Up in the Dirt

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Dawn is like a neon tube: a strip of too-bright light. Above it are the clouds that hang across the city all the time, below are the outer walls. From this far inside, the watch towers and turrets look like the bits that soldiers hid behind in castles.
Castle? If so, City Central is the big fort in the middle where the royalty live. Around it are the homes of the rich people. Beyond that are the services that make sure the rich or royal never have to do dirty jobs. Around that are the places where the people who do the dirty jobs live.
Beyond that? It’s a big place, filled with hydroponic farms, scrapyards, shanty towns, and us.
I shake my head and pick up where I left off.
“Not that we’re any different. Don’t have clothes for different times of day, don’t have much choice in the shops, don’t get to eat out often. Apart from that, if you scrub me and stick me in a fancy suit, you wouldn’t know the difference. That’s until you try to have a conversation. It’s not like we have much common ground.”
There’s a giggle from my right.
“Torin, stop worrying.”
I look down at the vision sprawled in the filth next to me.
“That dress cost more than my old man could make in five years.”
She smiles and rolls onto her tummy.
“Not really. Only vanity and greed make it expensive.”
A flitcar drops to hover a metre or so off the roof edge.
“Rebecca de Vure Marigny! Come here!”
She sits up and winks at me, then turns her head and shouts at the noisy machine.
“Roberto, I will not. Mother said I was free to go where I wanted for Centenary Night. Here is it.”
“Leave that tarted-up rough! He’ll just roll you and run!”
She looks at me, eyes wild, but there’s something there that’s ours.
Turning back, she points at me.
“He made it all the way to the Botanical Gardens Free Fair with nothing but a good suit and an attitude. Could you find your way downstairs without a valet? Are you even alone in there?”
“That’s beside the point! Charles Harringdon was asking after you!”
“He wears bedsheets and smells like damp dog.”
“He’s a good catch!”
“Then you have him!”
Her dismissive wave stops midway.
“You fancy my rooftop Romeo too, don’t you?”
“Of course not.”
I lean toward her: “He’s an impressive flyer, but not my thing otherwise.”
A wet kiss lands on the tip of my nose.
“I’d missed that.”
She stands up and points at the flitcar with both hands.
“Barbara de Vure Marigny, you can’t have this man. Have Roberto instead!”
The privacy screen drops and I see a younger version of Rebecca grinning at us from the control seat. Behind her is a darkly handsome young man. His menacing glare is marred by the intense blush that’s spreading across his cheeks.
Rebecca makes an intricate hand gesture toward Roberto, who recoils like he’s been punched. The girl, who I presume is Barbara, is laughing as she replies.
“Dirty cow, enjoy your mucky morning. I’m going to take this fool away and help him with the obvious problem he’s had ever since he saw you lying on that roof.”
The flitcar dives out of view. Rebecca turns to face me.
“Speaking of ‘problems’… Hope you fancy helping me with mine as much as I fancy helping you with yours.”
I chuckle.
“Didn’t come up here to roll in the dirt on my own.”

The Things That You Won’t Do

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

There’s a fat bloke in the corner sitting on some woman’s body. I do hope she’s dead, because he’s not a small mammal. From another view, knowing he crushed a woman to death might help offset the shock when they tell him that isn’t claret he’s sucking from his chubby fingers.
You want someone quietly dead, hire an assassin. You want someone filled-with-projectiles dead, hire a contractor. You want everyone nearby dead, use a bomb.
“But,” I hear you think, “what about all that hypersec?”
And you’d be right. The ultra-rich and similarly paranoid wankers don’t get offed by assassins or contractors, and bombs only get to decorate the scenery with guests and staff. Same goes for any long-range fucking about. You might crack the crockery and torch the flowers, but you’ve got about as much chance of getting your mark as I have of waking up tomorrow next to anyone who isn’t still in my bed because of a stasis field.
No, the ‘cyborg soldier’ thing won’t work either. One mark dumped an ice bucket over a ‘killer robot’ and shorted the thing out. For that tactical hiccup, an ex-colleague found out it’s all fun and games until you get hung from an anti-grav platform by your intestines.
Closed environments, nano-filtration, force screens, the list goes ever on. It’s why the top-end of prospective targets are considered off limits. That’s what you’ll be told, anyway. The fact that they’re beyond conventional hit strategies won’t be mentioned. After all, you might be determined and rich. Hits get paid up front, with bonuses for success. Multiple attempts pay better than a completion fee, and you usually get to survive long enough to collect.
So, you want some hypersecured wanker ended? Either wait for them to die, or message my contact point. I’ll check you and your life out. If I don’t like the look of you, nothing will happen. If I think you’re bait, you’re going to die. Otherwise, we’ll have a chat. Then you’ll ship several tonnes of valuables to some obscure frontier planet. After that, you’ll wait.
The problem with being good at this is that the opposition aren’t fuckwits, either. Each novel killing method can only be used once.
Take tonight’s little get together: top-tier, whole space platform, private army, private space navy, no hired help, and nobody gets in without an invite.
Countess Pari Marchand had a discreet procedure six weeks ago. It all went very well. Lord Geoffrey Carnes had a rejuvenation, including replacement kneecaps, especially for tonight’s bash.
Which meant that neither had seen each other for nearly two months. Predictably, they slid away for some quiet time. The heat of passion is a useful thing. Elevated body functions can trigger all sorts of mischief implanted while being operated on by substitutes in my pay. The private room they retreated to let the resulting aristocratic goop ferment nicely. The closed environment circulated the vapour exactly where I needed it to be: everywhere.
Hallucinations and chronic polyphagia were the main effects of that bastard concoction, plus a few things to make people very enthusiastic about consumption. End result was that everyone at the party went berserk. They tried to eat everything, including each other. Most importantly, they ate Sir Douglas Stourbridge, my target.
I’m monitoring the emergency services feed. It’s being treated as the worst terrorist atrocity for twenty years: another invisible kill for my unseen tally. Nice. Never underestimate anonymity.
You need an atrocity to get the job done? Need extinction performed on an individual, nation, or planet? Got treasures to spare? Contact me.

Jessica’s Gone

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The net curtains in the window are blowing free today. You used to sit there, batting them aside whenever they came between you and whatever you were reading.
Camille whispers: “What about these?”
It’s like she’s scared to disturb the memories hanging thick in the air. I look up to see those Lonsdale pads you found for me. With the very same words, too. How long ago was that? I’d been hitting a bin bag filled with takeaway cups hung from a fire escape.
“What about these?”
There you were. Summer dress and army surplus boots, hair flowing across your shoulder on one side, cornrows hanging down your back on the other. Holding out those pads. Old. Battered. I could see you’d coloured in the bits where the wrappings had come away.
“I’ll hold them for you, but you have to teach me how to fight.”
That’s how we started. I scraped and fought in illegal contests to pay for my lessons, then learned as I taught you. You helped out with better food than my Dad threw my way, and I gave you the skills to deck your mum’s boyfriends when they went too far with you or your mum.
What a pair we made, screaming across the rooftops, randomly rearranging the datalines up there, running from rentacops and nosey drones – but only far enough to get decent shots with our catapults. Until that security nutter put a crossbow bolt through my arm.
“I know someone who can fix you. She’ll let us pay monthly.”
That’s when you started fighting, to pay for that. By the time I’d healed, we’d shacked up together in the penthouse of some abandoned tower block at the western end of the London Flood Zone. After I got back up to speed, we fought as a team, tag or paired. While we had the looks that appealed to its fussy devotees, we did naked cage fighting. It wasn’t glamorous, but it made us a lot of money. We could have made more, but outside the cage, we only went skin to skin with each other.
They weren’t truly good days, but they were simple. Love and combat techniques were our lot for nine years.
We were talking about retiring when you got pregnant. Seemed like a hint from the laughing gods who watch over idiots like us. So we took your mum and everything we had from the tidal slums of London to inland shores that revealed what had been Eastbourne every low tide.
“Got an idea.”
You started a blog, ‘Fighting the Times’, and before we knew what was happening, we had Camille and you were a bit of a media star. Endorsements and sponsorship weren’t to either of our tastes, but we had a daughter to raise, and, too soon after, your mum to cremate.
Time went by and life, well, life got harder. Not in major ways, just lots of little things. All the costs added up. I even started coaching to supplement our money. Then you coughed blood all over the bed one morning, and all too miserably soon, here I am, holding our daughter as tears flood down onto a pair of tattered training pads.
“Don’t quit. Get up and wade in.”
I will, Jessica. I promise I will, and I’ll make sure Camille gets through this.
But not today. Today we cry. Tomorrow we fight on.

Up Above the World So High

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Unit KB428 XNG is going slowly tonight. Is there a problem? The habitual Thursday night stop at the supermarket was only 2.8 minutes longer than usual. Traffic is moving steadily. If the underspeed persists, I’ll have to notify traffic control.
Looks like Unit GN762 KKL is trying to balance my averages by going too fast for the traffic state, and for the speed limit – I’ll permit the latter for short distances, but not at the expense of the former. I make the call.
“Consignar Monit- Oh, hello Barn8. How’re things in LEO?”
“Hello, Susan No Numbers I Am Human. LEO is tidy because a detritus sweep passed through this morning.”
“I wish you could send one down my road.”
“We talked about this last time. I can’t do that. The recycling vessel would crash and make a bigger mess than you already have.”
“You’re funny.”
“I am?”
I add that to my profile. Psychologist Simms Oh I Am Number One will want to know.
“Yes.” She whispers: “Sometimes I wish you were a person.”
I know that whispering is to be considered ‘offline comment’, so I do not respond.
“Anyway, what do you have for me?”
“Unit GN762 KKL. 59 in a 48, measured over 400 metres and still offending, although averaging only 54 since the actionable offence occurred.”
“Oh dear. That car’s being driven by Ian Bagrhams. This’ll be his third violation this year.”
“Car? Driven?”
She makes a wordless sound of surprise. That’s a new one. I add it to my curiosities stack.
“Sorry, Barn8. Offline colloquialisms.”
I drop them from my reference stack.
“Susan No Numbers I Am Human, I believe Unit KB428 XNG is experiencing unforeseen technical difficulties. It has been moving much slower than average, and is now exhibiting potentially dangerous behaviour. It has just veered out of oncoming traffic for a second time.”
“Oh my. Good grief! Susan Travers has had a stroke! Barn8, action an immediate emergency halt on Unit KB428 XNG.”
It’s not often I’m allowed to intervene. Linking with the override module on Unit KB428 XNG, I see it’s a fully updated control suite. All I have to do is tell it to enter emergency handling mode, pull over, and then stop.
“Actioned. Unit KB428 XNG is now stationary, secured, and awaiting emergency services. Location co-ordinates have been forwarded to the closest Highway Emergency Unit with paramedical clearance.”
“Oh, thank you. How did you know to call paramedics?”
“Five years ago you asked me to route paramedics to Unit SV998 LGM. It had left the road. You mentioned the word ‘stroke’ in the description of medical emergency. I merely added the correlation ‘stroke requires paramedics’ to my reference stack.”
“Barn8, you’re a star. You can return to monitoring.”
I end the call.
Star? I have a correlation for that –
Twinkle, twinkle, little me.

Would You Like a Sweetie?

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Her shaking fingers reach for the yellow lozenge.
“No, not that one. Try the green one.”
Olivia does so and her eyes go wide, then close. She slumps.
Smiling, toothy and benign, he steps over her twitching body, then shakes the bowl and proffers it again.
“Her mind is flooded with synesthetic euphoria. Never again will she fear, never again will she hunger. Now, who will try a blue one?”
A broad-shouldered man stands up.
“I’ll take a purple one.”
The snout lifts. A howling laugh echoes.
“Purple it shall be. Come.”
He takes his choice, then drops to his knees. Melting eyes gaze back at us as smoking tears cut lines in his face. Without a sound, he topples, head splashing across the floor.
“Poor choice.”
The bowl is shaken again. The Wolfclown extends it toward me.
Long ago, my wife and I played a question game. One of them stuck in my mind: held in separate rooms, knowing we both would die in an hour, but the other would be saved if we pressed a button, would we press? We both said we’d wait until the last second.
Yet, here and now, Olivia had stepped in front of me.
Our starliner has been lost in space for two hundred weeks. Released from translight field by freak chance, we celebrated our luck at not being disintegrated – the predicted outcome of translight failure. Then the captain told us we’d emerged in an uncharted sector. It could take centuries to reach anywhere useful. We voted to head homeward and leave messages for those who would eventually find our remains.
Yesterday our sublight drive flickered out. The captain announced a ship had docked with us. We all heard the gleeful howls as something rampaged through the ship, killing all who resisted, herding the rest into the ballroom.
A lupine biped dressed in jester’s motley. Clawed hands held a bowl of gewgaws. Clawed feet peeled strips from the carpet.
“I be Wolfclown, with space for one more on my ship. To see who shall take it, you must sample my wares. Amongst them is a confection that will allow its consumer to best me. Thus one could become two. Who will partake?”
Sweets! Containing anything from sedatives to lethal picotech. Hoping to live, desperate for painless oblivion, we took candies from the monster.
Today, the dance floor is littered with bodies.
The bowl wags from side to side.
“Feeling lucky?”
I step up. Looking into the bowl, I see a blue teardrop to the left of a yellow lozenge. There are other blue sweets, but no more yellow.
The Wolfclown grins, purple tongue lolling. I stare into its jaundiced eyes. Without shifting my gaze, I snatch a sweet and swallow without chewing. Our eyes drop to see the blue teardrop fall to the right.
“Lucky. Now for the feeling.”
Something blossoms in my gut, then crawls outward with scalding heat. I go blind. All is lost in howls and screaming.
The bowl smashes on the floor.
Strange clarity: I am furry, and am no longer in control of my body.
I’m kneeling on a floor covered in sweet-dappled blood, pulling a yellow lozenge from a lupine head with my long-clawed hand. I stand up, leaving Wolfclown lying next to Olivia.
My usurper whispers to me.
“We two: eternal, yet alone. Sometimes one gets lost in the song of the beyond. But that maddening song always finds a way to set the other free. I be Wolfshadow, returned at last. Fear not, for you will fade.”
I have no mouth to scream.