by Julian Miles | Mar 27, 2023 | Story |
Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
I set up at the same table every week. It’s right in the grey zone between the lights of the barroom and the shadows around the private booths.
“Got a Manturical honour blade. Django said you could help me get it back to its owner.”
There are snickers from the shadowed forms clustered around the nearby tables. They all know what I do: pay solid scrip for interesting things, and ask no awkward questions about legal holders and chain of provenance.
I look up at the scarred Dantonan. A veteran gunner down on his luck, if the seams on his face tell the truth.
“Honour blade, eh? Place it down there ”
‘There’ is at the other end of the table. Out of snatch range for me, which reassures potential sellers, but in range of the scanner mounted underneath.
As he reaches under his armoured cloak, I see the red corner of an upship contract sticking up from a pocket on his hip pouch.
The scan feeds back to me: ornate, but too recent. I shrug.
“You pay much for this?”
“Won it in a game of blades.”
The Dantonans have the nicest euphemisms for surviving vicious melee.
“Good thing. It’s not genuine.”
His upper offhand starts a flick to his pouch. He controls the nervous move. Tells me all I need.
“I can still use it, gunner. Can go two hundred in blue.”
He pauses, then nods and slides the weapon my way. I tap the amount into my cache, call down the funds, then print a verified sapphire-coloured ingot. I let him watch me do it all.
With that soldier’s farewell, he reaches for the ingot. Fortunately, it’s one I know the reply to.
“And sleeping foes, gunner.”
He grins, takes the ingot, and leaves. He needed one-fifty to clear port duties. He can have a drink and a meal on me.
Sliding the blade to one side, I stare pointedly at a shadowed figure standing under the arches. You’ve been lurking there for long enough. Either step up to sell, try to kill me, or leave.
They step into the light. Street urchin turned specialist of some kind. A lot of shaped armour and the silvery sheen of field generators. Okay, not some kind: she’s a bodyguard, or a good reason to have bodyguards.
“Got a Manturical honour blade. Django said you’d rip me off, but still pay the best price.”
My dear friend Django gives me warning via what he tells sellers to tell me: this one is dangerous.
“He might be right.” I point to the other end of the table: “You know the routine.”
The scan reveals it’s the oldest honour blade I’ve ever encountered, and it’s stolen.
“Good piece. Can go two thousand red.”
It goes quiet about us. Nobody has ever heard me offer that much, let alone at the top of the spectrum.
I raise a hand.
“If you’re expecting me to split the difference and offer three, you’re going to be disappointed. Two and a half is my limit.”
“Do me five by five hundred and we’re good.”
I print five ruby ingots. We trade. She leaves. I pack up. It’s expected, given the size of the prize I’ve just acquired.
My warrior drone descends from concealment among the rafters above.
I nod, then follow it out. I hear whispers start as I go. They’re sure I’m headed for a month of debauchery. I’m sure I’m headed for the insurance brokers. Paying me double is still cheaper than having to pay the claim.
by Julian Miles | Mar 20, 2023 | Story |
Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
The shot resounds like thunder. All around the room, sidearms are lifted from holsters, sentry guns swing about, and the few sensible beings take cover. I quickly holster my weapon before one of the not-sensible beings decides I’m their target.
Shay looks down at the hole in her uniform, then up at me.
“You shot me!”
I raise both hands, grin, then point at the hole between her fake breasts.
“Like you said, it’s the only way to be sure I’m dealing with a robot.”
“I didn’t mean it as an invite! And it’s ‘hudroid’ you discriminatory prick!”
Behind her, a beaky coughs wetly and slides sideways off its perch. Shay spins about. I see a bigger hole in the back of her uniform. There’s smoke coming from it. I slowly drop my hands.
She rushes to the downed beaky, pulling communicator as she does so.
“I need medical, diplomatic, and intervention teams to my location immediately. Shots fired, VIB down, hudroid officer damaged.” She quickdraws with her free hand. I find myself meeting her eyes down the length of a pistol barrel.
“VIB is a Solanurian. I also have officer involved unauthorised shooting.”
Hold on a minute.
“Shay, what the fr-”
She tilts her head to indicate the beaky.
“You put one through me into an Honourable Envoy from Solan. Chances are, you’re just exercising your talent for impetuous incompetence, but I can’t rule out a transition to bribed assassination.”
“Oh, come on. Just because I banter a lot and you don’t like it.”
Her brow furrows. Marvellous what they can do with technology these days.
“You’re rude, sarcastic, and I don’t have time or temper to detail your fear-anchored gender identity delusions.”
I shrug. Robots are only as good as their programmers, and whoever did her code is clearly a softie. Bet he believes in the Christmas Fairy, too.
“Homo sapiens has two genders. It’s simple. Nothing to fear.”
She actually growls!
“Okay, as you’re determined to annoy me more: Since long before humanity spread from Earth, there have been more than biological genders recognised. The fact some groups of religious fanatics influenced the building of entire civilisations around denying that fact doesn’t change the truth. Hey! Keep your hands where I can see them.”
I slow down reaching for my baton. One zap from that and she’ll short out. Not sure if I can swing the situation, but her behaviour is clearly more aggressive. Putting her down means I can play a rogue robot scenario: she turned on me, I had to fire, and the beaky is just collateral. Unfortunate, but no blame coming my way. Might even get the robot partner programme halted, which would be a fine thing. They don’t understand the threats and force you have to use when dealing with softies and interplanetary scum.
Looking about, I see we’re centre of attention, but there are no other officers present. No watch drones, either. I need to wait. When she checks the site situation, I’ll have her.
She looks away. This time you get yours, robobitch. I step forward, drawing my baton.
Something hits me in the guts, knocking my legs from under me. I go arms down in time to save my face, but I drop the baton.
Lying there, I see someone kick the baton out of reach before crouching next to me.
“You forgot about VIB escorts. Getting my principal accidentally shot by a bigot is embarrassing enough. No way I’m letting you finish off your partner.”
He pats the side of my head.
“You’re done for, chum.”
by Julian Miles | Mar 13, 2023 | Story |
Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
I’m no expert, but the big green flash followed by a noise reminiscent of a building collapsing makes me think it’s time to leave this habitat. Things about us start to shake. I look down, then tap the wall by his head to interrupt his concentration.
“Jimmy, it’s time to quit.”
He looks up at me, the lenses on his optics spinning as he refocuses up to people-size from the tiny circuit board in the control module.
“I only require a further four minutes, allowing for your interruption taking up thirty-five seconds of my time.”
A cloud of dust and lighter varieties of chunky flying crap gusts in from the left. I close my helmet and switch on the comms.
“Jimmy, we don’t have that long.”
My artificial partner gives a completely believable sigh.
“A sudden lack of breathable atmosphere is no impediment to my work, nor will the inevitable firestorm that follows cause problems, as my last integument upgrade rendered me impervious to non-stellar heat. Also, I will have sealed the control module by then.”
I love these new companion mechanics, which is why I volunteered for the beta, but their extended ramification processing is sometimes flaky.
“Jimmy, it’s not about the work environment or efficiency of repair. Nobody will need realistic summertime options in their climate suites after this accommodation wing is burned out. The whole habitat will be scrapped.”
The tiny soldering iron extruded from his smallest left finger goes dark.
“That is valid reasoning.”
“We should go.”
“I will close the control module first. It will be recyclable after the unit is scrapped.”
A long tongue of purple fire lashes from left to right across the hub we’re working in.
“Sealing is a complex process.”
Enough, now. I reach out and tap him on the head.
“Just put the lid on. It’s not worth losing either of us.”
He pauses and looks up at me.
“I am freespace rated. Only you will be in danger should this unit rupture.”
“Jimmy, it’s already compromised. There’s only a short period between event and emergency containment failure. If that happens, we’re likely to be lost in the debris field. We need to go. Now.”
“How do you know? There has been no status update issued.”
“The explosion probably took out the relay. That’s what happened minutes before the last time I nearly got killed surviving a habitat rupture. Things don’t blow around like there’s a storm for any reason except structural failure.”
“That is valid reasoning. I will simply ‘put the lid on’ as you suggest so that we can depart.”
The habitat upends as the gravity generator fails. Fortunately, it rises to the right-hand side, so I’m braced against the wall I was leaning on anyway. Jimmy flicks out a leg to balance himself without interrupting his work. I can feel increasing atmospheric turbulence through my suit.
“Jimmy. Abandon it. Time to go.”
“I only require forty seconds more.”
“We’ll be part of a cloud of freespace debris in less than thirty seconds. Abandon it!”
“How do you know?”
More than enough.
“Jimmy Jimmy. Override Kilo Tango. Cease repair. Exit unit.”
Before I can correct, Jimmy’s gone. I forgot how fast these things can be. The lid of the control module spins slowly away. I meant to get him to assist me – then again, being forced along at his speed might well do more damage than good.
Extending my incident armour, I curl up against a bulkhead corner before inflating joint bracing and setting my emergency anchor. See you later, Jimmy.
by Julian Miles | Mar 6, 2023 | Story |
Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
No guns down there. No swords, either. Nothing bigger than a table knife, and nothing double-edged. The humans who first founded a colony on Kenshun were an unarmed combat cult. Their teachings quickly became the laws by which this odd world lives. Since then, their aesthetic has attracted devotees from across known space, and a few points beyond.
Just because they don’t use technological weapons within their atmosphere doesn’t mean they’re averse to using insanely big guns to keep their atmosphere clear of those who use firepower to plunder and kill. The Kenshuni also pay exceedingly well for beings who know how to use those guns, and how to use the unbelievable Benthusian sensor technology that aims them.
Ergol raises a tentacle.
“Miklo? True detection. It’s a Bantiti. No, wait… It’s nine of them; three visible. Each is cloaking two.”
I reach down and bring up the specs on their craft.
“Version Twenties? If they can afford them, why are they bothering to raid… Oh. White Alert! Bounce main battery initiation requests to Jericham and Conthrae. These twits are scouts. Somewhere nearby is whoever sent them.”
“How are we responding to them, Miklo?”
“First, let’s find the miscreants who sent them our way. Then we can decide.”
Wasal from Jericham beats us all to it.
“Hey, hey. Take a look at quadrant 114.”
Someone switches that quadrant display to the main holotank. Well, there’s something you don’t see every year.
Ect from Conthrae whistles.
“Is that a pair of Khongrevu?”
Wasal is chuckling.
“Recycling at it’s very best. How old are they?”
Ergol checks before replying: “If they’re Generation T, only three hundred years. But if they’re Generation A, they’re over a thousand years old, and worth more than our installations on Nakirol, Jericham, and Conthrae combined.”
I clap my hands.
“Vandalisation of ancient war machines aside, they’re clearly up to no good. What grade are their defences?”
As Jericham is the nearest moon to quadrant 114, Wasal has the details soonest.
“They’re using hybrid Tychean/Arburan stealth and shield units.”
Those would be formidable against most things this side of the Orcan Trade Union. Which gives me an idea.
“Somebody scan for traena emanations. I bet they’re running Orcan beam weapons.”
“You’d be right. The nearest is running the usual cluster installations. The furthest has only one, but the residuals extend beyond the nearest.”
Only one type of installation does that: “Go to Red Alert!”
Looks are exchanged. I can afford a moment to explain myself.
“The furthest Khongrevu has the firepower to shatter moons and crack continents. Such weapons are outlawed, and present a significant threat to others.”
Ergol waves to get my attention.
“Scan complete from sun to outer system. The two Khongrevu, a group of twelve Hambury strike ships, and the Truneedo troopship that sent those Bantiti.”
“No warning shots. Increase the outputs to overwhelm their defences. Conthrae will destroy the Khongrevu in order of threat. Jericham will destroy the lead Hambury, then any who prove stubborn. Nakirol will destroy the Truneedo if it doesn’t recall and flee after those strikes.”
Kenshun defends itself without hesitation, but we’re instructed to limit wholesale slaughter if possible.
I look about: “Ready?”
Ergol nods: “Nakirol ready.”
The rear Khongrevu becomes a ball of white light that expands to consume the other Khongrevu before fading. A Hambury explodes, pieces of it damaging at least four others. The rest begin rescue operations.
“The Bantiti are peeling off. The Truneedo is turning away.”
Hint taken. Good.
“Stand down. White Alert until end of watch.”
by Julian Miles | Feb 27, 2023 | Story |
Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
Captain Jennie Ray arrives on the bridge to find her entire executive team bent over monitors or indicating things to one another on diagnostics displays. It’s a picture of activity she’d usually associate with blaring alarms and an air of mild panic. This is too calm. She coughs loudly. The 2XO spins about.
“Sorry, Captain. Good morning. We were hoping to resolve this before you arose.”
“Too late. As you’re not all running around, I presume nothing is broken. So what have you lot discovered to make my watch interesting?”
The 2XO looks almost embarrassed.
Jennie claps her hands together.
“Marvellous! You know I love coming across old vessels. What have we got? Freighter? Battleship? Liner?”
“Freight and passenger.”
“A free trader? Out here? That’s got to be a Barsoomian Soomsak. When would that be?” She gazes off into thin air for a moment before nodding to herself: “24th century, 23rd if we’re lucky.”
The Engineering XO turns from his sensor screens, shaking his head.
“Try 19th century, and Jasoomian.”
Jennie elbows a couple of slow-reacting subordinates out of the way so she can see the main display. Her eyes widen.
“You cannot be serious…”
The vessel is covered in ice, sparkling in the light from the nearby star. Between the two masts a single funnel protrudes from the minimal upperworks. The hull is long and rather narrow.
She reaches out to magnify the view.
“There are people standing on the deck!”
The 2XO moves up next to her.
“Flash frozen at point of transit is the most likely explanation.”
She looks at him.
“Portal uptake casualty?”
“That’s what we were trying to confirm. Back then, the only vessels touching Jasoom were Blemenase or Zetaret raiders. That ship is over 90 metres in length. Which means it could only have been scooped up by the portal field of a Blemenase Vortern. Even they should have recorded a transit uptake error of that size.”
Jennie gives a low whistle.
“Those things were huge. Would have taken this and a fair swathe of ocean along with it. I pity those on board, but at least it was quick.”
“I’m not sure how close to absolute zero portal non-space gets, but you’re right. They would have frozen solid before they realised anything.”
“Why are you having problems?”
“That sailed centuries ago. Even in the twentieth, records were minimal. Now? It’s barely above guesswork.”
“Get the scout to move aft. They often had the name and other identifiers painted on the stern back then.”
Surprised looks are exchanged. The image blurs, then stabilises.
The Engineering XO mutters the strange words under his breath before speaking out loud.
“S.S. Ismailia, Glasgow.”
There’s a flurry of activity. The Navigation XO speaks up first.
“1873. Lost with all souls aboard on the way from New York City to Glasgow.”
Jennie turns to the 2XO.
“Permission granted for Freespace Grave Beacon placement. Send notice that some of those once lost have been found.”
She looks about. Everybody on the bridge straightens up. Head coverings are removed. Jennie takes a slow breath, then says the words they all hope never to have read for them.
“There lies another vessel that did not return to port. Grant those who fared forth upon her peace, oh powers, and let them return at last from the long night to the heavens they call home. Blessed Be.”