“It is a Land of Poverty…”

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Midnight, the witching hour. I could do with a flying broom, come to think of it. On that topic, I suspect I’ve more chance of getting to know a broom than any witch that might flit about on one. Right, all geared up – or am I?
Phone, keys, medical cards, proof of being me, both permits to carry, handset, mask? No, wait. The evening DAQI was 11 with warnings about it hitting teens before dawn because of smog blowing in from the burning portions of Europe. Best go with the respirator and tuck the mask into the rucksack along with the thermos and food.
Check tonight’s route while riding down to the car park. Oh joy: Bognor. At least I left my box of nitrile gloves in the rucksack. I can double glove before gauntlets without paying company rates for extras. The phone chirps. Good timing! Delly’s outside. Saves me pollution charges from the commute.
Out through the triple doors into the cold.
It fills my view: cross a refuse wagon with a windowless coach, paint it brown, add twin fat black stripes round the cab. The modern dead-cart. No need to bring them out, we’ll take them from where they fell at no extra cost.
I swing up into the changing room and shout through the open door to the cab.
“What you doing bringing a company limo out to fetch staff?”
Delly laughs.
“In case you missed it, your place is on a B-optimal route to Bognor. As there’s pile-ups or roadworks on the A-optimals, I thought I’d show due diligence, and do you a favour.”
“It’s brass primate castration season out there. Tonight could be a bad one.”
“You need to use bigger words in your fancy slang. I can still make out what you mean.”
“And your sarcasm needs work. I’m not bleeding. So, tonight?”
She nods.
“You’re not wrong. We’ve got three police call-outs already. Good news is those gave me priority for Arnie.”
I swing open the door to the cadaver processor – which I can only do because it’s not in use yet – and grin at the bulky, four-armed robot.
“Hello, Arnie.”
The bucket-shaped head turns my way. Lenses whine as it focusses on me. Takes a few moments for facial recognition, then it waves.
“Hello, Poppy. Are we playing chess tonight?”
“Don’t think so, Arnie. It looks busy.”
“I like to be busy.”
“See you later.”
I close the door and it goes back to doing whatever it does when no-one is looking.
We take the old road to Bognor. As we traverse the long, curved bridge just before we hit the outskirts, I see blue lights ahead.
An officer flags us down.
“You lot on duty?”
Delly nods.
“Cart 68, constable. What you got for us?”
The officer gestures towards the roof of a car just visible in the cutting.
“Whole family. I’d say the car holds everything they owned.”
Delly looks at me. I glance back towards cadaver processing.
“Thank the gods for Arnie. Never thought we’d start the night with another UC failure.”
She shrugs.
“A lot of these coastal towns never picked up after the depression of ’21, and UC always causes financial problems. This week’s been the first really cold one. Guess they decided to go as a family rather than wait for winter to take them piecemeal.”
I press the ‘Retrieval’ button. Arnie deploys. We’re all pretending to be blasé until a teddy bear falls from the smallest body as it’s carried in.
Delly chokes out: “Early break?”
I wipe my eyes.
“Yeah. Somewhere bright.”

Romeo and Julius

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The mist-shrouded marsh is spotted with steaming pools of purple liquid, which, unlike the mud, won’t grip you like glue. It’ll either wash the blue-black slime from your boots, or you’ll disappear into it, never to be seen again. Some say the pools are the traps of an unknown ambush predator. Others use terms like ‘sinkhole’ and ‘bottomless’.

Through the hushed gloom, two figures move. The one in the lead strides slowly, letting powered armour take the strain while sensors probe the marshland ahead. The one behind moves with exaggerated sneaking movements, like some pantomime villain.
“‘Romeo, Romeo-’”
The lead figure spins and points the arm without a mounted blaster at the other figure.
“Cut it out, Shakespeare.”
“The name’s Bond. Julius Bond.”
“You keep saying that. I presume there’s some antiquated pun value I’m fortunate enough to be ignorant of?”
Julius relaxes from his one-foot-raised comedic freeze and sighs theatrically.
“You’re ignorant of our noble heritage, Captain Cadava. Cultural icons are how the future is shaped.”
Romeo chuckles.
“That explains why each mission improves the ratings of whichever political leader got the most leverage at the previous strategy meeting, rather than achieving any objective that might end the fighting.” He waves his arm about: “I used to call this place home. Now the province I grew up in is nothing but radioactive dirt, and the rest of the planet isn’t much better.”
“You lived around here?”
“Born next to the River Adissa. Lived there until I had to join up. I hunted through marshes like this when they were small enough to have their own names.”
“Galley rumour says you’re a conscript?”
“Close. I’m a signee. My choices were life imprisonment or service in the Consolidated Forces.”
Julius stops next to Romeo.
“That’s the murderer’s gamble, Captain. What did you do?”
“I fell in lust. It ended badly.”
“‘Badly’ is never speaking to your ex, maybe even getting beaten up by her relatives. I’m pretty sure killing doesn’t feature.”
Romeo looks up at the sky.
“Her name was Ivlietta. Real case of lust at first sight. Her cousin objected, my best friend challenged, then died when the cousin cheated. He got off because the official witness lied.
“After spending a night with her, I got wounded killing the cousin: he ambushed me as I left her parent’s house. She blackmailed the family doctor into treating me. The nurse betrayed us.
“I killed a close friend of hers when he tried to be hero and stop us escaping. That tore it all down. She called the law, but still cried like a baby as they led me away. Got the nurse blackballed, too.”
Julius spreads his hands.
“Sorry I asked. Returning must be difficult.”
Romeo shakes his head and points towards their target.
“The Escalusian forces on this planet are led by a local: General Laurence Mantua. He used to be a priest.”
Julius slots a blaster into his arm mount and moves round to check Romeo’s missile rack.
“By any chance did he also used to be a registered witness who invigilated duels?”
Romeo chuckles, then steps behind Julius to check his missile rack.
“Good guess.”
Julius laughs.
“Then I have to ask: ‘wherefore art thou, Romeo?’”
“About to rain hell down upon that lying friar, Julius.”
“‘But, soft, what light through yonder window breaks?’”
“That’ll be two flights of Sirius DK614 missiles.”
“Then let us go ‘wisely and slow’.”
Romeo barks a short laugh before replying: “Indeed. ‘They stumble that run fast.’”

Through the hushed gloom, two figures move with quiet purpose, violent delights in mind.

Scores

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m free of traffic and clear of the city. Time to open this beastie up. I press the accelerator and the response is like a gigantic hand pressing my body into the seat. In the stowage space I hear bullion smashing into the boxes of gems and jewellery. Must remember to check under the carpets when I empty out.
“Unidentified perpetrator, northbound on the MM2 hyperway. Stop now or we will deploy countermeasures that may endanger your life.”
Having just stolen treasures worth over a billion, I’m surprised there aren’t missiles chasing me down the road already. My guess is they don’t want to explosively scatter the goods. Can’t have some heirloom being found by a down-and-out from the sticks. Wouldn’t be right.
“Unidentified perpetrator. We are-”
I tap for two-way.
“The name’s Nat.”
There’s a pause. One-nil.
“Thank you. Okay, Nat. You should know this road is screened on both sides to a height of eight metres, and the baffles mean ten metres either side are impassable for unshielded lifeforms. That racer can’t ram through the screens, so you’re effectively on rails until you hit the waypoint at Leeds.”
I was hoping they’d rely on the installations rather than go for something ad-hoc.
“Big junction there. I could skate a lane or two.”
“No, Nat. Air units have already closed those options off. Your rocket pack won’t have the thrust to get you far enough to evade us.”
So they noticed.
“Somebody deserves an award for spotting that, officer.”
Another pause. Two-nil.
“Thank you, Nat. I’ll mention it, but my boss doesn’t look happy enough. If I could get you to pull over, that might do it.”
The curves around Birmingham go by without any attempt to stop me when I drop under 300kph to navigate the last S-bend. They really think the security fortress at Leeds is going to do it. Only two on-ramps between me and there, and I’m too fast for conventional rolling roadblocks.
“How’s your fuel, Nat? You’ve been running overboost for a while.”
“What makes you think I’m overboosting?”
“That’s a Trefoil 4 with the aftermarket Sprinter conversion. Looks well done, but the consumption at the top end is ridiculous. It’s why they went bust: they couldn’t fix the power drain problem.”
The police lady is a gearhead. Surprise. Two-one.
“A gearhead in uniform? Never thought that would happen.”
Is that a little laugh?
“Nor did I, but a career is a career, and they’re rare these days. Speaking of which, yours is soon to be over. Why not pull over and we can talk Trefoils?”
“You have one?”
“Sprinter body on top, stock Trefoil 3 underneath.”
“So that’s how you knew.”
“Nat, my boss says that at this speed, you’ve got about thirty minutes before you smash into the barriers at Leeds. He’d like you to take my offer, says we can talk while they organise retrieval and arrest, but he’s also arranged for clean-up crews at Leeds. Says the choice is yours.”
“That’s kind of him. So, what’s your name, gearlady?”
“Constable Tuhina O’Conner. What now, Nat?”
My skyscan flashes green.
“I fixed the power drain problem on the Sprinter conversion.”
“How?”
“The Sprinter fastback gives enough room to plumb in a Ceres-Class gravitic core.”
Pause. Three-one.
I pull the stick back and the beastie unsticks like 1000kph is nothing and space is where it wants to be.
“Blow your boss a kiss from me, Tuhina. Chat again next heist.”
“The rocket pack casing conceals your environment module? Clever. Catch you next heist.”
Good comeback. Three-two, and on for a rematch.

Sad Songs

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The world burned. Several places only did so until they sank. Congregations sang paeans to the skies, the fires, the waters, or the earth. The rest of us listened to what we had while we could. All of us heard the songs coming from distant hills or clouds above, songs we knew told of melancholy, but never had words we could relate.
I started off riding through the apocalypse in a convoy, sent to help a town defend itself from a rising river and an end-of-days militia. By the time we got there, the townsfolk were screaming like animals as they set the surviving militia on fire one by one.
Our captain got himself gutted trying to control the situation. Then Sergeant Jones recognised one of the militia, and things went the way you’d expect. When the shooting stopped, all the screamers were dead. To our surprise, both townsfolk and a militia emerged from hiding.
We were all at a loss for what to do next when the river made a concerted attempt to drown us all. Those who escaped listened to the news, saw the signs in the sky – not all man-made – and decided to become a tribe.
Eleven winters is all it took for me to go from soldier to tribesman to pack leader to sole survivor. In the five winters since then, I’ve seen things I can’t explain, and survived more by luck than judgement.
I usually avoid supernaturals. Most of them are very, very unhappy with humans. I get the feeling they’re trying to fix our busted planet, which includes killing us to make sure we never get a chance to break it again.
But there’s something about the winged figure on that hill…

A hard slog to get up here, but it’s worth it to stand in the emanated heat. Not even the winter winds dare disturb this one. I join it in looking down at the choppy sea. Skeletal vehicles and dead hedgerows protrude from the shallow waters. I glance sideways. It’s sitting on a broken bench.
Curiosity triumphs over fear.
“What was this place?”
Ruby eyes regard me. I see that tears have left scald marks from eyes to chin.
“They used to call it Mount Caburn. On winter nights they would gather fallen yew branches to make ritual fires.”
There is no menace to this being. I’ve fled from many who were more threatening… But less dangerous. So powerful; too calm. Running would be futile.
But… I know what he’s doing.
“A vigil? Why bother?”
He smiles.
“I’ve talked to many powers during my time down here. I came to realise that humanity had become a force none of us could rein in. We, the chosen, set above the wiles of mortals by groups of mortals needing objects to venerate – or seeking excuses to condemn – were nothing but sideshows.”
“You cry for us?”
His laughter is like a body blow. I collapse to my knees.
“Never. Every winter solstice I keep vigil for those who followed me down. I told Him that humanity should end because man would always ruin Eden, no matter how big He made it. His reply banished me.”
I know this angel.
“Fundamental truths are rarely welcomed, especially by the powerful.”
He nods.
Taking a seat on the other bit of bench, I dig out my last two cans of beer and offer one to him.
“Really?”
“Drink it before it gets warm, Lucifer.”
He chuckles.
The fallen angel and an old soldier, keeping watch through the longest night… Hosanna, for what it’s worth.

VacSinHate

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Opening clip: a heavily-built man sits on the tailgate of blue pickup truck. He’s smiling and unshaven, taking tiny sips from a red and white can of beer so quickly it doesn’t interrupt his speech.
“Well, it’s been difficult, that’s for sure. Never thought them libtards could fight worth a damn, but Lord, they proved us all wrong about that. Digging them out of the sanctuary cities hereabouts took weeks. Can’t say I held with the burnings and suchlike, but I do hold with our founders proclamation that we have to be forthright in heart and deed, even if a few of those deeds sit badly with some folk’s interpretation of the good book.”
A band starts playing somewhere beyond his truck. He glances back, then his attention returns.
“We’re not monsters or fanatics. The Free States of America are about individual rights and freedoms under the auspices of God. Can’t say or be fairer than that.”

Next clip: a thin woman leans against the wide shoulders of a bearded man in a torn T-shirt. She starts, then the sentences go back and forth between them.
“After our warnings were ignored,”
“we discussed online,”
“before the nets went down,”
“and decided to become the haven for those who wanted to evade the lies,”
“the surveillance,”
“and the manipulation.”
“Nobody tells us who lives,
“who dies,”
“what goes in our bodies,”
“or our minds.”
They smile.
“We’re part of the Independent States of America.”
“If you want a chance to live free of the enslaved dystopia the rest of the world has fallen into,”
“come fight alongside us.”

Followed by: an elderly woman gestures to the trees about them.
“When my son married a Lakota woman, we fought. Then he challenged me. I went to their reservation to prove him wrong. Instead I had an epiphany: realised what I was lacking. Never had much time for technology as it was presented, liked how it was used even less. Didn’t take long to find out a lot of folk felt the same way.
“When things started to unravel, we gathered ourselves, chose our ground, and stood for what the spirits wanted. If you hear the call of the wolf, the eagle, or the crow, come find the Tribal Nations of America. Fight with us to save the land.”

Then: a middle-aged man straightens his tie before pointing at the camera, his expression stern.
“You’ve got to understand that in trying to drain the swamp, he made himself a target. That he’s still with us is a sign. The Evangelical States of America will be his legacy. The corporations he permits to trade here are all certified by the Robertson Committee to be abiding by the Lord’s tenets. But we need soldiers for the Staunch Defenders. If you can’t fight, you can donate. We must always stand ready to protect our way of life.”

The screen shows a prairie sunset. A voiceover starts.
“These represent the major extremist factions in what was the USA. There are dozens more. Most are militant, some aggressively so. As I record this, overseas aid has once again been stopped, as having what is deemed to be unacceptable pigmentation, ornamentation, or clothing has caused aid workers to be attacked and, in some cases, killed.
“The people are still united. They still pledge allegiance. But only to those who hold the same views. All others are considered fools or enemies. In many cases, extermination of any who differ is seen as an acceptable solution.”
The sun sets.
The screen goes black.
A minute passes before closing credits appear.