ve been through Juliejohnburg, Barberabobtown and a dozen other burgs and towns. Can’t seem to stay in one place for more than a season or two. Seen more of this country than any since the Iron Rain, I’m sure. I’m also sure I know how them who survived set this land up to continue: all the places are the same. All the people are the same. Only the names change. In some places, the people are much older and they barely talk, just go about tending the crops, woodlands and streams. I don’t stay long in those places.
I used to dream of the life I never had with Carol. After that, I dreamt of dusty rooms filled with the skeletons of the people who made us. The ones that knew what children were. The ones who had a plan for what came next, until they all died. Now-
“Caleb.”
She’s sitting on the front step, hair blowing in the breeze like Carol’s used to. But she’s not Carol, and that’s quite alright.
“Rita. Will Roy be standing across the road again? He was there all afternoon yesterday.”
She shakes her head.
“Roy’s in gaol. So’s Roy next door. His Rita is telling Sheriff Rita I should be the one locked up. Deputy Roy thinks you should be the one in gaol.”
I sit next to her.
“Tell me.”
“Roy said seeing me keeping company with you made him realise he liked Rita next door more than me. He asked Rita next door about it. Roy next door hit him with a skillet. They fought.”
She takes my hand.
“What do we do?”
The noise in my head stops.
“Get your things while Roy’s in jail, Rita. There’s lots of other places to see.”
“Leave? Be Rita and Caleb?”
“If you want to.”
“I do.”

Empire

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I love Christmas, everyone’s preoccupied or in a good mood.
A focussed gent like me can make a fortune. Times have changed, though: used to be all I had to do was hang around and look a bit down and out. That’s become a good way to get spat at, beaten, or even set fire to. Not that my people don’t do it, but it takes numbers and money to have a trio of thumpers nearby, ready to deal with the weak people who like to bully. I prefer to keep static begging for sizing up a target. That way, any donations are a bonus.
As for what my grandad loved to call his ‘flexible friend’, it’s still good. Crowded cafes, a couple of sly fingermen and we’re pulling a few hundred an hour in contactless alone. Then the pickpockets go in. I’ve got a room full of techies nearby, just waiting for cards and that lovely new phone you haven’t quite got round to securing. Give them a few minutes and suddenly you’re online buying all sorts of stuff. Especially if we landed your card info.
If we can’t get the data from your phone, we’ll ask your car. Turns out that even if you’re cautious with your phone, there’s a good chance you didn’t bother with your motor.
Harald Bluetooth united the tribes of Denmark. His namesake will hook up with any old device. Like the ones we carry to get your info or give our black hat a way into your data life.
Always gives me a warm feeling, knowing that when you get home to report the misfortune, you’ll find the house empty too. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have all their details on their phone, including their security and access keys.
Complacency will do for you.
Even with paying the teams, I’m making over five grand a week. Easy money from people who work like slaves for companies they hate and leave their money in banks they don’t trust.
Complacency. Always sure things will get better. Always sure it’ll be someone else who gets had. You keep right on thinking that. Makes my life much easier.
So, there you are, sitting in your ruined ‘smart’ home, waiting for someone to get you some sort of connectivity, when it occurs to you that at least no one was hurt. You might have lost your possessions and money, but everyone’s okay. You’ll get by. Just have to get over the upset so you can be strong for the kids when they come in.
Your son goes out with music so loud over his earbuds a building could collapse behind him and he wouldn’t notice. As all I want to do is walk up and taser him, he’s done. How do I know? Because you mentioned it while complaining to your wife using the phone you neglected to secure.
Your daughter won’t spot us coming, either. She’s out with friends and we’ll take them all when they call a rideshare. It’ll call some of my people, because we hacked her cloud via your parental monitoring link.
Kidnap for ransom is a waste of time. Why bother finding rich people when any teen will sell? Traffickers pay good money, and all they want is English speaking and fit. Depending on your kids ability to grasp a situation and adapt, they could live a good life. Good for a cherished pet, anyway. The alternative being they’ll help a lot of other people live their good lives.
Right, enough banter. Back to my little empire.
Merry Christmas.

Star Eagle

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

With slow majesty the huge spacecraft swings about, displaying alien lines in the distant star’s light. Mantled wings of golden energy cant toward the tiny needle that darts about, shooting beams of visible and invisible energy at it. The behemoth remains silent and apparently indifferent.
“Damn it! Why doesn’t it respond?”
As Lieutenant Kai ‘Stev’ Stevraphanos thumps his control board for the third time in as many minutes, Captain Witt Slatterly sighs and looks up from his library screen.
“Go easy on the architecture, Stev. We may need that fire control.”
“We’d have needed it before now, Captain. That Jonah’s likely carrying more lethal firepower than the Tirsuse Agreement allows our entire fleet.”
Stev has a point. The unknown vessel shows ports for over a hundred offensive weapons. He flips his screen to external, keying CORRELATE into the recognition computer. Then he goes back to admiring the immense vessel. That’s the first thing that hits you. The sheer size. Any spacefaring navy that has the bloody arrogance to build this big is a potential threat. On top of that, any race that build ships this graceful needs to be seen.
It resembles a reptilian eagle. Enormous sheets are laid to form scales that cover the entire vessel. Scanalysis gives impossible data that indicates refined countermeasures. But the wings and tail are the truly frightening things: energy fields – even, non-coruscating, near zero emission – but within open frames. The trailing edge is open to space. That sort of energy manipulation is only dreamed of by our scientists. The fact that the trailing edge is nearly a half-kilometre long on the shortest section alone is just insult on top of injury.
The wingspan is six kilometres. The tail fan is a three-quarter kilometre equilateral triangle, and the body nearly three kilometres long. The probable ship weight is beyond the projection program’s capacity.
Witt’s got thirty years in space. Has shipped with both civil and martial arms of the Galactic Navy. The largest ship is one and a half kilometres. He knows of a Viperon warcraft nearly two kilometres long, but that’s all engines; built for speed. This stranger is a warbird, and probably quick with it. But it holds position, apparently ignoring Slatterly’s ship, the merely two-hundred metre interceptor ‘Fair Venture’.
His contemplations are interrupted as the recognition computer beeps it’s termination sequence. He reads as the comp overlays details on the external veiw. The data is conclusive. This vessel is the biggest, most potentially deadly spacecraft ever encountered in the history of the Galactic Navy. It also shows all the visual cues of having been out here for an extremely long time.
He leans back and glances up at Stev.
“A genuine Jonah. Unknown. Not even dreamt of. Our capital ships were built to intimidate and, if necessary, take on any of the known dreadnoughts, even the friendly ones. This machine could laugh at our best.”
“Only if it’s got shields as good as it’s wings, Captain.”
“More like if it has anything that still lives. It’s been here for quite a while.”
“Derelict?”
“Biggest archaeological find ever, I hope. I don’t think any Navy would let that drift off, so, it’s owners are long gone. Does leave one nagging thought that bothers me, though.”
“What’s that?”
He points at the screen: “What if that’s only scout sized for their current fleet?”
Stev chuckles.
“Then I’m going to get a quick transfer to the wet Navy on some tropical paradise planet, Captain.”
He bursts out laughing.
“Sound plan, Lieutenant, very sound. I might even join you.”

Shower Time

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

In the beginning, there was a world. It wasn’t a particularly unusual or outstanding one, just another ball of rock with a hot liquid interior and a solid lump at the centre. The usual early planetary phases passed without anything of note, then the meteor arrived. Sheer luck it hit water far enough from a volcano for the liquid to not be boiling. Sheerer luck it careened through the shallows before plunging into the deeps, fragmenting as it went. The microbes on that meteor hadn’t been anywhere so accommodating since their home planet blew apart. A rush of renewed life met the local forms and, surprisingly quickly, all sorts of interesting hybrids started ambling about.

“Are you doing the mental lecture to some hapless writer again?”
“Quiet. I’m not thinking at you.”
“There’s no need to snap.”

After a few false starts, life blundered from water onto land. Something like evolution got interrupted by another meteor loaded with flash-frozen biology from a dead planet. The results of that revamped the non-aquatic forms in many useful ways.
The first civilisation came and went, not achieving much. Likewise the second thru twenty-seventh. Every time it proved that reptilian sentients didn’t have much get up and go. The very few who did simply got up and went. Those that remained shrugged and went back to their day-to-day, waiting for the next extinction event.

“Still keeping us anonymous, eh?”
“What are you doing in my train of thought?”
“Admiring the view from First Class.”

Fast forward past a few millennia of same old, same old, and the reptilians were regularly being beaten to the top of the pile by primates. The smart apes tried several times to make something of themselves, but their two best attempts were foiled by subduction. After that, a couple of intervening ice ages didn’t help matters.

“Somewhat of an understatement.”
“I still don’t understand how – if we’re so smart – our expeditions missed out on the fact that sub-zero environments and cold-blooded researchers is always a recipe for disaster.”
“Overenthusiasm and no-one daring to ask some obvious questions of their venerated commanders, at a guess. We’re still terrible at challenging our own hierarchal structures.”
“You might just have hit the egg square on with that idea.”

Finally, a new civilisation achieved technological ascendancy, reaching peaks only attained by five of the ninety civilisations before them. Unusually, they reached that technology before their aggressive tendencies had been tempered, and managed to sustain the balancing act for several decades before the fundamental flaws of their founding premises started to erode the underpinnings of the societies that had evolved.

“Rather restrained. Last night we got to listen to you bang on for four hours about the shortcomings of their current civilisation model.”
“Last night I’d had enough recreational chemicals to reach evangelical. Today I’m merely dehydrated.”

It’s ironic that they’d just realised meteors had such a massive potential to influence life on the planet they’d come to call ‘Earth’ when, in a freak event, a trio of meteors ruined their failing civilisation and ushered in a new ice age.
When that’s over, it’ll be interesting to see what sentiences rise to the challenge of forming the next civilisation.

“‘A trio’?”
“I reckon they’ll take out the first, damage or even crack the second, but the remains of it, plus the third, will do for them.”
“I like that thinking, but I’d quietly put a cloaked super-dense core in the third. Just to be sure.”
“That’s underclawed of you. Consider it done.”

Ever Near

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Rex Christus, I ache this morning. Forgive the profanity, Lord, but it feels like my bones loosened themselves in their joints overnight.
There’s a harsh light on the streets, as if Heaven is searching the dimmest corners of its mighty demesne for sinners. Ha! They’ll find more than a few in these twisted ways. Titheport is a planet filled with bile, turning the masses into sinners who feel the gloria militarius does not enrich their lives. Which is true: those who serve Caesar get only dust, so it is written. The planetary authorities are improving, but there’s a long road ahead. Lucifer spake truth when he said that “the woes of man were ever of man’s making, whilst angels look on.”
“Utterest thou, Leftenant?”
I shake my head to loosen the devil’s maudlin grip.
“Heed me not, crusaders. I’m in a dark mood this morn. Prepare thyselves. We have good work to perform.”
Placing a hand on the hilt of my pistol, I gesture toward the double doors that mark our destination.
“At last, we shall purge the brothels!”
Sergeant Malcolm. His father survived the Calvinist Rescripture and that faith’s view of the secular world is so dark I often wonder if they actually fell instead of discovering a new gospel.
“Sergeant, the Magdalene Missions are a blessed outreach and you know my stance on the preaching of minor creeds whilst on duty.”
“I ask forgiveness, Leftenant.”
“Not mine to grant. Pray well.”
I’ll not leave any to stew on the matter. Taking the steps two at a time, I swing the portal wide.
“Templars!” There’s fear in her tone.
I raise a hand: “Let none who wash the feet of the worthy fear our tread this day. Let those who hailed us approach.”
“Be welcome, Knight Leftenant.”
Her voice is throaty and her eyes make the sinner inside me howl.
“Thou callest, matron?”
She gestures towards a waif in a homespun robe.
“Not me. The little one spots things my footwashers won’t.”
Ever a truth. Fear of attracting God’s wrath via those elected to his service is the biggest reason so much goes unaddressed. Some of my fellows are brutal sinners. They disgrace the service. One day, I shall chase them from my temple, and I will use something a lot less forgiving than a whip. Your pardon, Lord. ’Tis naught but righteous anger.
“Step forward, child. What seest thou?”
Raising a hand, he points toward the high ceiling off to the left.
“There’s a devil in the rafters, Sirrah. I seen it watching the girls and wiping it’s mouth.”
“Describe the infernal to me, child.”
“Ruddy and blue with grey teeth and wings like wet towels.”
A pleasure-addicted Ferrucatoan telepath. The wings atrophy and go limp. By the time they look like ‘wet towels’ the creature is but days away from final frenzy, driving all within a dozen city blocks insane.
“Sergeant Malcolm!”
“Leftenant?”
“There’s a sodden Brothel Creeper somewhere in the main hall. Bring it down.”
“By your command.”
The advantage of a strict upbringing is near-immunity to sinful influences. Even I can’t confront a Ferrucatoan.
Malcolm storms in trailed by Chaplain Flanders. Both have Gatling carbines at the ready. No energy weapons here, there isn’t a Tesla grid to support them.
“We see thee, sinner!”
The Gatlings fire with a hammer-on-steel percussion and something wails until it hits the floor.
As the corpse is dragged out, a familiar figure steps round the matron, hand raised. I pause, then reach out to lay armoured palm against her delicate hand.
“Blessed Be, dear son.”
“Ever near, mother.”
“Amen.”