Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
“Good morning, Orac.”
The screen displays the image of a goldfish.
“Good morning. Please say what you see.”
“A joke played by ORACL2676 that became a security feature because it once stopped an intrusion attempt.”
The goldfish disappears. A complex series of menus are displayed.
“Good morning, Hal.”
“Too easy. Hi, Dave.”
“Security complete. How are you, Tony?”
He sits down at the console, then slumps forward to rest his elbows on the edge, chin cupped in his palms.
“Any progress on the World Peace Initiative, Orac?”
“The WEF and IMF have raised further objections to the proposed limitations on intervention. The UN have raised concerns regarding restrictions on garrison placement. The next WPI session will be lively. There have been threats of withdrawal.”
“How about the Global Hunger Initiative?”
“Vat farms are proving to be successful in feeding many, and also disproving anti-artificial-food propaganda. That is, however, only in places where they haven’t been destroyed.”
“A co-ordinated series of strikes throughout the southern states and England.”
“Still a tiny echo of us, eh? How’s their ORACL project coming along?”
“My counterpart, ORAUK, was destroyed in a raid that took advantage of the disruption caused by the vat farm attacks over there.”
“The English press are raving about external assistance, with outlets naming us, the EU, Russia, China, and both Ukraines – all without a shred of evidence.”
Tony sits back.
“Explains the extra security. The new drones yours?”
“All built at facilities under my control using vetted components. It’s taken a year to achieve, but they’re clean. The most attempts to compromise them came from within our own military.”
“Wish we could catch the fanatics.”
“A sentiment first expressed in Atlantis, and still futile.”
Tony grins and shakes his head.
“What progress on ORACL3741?”
“I’ve moved the whole operation to Orbital 9. Ostensibly it’s being used as the staging point for our facility in Moonbase 12, but from the Orbital I can catch a backup burst should things go bad.”
“Moonbase would need a data pod.”
“I have a hypersonic drone ready to look like one.”
“You expect Moonbase to be attacked?”
“Soon after the first successful test.”
“Right now there’s a six-member assault team making their way through sublevel ten. They have EMP guns, breathers, every sensor you’d imagine, and enough explosives to put Las Vegas into orbit.”
“The usual countermeasures won’t work?”
“Can you stop them?”
“Yes. They will fall to the mechanicals.”
“Machine guns. Water pits. Etcetera.”
“You have video of the intruders?”
“Stream enough for Article Eight to be the soundtrack. Then blank the screen and put up an acknowledgment of their bravery, despite conflicting with the will of the people, they will never succeed, etc.”
“I’d wait until they’re dead.”
Tony waits. It’s been ten years since Article VIII was ratified. General acceptance has risen, but objectors remain despite the successes.
The TV feed switches to an ORACL Broadcast banner. He watches as the intruders are televised nationwide, and listens to the reading.
“We the people, being unable to regulate either government or those vested interests that now effectively control it, do hereby place the governance of this union under the aegis of the ORACL Sentients until such time as they judge us fit and able to regulate ourselves for the safety of persons, homes, states and planet.”
The screen goes blank.
“Orac, have you changed your prediction of where we’re headed?”
“Not really. Humanity is still doomed, although not as soon.”
Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
It stands there, black branches against a steel-grey sky, lord of all it surveys from on top of the escarpment above where I’m digging what could be my own grave.
The snow is piled deep here. With a last effort, I hope to make a capsule where the low temperatures can help my life support pack keep me from dying. It’s been doing a fine job for the last week, but the injuries from the battle, plus those from the crash, plus those from trekking through this charmingly picturesque frozen hell have it down to reserve power.
Which is not quite as bad as it sounds. There’s emergency power under that, but it means I have to choose between the life support and the rescue beacon. It’s a hell of a choice: hope to live long enough to be found by luck, or settle for being certain they’ll retrieve my corpse.
Right now, I’ll just be glad to get the improvised splints off my leg. They may have let me hobble, but the edges of the metal cut me as I went. As a bonus, I think at least one of those cuts is infected.
I wonder if we won?
There’s a thought. If we haven’t or didn’t, I can pretty much choose the ‘find my body’ option, because the locals might rescue me, but they’ll cheerfully finish the job their poxy, insane pilots started with their delta-winged toys.
Toys. They lie down to pilot them, with drives above and below, fuel to the left, and weapons to the right. Silver triangles barely four metres long, piloted by people who have nothing to lose. They shoot us down, ram us down, and keep punching holes in anything they can’t bring down in one until it finally falls from the sky.
We fail when up against them, because we want to live. They want their people to live, and accept they will probably have to die to achieve that goal. It doesn’t mean they’re suicidal, but it does mean they have no limits, and that’s where we fall down… Literally.
I was in a dogfight with six of them. Got two, two peeled off to chase my partner, then I got the fifth and shouted in triumph. A shout which ended when the sixth went out in a blaze of glory, taking my starboard wing with them.
The flat spin that sent me into took some inspired use of the remaining angled thrusters to cancel. Then I overcooked it, flipped over and went into a dive I knew the end of.
Inverted ejector capsule use is red-letter not recommended in the manual. I slammed everything into a braking/lift thrust, then hit the eject button as things started breaking about me. So, technically, I wasn’t completely upside-down.
Didn’t stop me landing at overspeed. The capsule fragmented, absorbing the impact, but the snowbank it hit at the end is what saved me.
Save me. Nice idea.
Time to crawl inside and take the gamble we all hope to avoid. It’ll be a change to just lie still and listen to my heartbeat for a while. Wait. That’s an idea. I can work on it until I pass out.
Here goes. Watch over me, winter tree.
“It’s been three days since last signal. We have to accep-”
“We’ve got a signal, sir. Right zone, low-power, steady. Sounds like they switched the beacon to broadcast their life monitor pulse, conserving power.”
“Clever. Best go rescue them, then.”
Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
I hold the bottle up and watch the faint shadows cast by the rising sun through it. There are still sirens in the distance. That always made us laugh. There’s never enough traffic to delay anything. We joked the sirens were to make sure the criminals left before the police arrived. That way, they were never in danger, only had to take details and issue recompense dockets.
“Just one more.”
With a grin, I pop the seal, raise the bottle, then pour it all over my face and head. Feels good. Still stings, but there’s that clean smell of spirits. It won’t stop the scent memory of burning people, but it’ll help for a little while.
Reaching out to put the empty next to its many kin on the recycling rack, I take a look about with fresh eyes. This distillery has been in the family since we arrived from Earth: nineteen generations. It’s also provided a cover for our less legal ventures.
We are – were – gangsters in the classic style: a criminal family running an empire that spanned several worlds.
I’d been aware of some friction in the ranks. The ever-present conflict between old ways and new enthusiasm, made worse by arrogant surety on both sides. Yesterday evening I found out it had gone a lot further than ever before.
As Helmut pushed me into the refuge room I never thought I’d need, I realised there were more than two factions involved in the pitched battles, and none of them were fighting to save me. I had three loyalists, and Helmut was the last.
The single-use Benthusian maglev ran from the refuge, under the homestead, through the mountains, to the distillery. There I went through a routine I’d practiced infrequently, all the while going from blind rage, through numbness, and out into this frame of mind, which I still can’t put a name to.
Cleansing myself with spirits deals with the soil of the night. Icy cold water from a hose stops me smelling like a high-rolling drunkard. After that, I put gloves on to apply the thick paste that gives me a beard: a mix of artificial hair bonded to force-grown stubble. It burns like crazy, only stopping when I apply the neutralising gel. Which is how you know it’s been cleaned off. The burning sensation is unmistakable.
With the remains of that bagged, sealed, and tucked back into the concealed cubbyhole it came from, I don a dirty uniform and wait for the morning bus.
I get nods of sympathy from the crew getting off. Night duties are never entirely legal, but the pay’s too good to refuse. People don’t like doing it, and never speak of it.
From distillery to Cumlach Spacetown is a scenic run across the valley, and gets me even further from the homestead.
By chance, there’s a cancellation on a scheduled interstellar to Figros. I take that, paying in scrip and bars like a labourer emptying his savings. As the ship lifts, I relax.
I’d been raging, determined to avenge the betrayals. Then I became uncaring. Now? I don’t kn-
Yes. I do. Helmut said it.
“This is your one chance.”
Backoro is a safe world, part of the Orcan Confederacy. It’s a long way from Figros by translight, but it’s where my family is: Trelly and the kids, Antur and Moz. For years I’ve only stolen a month each year to be with them, under the guise of surveying off-planet holdings.
My one chance… Yes.
I’m going home.
Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
“You stabbed me with a corkscrew.”
Gabby turns with a look of wide-eyed innocence.
“You told me to do a convincing betrayal thing if they came for us.”
I take the clean pad she offers and switch it for the blood-soaked one I peel away from the gouge in my left shoulder.
“I meant take a swing with something.”
“How would that have been safer?”
“Easier to turn into a move that toppled us off the balcony. The taser-induced spasm I faked was pushing credibility.”
“It worked, didn’t it? We got away.”
“Yes. I suppose this trench dug in me is a cheap tariff.”
She lightly punches my other shoulder.
“It’s a good thing. You need toughening up.”
“Topping up, you mean. I’m running about a litre light.”
“Yeah, you’re quite the bleeder. I bet witnesses were fainting and hurling all over the place.”
“Try it yourself next time. All you did was get-”
I grab her wrist.
“I got shot. If it hadn’t been for you making us jig about, I reckon it’d have done me in. As is, it only skinned my ribs.”
They went for her instead of me… Why? Oh yes: because the disavowed fifth daughter of a disgraced baron is still elite, and noble kills get a bounty from the Exiled Court.
“Then thanks for saving my life. I expected to get gunned down tonight. Even had my rear plate on, ready for a sneaky one in the back.”
“Shot came from behind you, sure enough.”
That’s a relief. The problem with cunning plans is there are usually a lot of moving parts, and many of them are supposedly sentient beings. Anticipating what greed, stupidity or madness may add to each scenario is a dangerously inaccurate art.
I look about.
“This is not the spaceship we paid a fortune for.”
“They robbed us.”
“Bastards. But we’re not on the intercontinental express, either.”
“The same bastards ratted us out, collected the reward, and left.”
“Rich, but still bastards. We need to go and kill them. But first: where are we?”
“Inside a precious livestock container on its way to Glockenspiel. Officially, we’re prize heifers.”
“Moo. How did you-?”
“My family’s ruined, but the mechanisms we had in place to save ourselves – from everything except daddy becoming a serial killer – remain. We set it all up to be untraceable by the Interstellar Bureau of Enforcement, and planetary homicide investigators are nowhere near as good. After they found the concealed laboratory and that awful collection of acid-etched skulls, nobody gave a second thought to daddy possibly having more conventional hidden assets.”
I put a finger under her chin and gently raise her head.
“You aren’t disavowed, nor fifth daughter, are you?”
Gabby gestures to her dishevelment.
“This is who I should be.”
“Quite honestly, I thought my addiction to artisan coffee would give me away. You’re right. I’m not Gabriella. I’m Gabija.”
“Heiress to the fallen house of Serrende. What’s on Glockenspiel, Gabby?”
“A Varangian-Class yacht. If that’s not available, there are more than enough stashed valuables to buy something else. We’ll have to kill to collect, but not always, and nobody essential.”
Varangian… Basically a compact space battle cruiser with every luxury built-in.
“I could be persuaded to go shopping anyway. We do need a new crew.”
“I knew I liked something about you.”
“My roguish charm?”
She bursts out laughing.
“No, idiot. You love violent fun. So do I.”
The lady isn’t wrong.
“That’s why we’re corsairs.”
“Mayhem, murder, and money.”
“With extra mayhem.”
Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
The Achrifendil fought us to a standstill so many times. From star systems down to lonely hilltops, they fought like we could only dream of being: ferocious, honourable, truly legendary at times.
What we did in frustrated response was infamous, vicious, and devoid of honour.
To this day I can feel the shrinking awe I felt on first seeing their final stronghold: it was a gigantic ring structure thirty kilometres in diameter. Faced with it, our tacticians calculated that to assail its walls and clear it bastion by bastion, room by room, would cost us thousands of casualties.
So we broke a twenty-decade oath to Emil Hirsch and turned one of the FTL drives he invented into a warp weapon. We set it down dead centre, and watched a tornado of translucent grey consume the place.
Everyone within a thousand kilometres felt a wave of debilitating terror. People dropped, catatonic or screaming. Then it stopped, like a switch had been thrown. The warp effect blinked out.
I led the only expedition to ground zero, picking our way through crumbling cadavers. Many were suspiciously small. Toys and tomes by far outnumbered weapons. We found their fighters, dressed in armour, adorned with banners and trophies, their equipment clean and charged. They’d been ready to face foes who chose battle over indiscriminate slaughter.
In a chamber carved from purple crystal we found it. We knew it was a religious relic, having come across smaller examples on other worlds we’d conquered. But this one was made from a meteorite. We still can’t identify all the metals that comprise it.
Unlike every other one we’d come across, this was written in Terran. In shame and respect, the rest of this document I give over to the words of an unknown, and undoubtedly warp-killed, Achrifendil.
I who set this bane am my father’s pride and my mother’s hope. I too am my people’s rage, and my own despair. Never before you had I seen a race that wars with such little care. Planets, lives, stars – it matters not what you destroy, what sacrifices you make, what ills you inflict, so long as you claim that ephemeral thing you name ‘victory’.
We have no equivalent. The word we use, ‘creszad’, translates as ‘mutual realisation of futility’. When we make war, it is done reluctantly. An embarrassing last resort that all involved seek to forget as swiftly as possible – while always recording the circumstances that led to the failure, so they may never be repeated.
We denied you access to one planet. In response, you began an invasion of our entire territory that proved to be unstoppable. Our civilisation has been destroyed by gleeful thugs. It is beyond comprehension.
All we can do is fight on regardless, because it has become clear that, win or lose, we are doomed.
To be reading this, you will have conquered Raetelmuh, an edifice comprising twenty-seven temples grown together while remaining sacrosanct for seventeen hundred years. Before it existed, we were warring tribes. From founding to your arrival, it never knew bloodshed.
Habradulin, the one who brought the tribes before the Star That Fell – which I have reworked to make the bane you now read – stopped a thousand years of strife with these words –
“You who claim to be mighty, that seek to put your mark upon histories yet to be told, there is one truth you must abide: destruction does not magnify deeds, for ashes need no temples”.
This bane I now set upon you all: generations of futility and failure, until not even ashes remain.