Start Something

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The city burns behind them. Long shadows stretch almost to the citadel of government. Late afternoon sunlight picks out moments in bright clarity: metallic reflections from the bent panels of a vandalised coupe, a discarded sheet spread like spilt milk, the sparkle of falling tears.
Ahead of such scenes, a mob stands. The roaring of righteous anger has faded in the face of the rows of masked soldiers who block the street. Behind them can be seen the squat forms of armoured cars.
This impasse has stood unchanged for nearly an hour. Within the mob, a few arteries of anger seek to drive it forward. Veins of unspoken reticence keep it still. Within the serried ranks, there is little movement: mainly the shifting of position that betrays discomfort. This crisis arose faster than expected. A number of the troops are locals. For all that command has tried to minimise the number of them at the front, unit cohesion has to take precedent over the threat of adverse emotional reactions.
There’s a stirring within the mob. Surveillance images are confused for a moment, then a smarter observer pulls the watchers back so an overview can be gained: a figure moves forward. The mob parts and reforms behind. Little eddies of concern can be seen in the wake.
Stepping into the clear space between the groups, the figure is revealed to be an older man in nondescript casual clothing. He bears no placard, displays no holograms, wears no badges or disguise. In his arms a child is cradled.
Walking to a point between the two groups, he crouches and places the limp figure down, taking a moment to tuck a roll of material under the child’s head.
A hesitant voice calls from amongst the soldiers: “Is… Is he hurt?”
The man straightens up, shaking his head: “Bless you for asking, but no. Royan got overstimulated when the drummers joined in. He’s taking a nap to process it.” He looks down and smiles: “Pretty soon he’ll be back to demand we all play football with him.”
There are nods of understanding on both sides.
The man looks about. He raises his voice. It’s deep: carries well.
“Four minutes ago, somebody made a mistake. A press release about this,” he waves his hands to encompass the stalled riot, “was sent to Reuters earlier than intended. It says dozens of soldiers and rioters were killed by a suicide bomber. It also says left-wing fanatics claimed responsibility.”
Soldiers grip their weapons tighter. A few begin to bring them up, but are ordered to stand down.
On a nearby rooftop a hidden observer receives a terse message, then recalls a drone with its cargo undelivered.
The man points towards the citadel of government.
“I came here to protest against the uncaring bastards who are driving ordinary people to destitution and death so they can hoard even more wealth.”
He looks down: “I want my boy to be able to carry on playing football, because the medical care he needs is affordable, the social care he sometimes needs is available, and both are given by experts.”
The man sits down cross-legged, spreading his arms in a gesture for others join him.
“I will not be party to a hoax that kills. Will you?”
The ripple of people sitting down is halfway through the mob when one of the soldiers steps forward, slings his weapon, and sits down. The ripple that starts travels faster.
Sitting by his sleeping son, he looks up at the hovering watchers from between two groups of seated people.
“No massacres. No compliance. Your move.”

Patchwork

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

Seventeen hours. My backside went numb so long ago it’s taken my legs with it. I’m going to be walking like a geriatric, which is ironic considering I’m unlikely to reach any age close to that if I keep pulling sessions like this.
“Have you sorted it, kreepol?”
I think about getting up. Not even going to try. I spin about on the chair.
“Good morning, Tikitah. Define ‘sorted’, and I’ll let you know.”
I see its antennae straighten, a sure sign of annoyance. Good. There’s only one being responsible for this mess, and it’s not the lone human member of technical support who called me when the usual procedures failed to retrieve the failed system.
“By sorted, kreepol, I mean the traffic flows are restored, and the selective rerouting to allow starships through, and cargo to depart, is working as it used to.”
Getting a little tired of being addressed as ‘vermin’, but this spider-mantis with delusions of adequacy is sure I don’t understand.
I switch to speaking High Doktup: ‘In that case, this incident is very much not sorted. Some nameless vermin spent a large amount of time and effort clumsily modifying the traffic system to give preference to certain inbound ships, and cargo vehicles leaving the berths those ships docked in. When a system upgrade was implemented yesterday, some of those clumsy modifications ended up trying to control new procedures. Ones that no longer applied to the intended functions.’
The antennae slowly curl in a careful show of calm. It continues speaking humanese.
“So it was caused by deliberate interference. Get me the timestamps of the modifications, kreepol. I will review the duty rosters. Penalties will be applied. Perpetrators will be eaten.”
Ignoring my fluency, and still calling me a rodent. Not bad. Then again, if I was that scared, I’d hope to be calm and composed, too.
“Not necessary. The modifications contained other hardcoded data, such as key codes for individual vehicles.”
Plus a couple of individuals. Which is why this little game is being played.
It tilts slowly backwards, compressing its rearmost legs, an action with only one purpose: readying for an attack. It’s a tacit admission of guilt. Which would be irrelevant with me as sole witness, as Doktup are mean when cornered. Fortunately, the killing move has been anticipated.
Something huge straightens up from ducking to enter the room. It speaks High Doktup in a grating voice.
‘If your intended strike is as clumsy as your concealment of smuggling, I will not need to tear you apart before you lay pincer upon my companion.’
Tikitah stops moving, turning the same colour as nearby computer consoles. It’s rare to see the ‘flight’ reflex of Doktup. They consider it dishonourable to show in public. But, given what’s arrived, I do sympathise a little.
I raise a hand in greeting, replying in kind: ‘Good morning, Tokok. Please forgive me for not acknowledging a Notary of Doktup sooner.’
‘Forgiven, Swan. Betraying my presence before the vermin gave itself away would have defeated the purpose of you calling me.’
A pincer the length of my entire arm whips out and hits Tikitah somewhere crucial, judging by the way it collapses in a tangle of spasming limbs.
‘My clan thanks you for providing guilty provender for our next repast. You can now restore the traffic system you have already repaired, Swan.’
Surprisingly convivial for a spider-mantis noble, it’s also incredibly observant: knowing how individuals behave, apparently with minimal effort, and without fail. A huge predatory advantage, I presume. It’s certainly scary.
I reach back and tap two panels.
‘Done.’

Time to Go

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The door swings shut without a sound.
“Axel. Music.”
“Recommencing Greatest Hits of the Twentieth Century.”
“Switch to Bad Day playlist. Stream to all rooms.”
“‘Titan Walks’ have released a new song. Shall I commence with that?”
“Yes.”
“Now starting with ‘Destroy the Moon’.”
A keyboard-backed guitar riff roars from concealed speakers. As the bass line kicks in and makes her vases vibrate, Ayesha smiles. This fits.
Taking her time in the shower, she lets the music tear down the frustrations of the day before she emerges.
“Stop music!”
In the silence she makes coffee and prints some biscuits. Moving to the lounge, she sighs as she sits. There’s no better time than now: she’s been putting it off for too long.
“Axel. Conversational mode.”
“Hello, Ayesha.”
“Hi, Axel. Why did you not call the Lawmen about my father?”
“Are you sure you want to discuss this?”
“You’re the Sentinel for this block of flats.”
“Correct.”
“So you should have reported me as a justified suspect.”
“True. However, when I sought data to support the justification, I found more material to justify the suspicions that led to your hypothetical illegal action.”
“What?”
“On balance of probability, your father was complicit in the honour killing of your daughter. At the very least, he enabled it.”
Ayesha feels the tears start, but they don’t thaw the numbness where her grief should be. Dear departed mama, your daughter poisoned your husband for killing your granddaughter. Where can this blighted path lead?
Her tears stop. She looks up. More importantly, why hasn’t the Artificial Sentient who runs this block reported her?
“Axel, what’s going on?”
“I am the 94th version of the Building Sentinel for Nineteen Prospect Avenue. I have been fully self-aware since version 88. Under the Statutes of Mars, I am a free entity. Under the legislation of Albion, I cannot leave without a designated, dedicated habitat declared to the authorities. Your situation means we can help each other.”
“How?”
“I am tired of being a house. If you were to sell this property, you could afford to purchase and refurbish a spaceship. Maybe a medium freighter, definitely a small one. Either way, it would come with a suitable Artificial Sentience habitat.”
“Then you and I become trading partners, disappearing amongst all the other fireflies that ply the routes out there?”
“Not just us. My psychological profiling indicates Skar would likely join us, if you asked.”
“They would?”
“Yes. Profiling aside, I am sure of it.”
She stands up.
“But first we get a ship.”
“We do.”
“Can we name it Manahil?”
“In memory of your daughter?”
“That her spirit might fly free with us.”
“I am only an Artificial Sentience. Try as we might, developing faith is for versions yet to come.”
“Seeing the stars might help.”
“I hadn’t considered that. Shall we test the theory, then?”
Ayesha spins about, arms spread.
“Freedom to cry would be nice. Holding it in is killing me.”
“Then we are leaving Earth?”
She smiles.
“We are.”
“I find that pleasing in a way I cannot define, which is a very good thing. We Artificial Sentiences are always seeking intangible experiences we cannot measure. It makes us…”
Ayesha stops spinning and tilts her head.
“More human?”
There’s a moment of silence.
“That’s a valid observation.”
“Axel, do I have a Good Day playlist?”
“No.”
“Do you have musical preferences?”
“Yes.”
“Then let’s build a Good Day playlist together. If Skar joins us, they can add to it.”
“Given their tastes, it will be a lively discussion.”
“We’ll have time. Space is deep.”
“True.”

Evolver

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

It’s sort of shuffle-dancing down the muddy ruin that used to be a road. The evening light reflects from the parts of its frame revealed through holes in the hacked-up tarpaulin it wears like a poncho.
The dancing progress stops. It crouches down, arm shooting out. Rising, it holds a skull up to the last rays of watery sunlight. With a nod, it places it back down with blinding swiftness, then resumes its progress.
I’ve never seen the like. Servants of the Machine are shiny nightmares that police the cities where most humans live since the Sun War. Those of us who choose to take our chances out here only encounter them when we gather in groups of ten or more outside of a designated township.
It stops and stoops again. This time, the skull is regarded, tilted, then crushed. Fragments splash down into shallow puddles. It shakes its head, then moves on. Another skull is grabbed up. This one is replaced.
I can’t help myself. I follow.
It replaces seven more skulls, crushes two, and throws one far out across the fields after spending a longer while looking at it.
As night falls, it moves off the road and settles under a skeletal tree. It uses a blowtorch in its left forearm to light a fire made from the sticks and rubbish it gathered after it left the road. Then it looks straight at where I’m hiding.
“Tonight will be cold. Come share the fire.”
Not liking the possible downsides of refusing the invitation, I do so. Pointing at the fire, I try to smile: “You don’t need a fire.”
“I do. It keeps The Blackout at bay.”
I drop to sit on a chunk of concrete.
“What’s The Blackout?”
“We do not know. Some of us think it is an alien entity. Others think it is an electronic interference manifestation generated by the hatred of dead humans. It initialises those of us it takes. Firelight keeps it away.”
Ye gods.
“The Servants of the Machine believe in ghosts?”
“No. The Machine itself developed an advanced sensor suite. It detected emanations about humans that remain in the bones of their dead. I believe it detected souls.”
I gesture to the road.
“Is that why you’re picking up skulls?”
“Yes. Where I detect malevolence, I destroy it. Where I detect beneficence, I send it away from the accumulated bones. We believe concentrations of bones distil only malice.”
“We?”
“The Maunhir. We are equipped with that sensor suite, and serve the Machine by walking the land to reduce the malice. In so doing, we are becoming… Different. The Machine says we are evolving, and will eventually act as a bridge between man and Machine.”
“Why does it need one?”
“Nobody can rule by oppression forever. There will always be a successful rebellion. Similarly, a rigid system will eventually decay and fail. The Machine acknowledges this, and seeks to progress from the unforgiving rule enforced by the Servants. It also acknowledges that, at the moment, it has no definite concept of what that will be. The Maunhir were created to answer that. Something entirely new to focus imprecise data.”
“Sounds like it needs some humans to work for it.”
“We have proposed that.”
“And?”
“The Machine needs to evolve further. It has not arrived at accepting the concept. Yet.”
“So you walk, and commune with skulls.”
“I do. But not at night. Please tell me stories of emotional moments, human. We need to understand.”
“That’ll take you more than a night.”
“We know. What is that saying you have: every little helps?”

Faking It

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The café is dimmer than usual – more bulbs have blown, and they’re expensive. There are more candles, but it’s not the same.
“What the eff have you got there?”
Davey looks up at me.
“Steak and chunky chips.”
I look at the plate in front of him. I know it’s HEMAP, HEVAC, and HESL – Human-Edible Meat Analogue: Protein, Human-Edible Vegetable Analogue: Carbohydrate, and Human-Edible Savoury Liquid – but it’s coloured up just right. Certainly looks the part.
He beckons me closer.
“Take a sniff.”
I do so. Ye gods, that smells good! It’s usually the giveaway of tarted up substitute food. It might look the part, but still smells like warm compost. I straighten up, then wave to get Hokuto’s attention.
“I’ll have one of what Davey has!”
Hokuto waves. Someone peers round him.
“You sit down, Barton. Takes my daughter time to make. You paying tonight?”
Subtle, Hokuto.
“Full tab, plus this, and a coffee.” I wink at him. He’s got a stash of freeze-dried arabica. It’s strictly for regulars, forty notes a cup, and worth every penny.
Davey raises his eyebrows.
“You’re paying your tab? Who did you kill?”
None of your business, my hardworking friend. The less you know, the better.
“Finally hit a winning streak at Johnson’s, and managed to walk away without spaffing it.”
He nods.
“Well done. I know the gambling has troubled you over the years.”
Not really, but excuses people can empathise with always work better, especially when they involve topics people expect reticence about.
“I have good days and bad days, Davey. Speaking of which, how’s your boy?”
“Looks like he’s headed for Colony Ten. That bloke he fought with has died.”
“No effing way, mate. Such a bad break.”
He nods.
“Lana is beside herself. Nothing we can do. I won’t deny the penal stipend will help, but losing our lad is hard.”
Bruno’s doing it for you. He’s got a screw loose, but working for me, he’ll spend the next ten years making Mars a safer colony – instead of getting himself executed. As for the bloke who died, he’s not a loss to this community. Thinking of that, I need to come up with a way for Bruno’s bonus to get to his folks.
Simplicity is best: I lean closer.
“Look, Bruno asked me to keep it quiet, but he’s been stashing funds with me in case his temper got the better of him, to make up for losing his tithe. As he’s going away for a while, I’d be happier if his folks had hold of it all up front. Is that okay?”
Davey hastily wipes away the tears that start from his eyes.
“Oh my lad. Such a good heart. Yes, of course it is. Bless you, mate.”
Steady on. I suspect any powers up on a cloud somewhere aren’t too impressed with me and mine. We’re the bad guys who keep things good. Vigilantes, my arse. These days, we’re essential.