On the Way Home

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The cube of recycled plastic is labelled ‘Egg Mayonnaise’ and filled with a yellow paste. I don’t know what ‘Mayonnaise’ is, but egg’s one of the healthy stuffs listed on the Daily Reader’s ‘Top 20 Stuffs to Eat’.
Always liked the Reader; it doesn’t use long words and the articles always carry the Ministry of Information’s ‘Short is Good’ mark.
I try a bit while I wait. Sort of fizzy and sweet but a little bit gritty to stop it being boring. Good stuff, just like the Reader says.
I check the instruction label. Drat. Says you can’t dollop it into your mug-of-hot. It’s a red circle warn-off, too. This is the real deal. Mix it with hot stuffs and it could kill you.
“You want Cee or Tea?”
Her skin shines and her hair’s wet. Running a vending machine is hot work. But, it’s good money, and you’re paid to exercise. The treadmill she’s on keeps the machine eco-friendly as well as pushing any extra to the grid. She gets food credits for that, on top of the new pound-an-hour fair wage deal that Mug o’Hot are right to be proud of.
Clever idea, steady work and regular exercise at the same time. I have to spend a couple of hours a day on the public gym cross trainer to top up my food credits. Imagine being able to do it while you work!
“Cee, please.” I hand her my mug and wave my ID bracer over the POSpad.
She thanks me for reusing my mug and triple taps the terminal to make sure the system gives me a ‘Reuser’ discount.
Filling the mug, she nods toward my bracer.
“Fabio?”
That she thinks it could be the real thing is either good patter or my clothes are giving off the right image. Normally I’d take the nicety and pass by. But, I like the way her eyes sparkle, and lies at a start will never lead to a good end.
“I wish. Government issue set in my own tooling. Trying to start a sideline.”
Every non-elite needs a sideline: making coin or barter from handmade stuff is the only way to add a little luxury to your life.
She smiles at me. Egad. There’s only her and the rest of the world doesn’t matter.
“That’s real good. I could hang some in here. Get ‘em seen, maybe make some coin?”
“If it won’t make trouble for you.”
She gives a little shake of her head: “They say I’ve got to draw people in to make my quota. Friend who got me this job says to meet it but not go ten percent over, or they up the quota. So, a cut of a sideline would be good.” She looks straight at me: “Means you’ll come by more often, too.”
I can almost hear grandpa laughing. He always said this moment would come and laughed even harder when I said it never would and I didn’t see why it could matter.
“Why don’t we natter about details and things after you finish?”
She smiles at me again and I must find more ways to keep her doing that.
“Sounds good. I’m Valerie.”
I grin: “I’m Nick.”
The man behind me in the queue butts in: “I’m going to miss my train. You two lovebirds done?”
I feel myself blush and see Valerie colouring up. We’re both giggling as I step out of his way.
She mouths at me: “Three hours.”
I’ll skip the gym, make it up tomorrow.
Valerie.
Think I’ll qualify for ‘Regular Reuser’ very soon.

Toy Soldiers

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The wind up here is gentle, bringing the smell of summer fields from the uplands. Below my bloodied feet the valley stretches from side to side as far as I can see, so wide I can only just make out the verdant walls that line the far side.
This precipice, I’ve always loved it. From standing with my face defiantly turned into the winter wind, to lying beside my first love with the stars of a spring night scattered above, I’ve always come up here when emotions exceed words.
The fires in the valley are dying. By tomorrow morning, they’ll be able walk in numbed awe between the wrecks, looking for relatives and seeking to rescue or to grant mercy. It’s been a bitter eight days and the crimes committed have no witnesses left to raise challenge totems in search of justice.
Justice. Both sides claimed to possess it. If actions speak louder than words, then what I’ve just walked from proves neither side cares about justice or even decency. We went in like berserkers, mood gougers driving us on, no thoughts of right or mercy amidst the induced pain and anger. Pain to make us blame, anger to make us fight, blame to keep us fighting. Mannequins of hate, driven by false emotions to do evil in the name of what others define as good.
When the gouging beams stopped, I wiped the blood from my eyes and beheld what we had wrought. It’s not something I’m convinced I can live with.
“Bitter blade, driven deep by hands serving that which the soul cannot countenance.”
Hesti’s voice is hoarse but soft, nought but an echo of innocence lost.
She slumps down by me, resting her head on my shoulder. I twitch from a different pain as the arm she would have draped across my other shoulder doesn’t land. That arm she left somewhere below, along with our kith and kin.
“Strive back, back from the dark that spills like blood upon this trammelled field.”
She studied poetry as her elective at the college: that quiet building, like a library where the books are delivered directly to mind, a holy font of limitless knowledge. Now revealed as a tainted fountain where conditioning arrives unrecognised among the pulses of enlightenment.
“Let go the fires that bind thee, take solace in the rising of the sun.”
I might see another dawn, now that she’s here. Had she not come, I would finally have taken the glorious dive from this place that has haunted my dreams since the first night I settled in my bed after coming down from this vantage point.
“Seek not the forgiveness of oblivion, for no blame accrues to a weapon.”
Her lips gently kiss my cheek, then she turns her face so I can feel the warmth of the tears that course down her face. That is the release, the cue for my tears to join hers.
“That we were unwitting blades drawn at last from dreaming sheaths is clear.”
I will not die. A challenge totem needs to be raised. A great totem to tell of this infamy.
“In knowing this cruel fate, we will not fall in shame. There is a tomorrow.”
She turns so she can place her remaining hand upon my blistered cheek, turning my head so she can rest her brow against mine.
“There is always tomorrow.”
We will see this night through.

Some Questions

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The laboratory is quiet at last. Carrie crouches down to retrieve a champagne bottle. As it’s not quite empty, she drinks the rest and stands up, pausing to let a lightheaded moment pass. Dropping the bottle into the bin, she turns and utters a little scream on finding a grey-suited woman standing there.
“Who are you? What are you doing? Where’s your ID?”
The woman smiles.
“I’m Linda. I’m here to talk about the necrophone. I don’t need one, I’m not with the faculty.”
“Oh, alright. You should really be talking to Professor Dangmar, he invented it.”
Linda plucks a half-empty bottle of whisky from a table, wipes the neck with a corner of her jacket, and takes a swig before offering it.
Carrie grins and takes it. Resting her butt against a desk, she takes a swig and, coughing, passes it back.
“Whoa.” She gasps.
Linda nods and settles next to Carrie.
“Tennessee fine. Never a dull mouthful. So, before I see the professor, I thought I’d talk to the people who work with him. Get a picture, you know?”
Carrie nods: “He’s lovely. So keen to help the world by getting rid of humanity’s preoccupation with death. Starting from finding non-fraudulent, non-delusional incidences of Ouija board use and similar, it took him a decade to understand what happens, then another to build a machine that does it without the silly rituals.”
Linda nods: “It’s almost unbelievable, being able to talk to the dead. How do you find the number for each person?”
Carrie laughs and takes another swig: “It doesn’t work like that. You pick up the handset and press the ‘receive’ button. You’ll usually speak to your most recently deceased relative. In a few cases, it’s a recently dead close friend. One of our interns hasn’t lost anyone close yet and had a strange, rambling conversation with his great-grandmother, who died just before he was born. He said it was like she wasn’t all there. Professor Dangmar proposed that maybe souls fade over time.”
“What about heaven and suchlike?”
“No mention has been made.”
Linda stops with the bottle partway to her lips: “Really?”
“Not a thing. That’s confidential information, by the way. Professor Dangmar wants a much bigger sample before drawing any conclusions.”
“Good idea. Who did you speak to?”
“I didn’t. Guess I’m a down-home girl at heart. Something about it doesn’t feel right. For all that I support the concept, I couldn’t bring myself to make a call.”
Linda smiles as she puts the bottle down: “I can appreciate that. Right, I’d better get going, let you finish.”
“Thanks.”
Carrie takes another swig, then turns back to clearing up. Linda spends a while watching her, then nods and leaves the room.
Standing outside, she makes a call: “Carrie Cutler is clean. Sweep completed.”
“A lone survivor, but from what?”
She smiles: “I spiked her drink. She’ll be vomiting before dawn and poorly for the day, which supports a story about drunken interns mixing drugs in the punch that resulted in it becoming poisonous. A tragic accident at an impromptu party, not a mysterious cover-up.”
“Nice. We’ll go with that.”
Linda walks away.
Carrie cleans for a while longer, then heads for home when she starts to feel nauseous.
As she walks, she remembers the prickle of goosebumps up her arms when she heard her mother. The voice had been faint, but unmistakably the dear heart she lost five years ago.
“They’ll kill anyone who uses this, my girl. Deny. Lie. Never tell. I love you and we’ll meet again, I promise.”

Bait

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The bulb swings in lazy figure eights on its long cable. Somewhere in the darkness above, there must be a breeze. The shifting light is doing more to soften me up than the ministrations of the knuckledragger dancing round my chair like he’s fighting with someone who’s not tied to one.
“Talk!”
I smile carefully because my face already resembles mushy steak: “Pick a topic.”
He hits me again: “What I asked!”
I straighten up: “Must’ve slipped my mind.”
He hits me again.
“Oh, that.”
And again.
“I came to kill your boss like I killed Wallace, Kitson, and Gadro.”
Again.
“If you hit me whether I talk or not, I may as well not.”
Once again.
“No more lies! They took their enemies with them in a blaze of glory!”
I look up at him: “No need to shout.”
And again.
Every time, a gut shot followed by a cross. It may be cliché, but it gets the job done. I’m going to be on a liquid diet for a week, even after a nanorebuild.
Spitting blood and teeth, I grin lopsidedly: “A real leader wouldn’t cower in an armoured hideout, too afraid of his enemies to venture out without a swarm of sacrificial bodyguards and drones.”
He doubles up on the hits this time. I go with arching backwards, then slumping forward and hanging limp. He backs off.
There’s a voice in my head: “Jimbo, you idiot. Did you have to get caught?”
I mutter: “Cara, how else was I going to get in so you could work via my cyberwear to hack the digital underside of the den of this cautious capo? He knows his rivals didn’t go out in blazes of glory. He’s hyper-paranoid because he’s terrified.”
“Give you that. So, I’m in and I have the trigger sequence. You ready?”
“Ready to collapse in a drooling puddle. Send Suzy.”
“That bad, eh? Okay. Cue your crazy daughter in three, two, on-”
High in the darkness, something breaks. My sparring partner steps across to stand by me, looking upward curiously. As pieces start to land, he dodges away from me.
A chunk of girder crashes down between us, barely missing him.
“Close!” He grins.
Something purple drops behind him and the blade she wields cleaves him from sweaty crewcut to the crotch of his baggy tracksuit. Without even two halves of a startled look, he goes down.
Suzy brings the blade up and performs O-Chiburui while her left hand picks a pale cloth from her sash, allowing her to flow through a deft chinugui before sheathing her sword.
She smiles, then frowns when she sees my stare.
After looking down at her graphene and latex bodysuit, she grins: “It’s comfortable, protects well, and lets me move properly.”
“You might as well be wearing bodypaint.”
She raises a hand: “We’re not doing this again. Say one more word and I will do the next mission wearing nothing but purple bodypaint, so you can get a close look at the differences – along with everyone else.”
I know when I’m beaten, so I shut up while she cuts me loose, secures the drop line, and gets us both whisked up to the already ascending gravsled.
“We’re clear, Cara.”
The building below us trembles as flames belch from its windows and other weak points. Seems like every criminal boss has their headquarters rigged to explode or implode. It’d be rude to not take advantage of all their hard work, and save public funds, by skipping the trial and going straight to execution.

Growing Back

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The snow is so fine it sometimes drifts about for hours before finally settling. The result is a mist that makes everything vague before fallen snow obscures it completely. This being acid snow, obscuring may become erasure when thawing drenches everything in acid.
On organics, the snow is quicker to harm. Every member of our group has snowburn – blotches where snow melted on contact and scarred the skin. You’ve got to be well covered to survive out there. Even the toughest organics have a lifespan measured in days, which drops to hours if any snow is allowed to melt on whatever it is.
Every lair has a sluice, where those coming in are rinsed thoroughly as soon after entry as sensible. Filtering the water used is a continuing nightmare, as we can’t let it contaminate our potable supplies and even the vapours are noxious to varying degrees.
“Rack and ruin, rain and burn, will we see another turn?”
It’s a well-known rhyme, used to keep those who pedal the generator in time. Everyone gets to pedal, it’s a rule. Electricity allows us to keep the luxuries going, like educators for the kids and the special lights that keep the plant vats growing.
Vegetables: beans, okra, cucumber, melon, and more. We have nineteen varieties. That gives us trading rights with every group for ten miles. We even get trekkers that come from the haven over at Lewes and the forts at Southampton. They’re hardened types, grown from ex-military cliques. I’d call them strange, but we’re all a little ‘off’ these days. Good thing is, with the end of natural fresh water and everything wet falling from the skies liable to melt your face, the bandit problem just petered out. You can’t raid to live anymore.
“I’d question if we’re actually living.”
That’s Ethel. She’s looking over my shoulder, getting a feel for this writing thing. Someone has to, and she’s inherited her mother’s knack for words. All she needs to do is take the plunge and write something from what she feels, rather than what she sees. It’s a factual existence, these days. No room for whimsy when the planet’s out to purge you.
Which brings me to her question. We’re working very hard to live. So hard that anything not directly associated with it has been let go. Me writing is a gift from having lost my legs in a bad fall. I needed something to do, so I’m writing a guide to everything we do, so we don’t lose any of the ways we’ve worked so hard to perfect – and continue to refine.
“You and Kaden Leader are the same. Keep insisting that we’ll eventually be able to not work at surviving all the time. I still don’t understand what we’ll do with – what do you call it?”
“Free time.”
“That. What do you do with it?”
“Anything you want. Do something for fun. Relax.”
“Not sure I’d like that.”
“You’ll be surprised.”
She thinks on that, then grins.
“When it happens, I’ll cope. Like we always have to.”
I laugh for so long she wanders off in disgust, not understanding just how funny the idea of people having to cope with free time is.
Which is unfair. I can remember people, long dead, who’d agree with her. They had the same problem, even back when we had non-lethal snow and leisure time.