I Hate It Here

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

Every morning there’s a scenic mist that rolls away as the sun rises. The bugs stop biting if you ask them to. The locals send fresh food every week.
I hate this place.
There’s nothing to do. All our digital devices are secured on the drop station that’s behind the moon. Apart from my assigned duties and training, I’m on my own. Sergeant Druthers goes out birdwatching, Corporal Ayres helps out at the store down the road, the rest of my team are off digging irrigation ditches for the duchy next door. I’m left sitting on my arse, quite literally watching paint dry, as I finish another chicken coop. Apparently the locals are really impressed with the idea of little houses for their poultry.
I don’t care.
There’s magic here! I signed on to get with the wizards and make my fortune from videos of bearded alien weirdos doing their impossible-to-science best for an appreciative offworld audience.
I got the idea after seeing the bootleg clips from Breskin. They locked that place down so fast, only one source got anything. But the clip of a lady making a rockslide pass her by, and the other one of a horned bloke growing a tree by stroking it have made millions for them.
I want my millions.
So I arrived here, and they first thing they did is knock us out and take our enhancements away! Then they confiscated our technology, stripped us naked, and sent us down here with primitive tools. No beam-cutters and everbonding. Saws and hammers, screws and screwdrivers.
We even have to do laundry! That’s when you wash clothes and hang them up on a line to dry in the wind. Who thought that was a good idea? When it rains we have to rush outside and bring it in, only to go out and put it back up after the rain passes.
I hate laundry.
“Hello, warrior. I’m come with your victuals.”
This is what I mean. I could be making a mint just from a clip showing the bearded wonder who brings our food. On his own. Enough for all of us for a week, and it’s all floating along in the air behind him!
“How do you do that?”
He looks back at the hovering supplies.
“It’s simple enough. As you packs them goods, you puts a lifting on each bundle. Not too high, mind. It’s no good if you can’t reach it to bring it down. Once you have it all done, you put a gather about the lot, top it off with a follow-me, and here I am.”
Cheerfully explaining the impossible like it’s real.
I hate him.
With a little nod, he carries on. I watch the boxes and bags go by.
Might as well make another coop. Got nothing else to do.
I’ve done two by evening. I’m thinking about cutting the wood for a third when a cheerful voice makes me wince.
“Hey, misery guts.”
Corporal Caroline Ayres: proper, polite, pretty, provincial. She’s so small town it’s pathetic. I turn slowly, giving myself time to think up something clever to reply with.
Our hardware supplies are floating behind her!
“Who did you do to get that?”
She frowns, then waves a hand. My feet leave the ground!
“I did that. Turns out not being a self-obsessed arsehole lets this place get to you. When that happens, your magic arrives.”
It what?
She drops me.
“Command tells me I can’t leave, but that’s no problem. Especially as you are. Being somewhere you’re not will be good.”
I hate her.

Shadowplay

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

There’s a shadow on my gun again. Not the one the rifle puts on the wall, but a little blob that sits on top of the shadow of the telescopic sight, waving tiny limbs while I try to ignore it.
Getting rostered to frontier worlds comes with three guarantees: you’ll see new things, you’ll double your salary, and you might die so badly they name it after you.
This forested rock is Bondungeth. Its sun is artificial: that’s why there are a lot of scientists and engineers here. I and my dangerous colleagues are the mandated security. All we have is long days, short nights, and boredom.
Oh, to hell with it.
“You do know I can see you up there, don’t you?”
The limbs stop waving. It’s the weirdest thing, watching it straighten up and turn to reveal an angular head. It nods.
Whoa. There was no hesitation.
“You’ve done this before.”
The tiny limbs make ‘so-so’ moves. Oh, I know.
“You keep trying but nobody pays attention.”
Nod.
“Okay, much as the mime show is fun, I’m guessing it’s not going to be enough?”
Another nod.
I press the communicator.
“Professor Rangol? Help. Please come quietly to my room.”
“Nothing improper?”
“Not from me. Just get here and prove I’m not hallucinating. Come straight in.”
Minutes later, she enters, closes the door, then looks about.
“What?”
I point to the shadow. It waves. She slumps back to sit against the door, face gone white.
“What is that?”
“Not the vaguest clue. It’s been there ever since I arrived. Tonight I talked to it and got a response. So far, I know it’s tried to speak to others, but been ignored. What we need is a way to talk.
She gets up and moves closer, pulling out a detector of some kind. Watching the shadow move like it’s owner is watching the examination is eerily amusing.
“A slight quiver here and there. We need bigger sensors.”
Crouching down next to my rifle, she grins.
“Greetings. Are you native to this planet?”
Nod.
I butt in.
“Is your message urgent?”
Vigorous nodding.
Rangol gestures for me to continue. Okay, then.
“Are we in danger?”
Nod.
“Do we have a year?”
Shake.
“A month?”
Nod.
“Six?”
Shake.
“Can we fight?”
Nod.
“Can you speak our language?”
Shake.
“Can you write it?”
So-so.
Not useful. Okay, soldier. Think.
“Professor, you know of anything big happening in the next six months?”
“Actually, yes. The sun will go dark to our view. It rotates, and there’s and narrow segment that doesn’t emit light. Will last a few days down here. First time since we’ve been here.”
The shadow is frantically waving it’s arms about.
Shadow… Dark… Is it that simple?
“So the threat arises when it goes dark?”
So-so.
Rangol snaps her fingers.
“When it stays dark for longer than the longest night?”
Nod.
But it’s something we can fight? No. Don’t presume.
“Prof, I’m not up for fighting unknowns. That’s a good way for everyone to die badly. What say we scatter those big sensors you mentioned all over, then withdraw to orbit during the dark time? The ship’s got full-spectrum lights, so should be safe. Once we work out what we’re facing, we can plan to deal with it, or put avoidance measures in place.”
The shadow is doing what looks like a little dance of joy.
She nods.
“I like it. Meanwhile, you, me, and few selected specialists can work on getting this saviour a vocabulary we can share.”
It and I nod at the same time. She laughs.

Rewind

Author: Julian Miles

There he is, tapping away on his communication device.
Verify.
2024. Autumn. White House. Executive Residence. Second Floor. The body will be found at 05:14 by Charles Lebruin, one of his security personnel.
Time?
05:12.
I step towards him.
“Mr President?”
He looks up. I pull the trigger and see the needler beam scorch the wall behind him. He falls.
Perfect. Time to return. I press the recall button on my sleeve.

*

How did the bomber get into the White House? That’s the question of the decade. Tonight at nine we ask a panel of security experts how things could have gone so disastrously wrong for the Secret Service.

*

Karl, former Vice President, looks at the scorch marks, then at the report in front of him, then back to Eckardt.
“You’re telling me the president was already dead, the weapon used is unknown, the explosive is unidentifiable, and the bomber only showed up on thermals three minutes before he blew himself up?”
“Yes.”
“Eckardt, I want this mystery solved. Make it a Special Access Program, reporting directly to me.
“Yes, Mister President.”

*rew*

There he is, tapping away on his communication device.
Verify.
2024. Autumn. White House. Executive Residence. Second Floor. The body will be found at 05:14 by Charles Lebruin, one of his security personnel.
Time?
05:12.
I step towards him.
“Mr President?”
He looks up. I see the needler beam scorch the wall behind him. He falls.
What was that?

*

On top of a year of sordid revelations for the First Lady, the sudden death of her husband must come as both devastation and relief. Tonight at nine we ask a panel of bereavement councillors how things are likely to progress for the First Family in the coming months.

*

Karl, former Vice President, looks into the cell.
“You caught him, and got a cover story in place! Good work, Eckardt. Find out who, how, why, and where they got that clever technology. Break this thing down and get us some answers. Make it SCI, eyes only, you know the drill.”
“Yes, Mister President.”

*rew*

There he is, tapping away on his communication device.
Verify.
2024. Autumn. White House. Executive Residence. Second Floor. The body will be found at 05:14 by Charles Lebruin, one of his security personnel.
Time?
05:12.
I step towards him.
“Mr President?”
He looks up. I pull the trigger and see the needler beam scorch the wall behind him. He falls.
Perfect. Time to return. I press the recall button on my sleeve.

*

On top of a year of disasters for the White House, the breach of security that allowed an assassin to join the Secret Service could see a change in the way the First Family are protected. Tonight at nine we ask a panel of espionage experts how a double agent could have made it so far undetected.

*

Eckardt, former Vice President, looks at the scorch marks, then at the report in front of him, then back to Charles.
“You’re telling me the president was already dead, the weapon and explosive come from some of our own secret projects, and the bomber only showed up on thermals three minutes before he blew himself up?”
“Yes.”
“Somebody knows something, Charles. Let’s start a hard sweep through the radicals, militias, and insurgents. I want them to know we’re not going to tolerate this anymore.”
“Yes, Mister President.”
Charles hurries away.
President Eckardt smiles. It’s going to be a glorious new world, policed in hindsight.

Seven Hotel

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

There’s another rumble from the clear sky above. More lightning flickers about, and it’s a lot closer than anything produced by weather.
“Definitely a Smiter!”
I whip my head about. Line of sight to targets and sky are essential, so they’re close.
Chloe, my flanker, spots them.
“Ten o’clock! Flag mound!”
Spinning round, I see two figures up there. One is crouched, a loving arm about the shoulders of a little girl with eyes that glow like miniature suns. The other arm is pointing to those of us who mummy wants her to fry. I lower my rifle.
“Susan!”
My deputy flattens her opponent and backflips my way. I point to the mound. She frowns, then points towards them. I see mummy swing her aiming finger to point at us.
Susan whispers: “Softest rest upon ye, mistresses.”
Mother and daughter slump sideways against the flagpole, then slide to the ground. I hear cries of horror. Their side think we killed them. No doubt a video clip showing our latest ‘atrocity’ will be circulating soon. I guess it’ll skip the part where they wake up.
I wave for Susan to roam. With their Smiter down, this won’t take much longer. No matter what the opposition say, religious fervour and arrogance are not enough to outmatch training and precision.
“7H? Balen. Sitrep.”
Switching my view from local to tactical, I see we’re good.
“Send evac. All targets rescued.”
Even got the pets.
There’s a gasp of relief.
“Way to go, 7H. See you later.”
‘7H’ – Seven Hotel – is our call sign, named for the seven hours between the announcement of magic powers being scientifically recognised and the first magic wielder being burned. They didn’t even bother with a stake: just torched the house and did for the whole family. A family just like them on the mound, except the daughter was called ‘witch’, not ‘blessed’.
I drop my goggles back into local mode and spot an ominous silhouette on the furthest roof. With an eyeblink I bring my designator up, and with a jaw flex I push the target to the support drone. Before the sniper can finish setting up, a Babyshark homes in on their heat signature. It’s like a soft, grey half-brick doing thirty metres a second. Probably non-lethal – unless you get knocked off a roof, of course.
A bulky pickup truck roars round a corner, driver plus three gunmen on board. No, two. The third is waving a big book. Wonder which one it is?
“Balen?”
I nod to Chloe.
Extending my will, I reach for the constrained lightning within the truck.
Electricity is easiest, because we’re all born with it. Could say we’re only alive because of it. Anyway, there’s an affinity. Makes this almost unfair.
“Gather.”
The truck lights die, along with the engine. It lurches to a stop.
“Go.”
The battery unloads through bodywork and bodies before crackling off into a nearby tree. A few drier leaves catch fire, but apart from scorch marks, it’ll be fine. The twitching foursome in the truck will have nothing but minor burns and awful headaches.
I suspect my ‘frying’ the truck will become infamous, too. A man in shabby fatigues, one hand extended, rifle cradled in the other – with roaring flames and vacant stakes in the background.
Nothing actually changed with that announcement, except the fear encouraged by western governments for so long reached flashpoint. Neighbours turned on one another without warning or mercy. It was medieval. Still is, in the places we can’t reach.
Yet.
We’re not quitting. We’ve survived centuries of this.

Sycamore

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

There’s always one…
I lost rock-paper-scissors with Frank, so here I am: checking the top floor for stray superheroes and wandering warlocks.
Didn’t expect to find an angel, though.
“Excuse me, miss?”
Looks like she got distracted while ditching her costume. That mail is good. It really seems to shine. I wonder if the wings attach directly, or to an extension of the combat harness?
Doesn’t matter. She needs to get that last wing off and packed.
“You need to get a move on. The convention ended ages ago. This venue needs to close.”
Mail-clad shoulders rise and fall – shrug or sigh, I wonder?
“I can’t just yet.”
Please, not another one convinced their favourite fictional world is the real thing. I move closer.
“Look, you can’t stay here. Just pack your wings and wear the mail home. The links are fine enough to pass as silver cloth.”
She spins round. Violet contact lenses. Lashes and brows dyed silver to match what looks like close-cropped hair.
“Wings? You see two?”
“No. I only see the one you’re still wearing.”
Peering over jumbled furniture, I see she’s got mail leggings to match her top. Silver-grey boots complete the outfit.
No wing, though? I look up and grin at her.
“How did you manage to lose a wing?”
She smiles. My heart skips a beat.
Not because of… It really does!
The pain from this morning, but more intense, crashes through my chest. I’m on the floor. Fuck, this really hurts.
“I didn’t lose one, William.”
How does she know my-? The pain eases. I open my eyes to meet hers.
“In some futures, you died. In others, you’re dying. In a few, you’re dragging yourself to the emergency call panel over there. In this one…”
She grins. Her teeth are pointed.
“You’re not from round here, are you?”
I’m dying in the arms of some sort of angel and that’s the best I can come up with?
Her laugh is warm. I see waves of light.
“Live, you fool. There’s someone you need to save.”
“Why can’t you save them?”
“The special ones have to be succoured by mortals. That’s the rules.”
The pain in my chest isn’t gone. I struggle, but manage to tap my chest with a finger.
“Still hurts.”
“William, will you accept?”
“To save someone I don’t know-”
“You might already know them.”
“Great. Person known or unknown to be saved from death-”
“Might not be death.”
“Okay. Save from unspecified peril.”
“Good description.”
“Do I get any clues?”
She shakes her head.
“What happens if I say no?”
“I leave you here.”
“Will I die?”
“I don’t know.”
I take a guess.
“The rules, again?”
She nods.
“Will someone else do the saving?”
“I don’t know.”
“More rules?”
“No. I simply don’t know.”
“Will I die doing the saving?”
There’s a frown.
“Good question. It’s a real possibility, but never certain.”
“You’ve done this before?”
She extends her wing.
“Once.”
“What happens when you get the other? Promotion?”
“I fly instead of falling.”
“But it’s more than most.”
The laugh warms me again, then she crouches to put her face a few millimetres from mine. She has no pores. Just flawless skin.
“Much as this is fun, your period of grace is ending. Decision time, William.”
“I don’t know your name.”
She shakes her head.
“You never will. Decide.”
No more prevaricating.
“I accept.”
A pair of unfurling wings dazzle me.
“Blessed Be, William.”
I’m standing in the corridor, pain free, listening to the distant beat of receding wings.
And to you, miss.