Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer
The Shian are a spacefaring race. They are both reasonably telepathic and fairly omniscient: they are also our allies. We – that is, the human race, nothing to do with me personally – built a machine that taps the same frequencies as a Shian biological relay, the natural structure which grants them their telepathy. Apparently, this surprised them. Shian ships blinked into existence all around the earth. They batted away the missiles and the more exotic close-orbit defences that we’d set up, secure in the knowledge that we honestly didn’t know any better. They learnt the language, set up an embassy, and started paying attention to us, in much the same way a teacher pays especial attention to a particularly precocious child.
The Shian were obviously better than us. It wasn’t long before they set us up on the interstellar scene, putting us in touch with their other contacts.
This helped our growing racial inferiority complex no end.
Out of all the contacted species, humanity is physically the least imposing, the shortest lived, and has the dullest senses. We’re not especially bright. In our own sphere, we are a match for most of the minds out there. But as soon as the higher-order physics that the Shian dabble in are brought to the table, our best scientists are suddenly like mewling kittens: confused, worried and scared.
The only thing we seem to have going for us is a certain adaptability and a capacity for survival. Naturally, we wouldn’t need those traits if we could put a one of those automated nomad manufactories in orbit. Or if we had a functional Shian dark drive to reverse-engineer. Or even a working nanoforge. That’s the butt of a lot of jokes in the commercial sectors, I tell you – every damn species seems to get a kick out of our inability to create and stabilise nanomachines.
If you ever see a Nomad on a refuge base, watch them closely. They walk with a kind of jerking shudder. Now, you need to see them in a nonhuman environment to know that the jerk-shudder isn’t just the way they walk. I eventually figured it out. It’s the way they laugh. Our all-environments, everything-proof, top-of-the-line-in-every-field bases are a running joke.
And of course, every species is guaranteed a permanent patent on every one of their native technologies. Not that humanity has much that needs protecting. All the patents mean is that we can only afford to lease extraterrestrial techs, rather than licence them outright.
Anyway. I was making a regular cargo run between Asylum and Third Eye, both of which are human-administered refuge bases in the thin strip of space between the Ekkt and Shian polities. Now, I’m used to working with Shian lossless drives: they work, every time. The junker that I had been assigned was a retrofit. An old Shian Swifthull with a native terran jumpdrive.
Shian propulsion tech is of somewhat superior quality to ours. Shian drives tend to jump the whole ship, rather than just the drive section.
Drifting on my own, with the atmosphere slowly leaking from my capsule, I finally began to get the joke.
Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer
Out of the inhabitants of the world, Conrad was the trend-setter. He’d sparked off the craze for playing as gods when he’d discovered a cache of ancient texts. He’d painstakingly recovered audio platters from the less senile databanks in the cities. The six cities provided everyone with the power to create and destroy, to reshape the land according to their whims. No-one understood them, and most were rightly afraid at hastening their slow decay. Conrad, however, enjoyed prospecting for information.
Conrad casually adjusted his eyes to see into the infra-red. He was in one of the vaults underneath the southwest segment of the city of Suberesk. This segment had been dead for years: vault after vault of quiet, inscrutable machinery. Some seemed pristine, whilst others appeared to have started decomposing. Conrad had even found one vault full of natural florae growing quietly underneath an artificial light source.
In the next room, something caught his eye. A old-style holographic display was flickering in one corner, displaying the same fraction-of-a-second of animation over and over again. The projection was an abstracted human head, spasmodically twitching in a sort of half-nod. Conrad took the first action that seemed natural – he kicked the projection unit.
The animation sputtered through a few more frames, then began to play smoothly.
“Integrator online. On the next tone, it will be beat six hundred and six, subinterval twelve of interval sixty-two thousand. There are two messages waiting, marked for the attention of any and all citizens. Would you like to view them?”
“Yes, of course.”
“The first message was received forty-eight thousand, six hundred and twelve intervals ago. It has been altered for language, tone and content.”
The abstract head shrank into one corner of the display, and a second head appeared. Reptilian in appearence, it spoke in a series of choking hisses. The integrator spoke over it in a smooth voice.
“We have grown impatient, city-dwellers. Your cities have stalled our solarsystem and many others. You waste energy in a ridiculous and profligate manner. Your actions threaten the stars themselves. If you do not halt your activities, we will be forced to destroy you, even if it means destroying ourselves in the process.”
The reptilian head faded, and the integrator once more occupied the whole display.
“The second message was broadcast forty-eight thousand, six hundred and eleven intervals ago by Doctor Aki Munroe at Ichioresk. It is presented verbatim, but carries a strong/disturbing content warning. Do you wish to view it?”
“Of course!” Conrad almost shouted, captivated by the artefact.
Again, the integrator’s head shrank to one corner of the display. A young woman’s face appeared. She looked worried, and she stumbled over some of the words, as if choking on them.
“After long contemplation, the unified response to the coalition’s threats is relocation. This shift will take place at the beginning of interval one-three-three-eight-ten. We’re going to attempt to use the cities to project a frameshift field around the world. This’ll isolate us from the universe at large. Existence effectively ‘out of time’ will allow the city grids to tap any major source of energy in this universe or any other. From any point of time. If this project succeeds, we’ll have guaranteed our survival. Possibly at the cost of our culture, since and isolated world is doomed to stagnate. But we must try this. The alternatives are too horrific to contemplate.”
Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer
The best definition of ‘coincidence’ is ‘you weren’t paying attention to the other half of what was goin on.’ Related to this is the little-known fact that effect can predate cause. Me and Darien were an effect. The cause’s name was Milo.
“Time?” I shouted forward, struggling to match Darien’s pace. I saw him glance at his wrist.
“One minute twenty-six. Now shut up, and run!”
I redoubled my efforts, barely keeping my footing as I chased Dar around corners. He ducked through a gap in a broken chain-link fence. The sign on it read ‘Absolutely No Entry’. With fifty seconds to get into position, Darien certainly wasn’t bothered about trespassing, and so, neither was I. Darien shouldered his way past a flimsy door, and shuddered to a halt. I stepped after him.
“Six seconds. Hide.” Darien hissed, gesturing towards the stacked crates all around. I ducked between two particularly large boxes. Dar slipped behind the bulk of an offlined stacking robot.
An access door at the far end of the warehouse began to roll up, letting light into the gloomy space. I glanced down towards the opening, and saw a double silhouette: one man and a general-purpose assistant-droid.
I was supposed to follow Darien’s lead: he would incapacitate the human target, I would take out the robot pet. Double footsteps, regular as clockwork, began to echo towards us. We were the self-styled magicians: agents of synchronicity. The subtle rearrangers of reality. A little nudge here and there so things happen…well, just so.
Milo and his robot stepped past my hiding place, apparently oblivious to my presence.
Darien moved. I covered the space between me and the pet in two steps. I hooked my foot around its ankles, and jerked it backwards. It toppled to the floor, and I slapped magnets to either side of it’s head, thoroughly disabling it. Darien had drawn a compact handgun, and was pressing it against the back of the Milo’s neck.
“We know what you’re thinking. And no, it wouldn’t work. Left pocket.” I obligingly reached into the target’s leftmost pocket, and drew out the small box. I worked the simplistic controls, and two barbed spikes slid out of one side. It buzzed gently as electricity arced across the gap.
“A little close defence? Nice, Milo.” I laughed, and carried on fiddling around with the device.
“Don’t chatter.” Dar hissed.
We held the tableau for another minute. I could see Darien counting the seconds. That’s the first thing they teach you – big events hinge on the smallest coincidences. One ‘disrupted schedule’ can throw the fate of nations one way or the other. Milo was on his knees, shaking violently. Obviously, and painfully afraid for his life.
“And, time.” Darien replaced his handgun in it’s hidden holster, grabbed the mark’s neck, and hauled him upright. I returned the shockbox to Milo’s pocket, and retrieved my magnets from the junked clanker.
“What the hell!” Milo growled, and scrambled to his feet.
“Veracity. You should go home, Milo. And don’t stop for anything.”
Just as Darien turned to walk away, the first of the klaxons sounded.
Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer
Sacha slumped down in a doorway, gathering her heavy clothes tighter around her. As a prophylactic measure, the cloth and leather were almost useless: it was less about protection, more about appearances. The door behind her was like every other in this street. Rough, wooden, and with a ‘X’ splashed across it in red paint.
She stared at the bodies that littered the street. Tens of them on this street alone, thousands across the district, and hierarchy-knew how many uninfected were starving to death in their homes, afraid to unseal the windows. Some of the infected were dangerous, violent, but those in the later stages of infection just curled up and died where they fell.
Sacha was trapped, doubly so. By the quarantine around the town, and by the blockade of the ‘red’ districts. She was not infected. Unlike the citizens of the town, Sacha had an immune system she could talk to.
However resistant she was to the pathogens in the air, she was not resistant to the flamethrowers of the local army. In the style of armed forces everywhere, they had donned their rudimentary hazardous materials suits and were methodically putting the town to flame.
Someone walked past the door by which Sacha was slumped. He was wearing a neat, well-fitted uniform – that of an officer in the local army. He continued past her, down the street, then Sacha heard him stop and backtrack. He stared at her for a long moment, then spoke.
“Emdal-Abek Sacha Sousver. Medical technician, on assignment from Cluster.”
“And you are?” Mildly surprised at the use of her full name and the unimpressive description of her assignment, Sacha got to her feet and eyed the officer more closely.
“Ash-Abek Peter Carnelian. Disruptor.”
“Sent to rescue me?”
“No. Cluster is worried that this crisis will lead eventually to a military coup. I’m here to guide them down a different track.”
“Let me guess. Kill the High Command.”
“In one. Are you sure you’re medical?”
“Positive. Do you think you could get me out of here? I’m becoming immunocomprimised. I’ve done all I can to help, but I need to get into a medical lab.”
“I think I’ll be able to explain it away.”
Peter placed a hand on her shoulder, and they headed for the nearest checkpoint. A line of soldiers were carefully creating a dead zone on the infected side, setting fire to everything within ten metres of the perimeter. A milling crowd of the infected were shouting, screaming and begging just outside the reach of the flamethowers.
“Sod,” Peter murmured, “we’re going to have to get through them.”
One of the crowd spotted Peter’s uniform.
“Djah!” The cry of ‘officer’ went up, and as one mass, the infected turned and ran towards what they saw as their salvation.
“Run.” Peter hissed, and Sacha fled back the way they’d come. He drew a sidearm, and levelled it at the crowd. “Uhd. Tuz lidla. Lidla!” Some of the more risk-averse slowed, but most continued to run. He fired three times into the crowd, and ran after Sacha.
Panicking, Sacha ran headlong into a dead end. Peter was hot on her heels, having discarded his now-empty sidearm. There was a knife in his hand, and bloodstains covered his once-immaculate uniform. He threw something at her. Instinctively, she caught it: small, ovoid and metallic. A capsule key.
A rush of air almost knocked her off her feet and a door hissed open in the air beside: Peter had called his one-man capsule. He wanted her to leave.
Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer
“Elass, check your drones. I think they’re goofing off.”
“Thanks, Laurie. They’re on target now.”
The fleet was deep in the ‘gravel’ region of the asteroid belt. Elass was dragging in the larger chunks for processing, Laurie was filtering the gravel, looking for chunks of dirty ice and pure metals. Red was sitting ten clicks out, on overwatch. When the fleet had set up shop, they’d deployed a small field-generator to hold the proceeds of their rockmunching. It was maybe two-thirds full of chunks of ice and mineral-rich rocks.
Red was bored. Whilst the miners were at least actively involved in their task, all Red had to do was watch the stash and look for intruders. The company stipulated that there had to be at least one combat craft with every mining op, after the spate of Free Rhean attacks had taken out maybe half the fleet. That was two years before Red had signed up: ‘overwatch’ had sounded so exciting at the time. He’d escorted dozens of mining operations now, mostly with Elass and Laurie, but sometimes with other pairs.
“Ejecting slag, watch yourselves.” Laurie transmitted.
With a little puff of dust, a chunk of compacted wasterock fired out from the midsection of Laurie’s vessel, the ‘Grave Robber’. The projectile held coherence for twenty kilometres or so, then slowly disintegrated into dust. There were a half-dozen plumes of finely-divided dust diffusing ‘above’ the plane of the belt.
Red watched the projectile as it broke up.
The dust moved oddly. Like something was pushing through it.
With motions born of long practice in virtuals, Red started actively pinging the area and accelerated towards the dust-cloud and the covert ops pilot that had just made such a silly mistake. His sensors were betraying him, the dust interfering with the absolute ranging. Half a dozen half-contacts were lurking in the dust plumes. Red warmed up the missile launcher, and powered onwards.
Elass cursed as one of his drones stopped responding. Cheap links occasionally meant that they went dead in space, and needed to be jumpstarted. Hopefully, that’s all it was – sometimes, their proximity sensors just refused to work, and they ended up smeared all over the outside of a rock. Lousy good-for-nothing corporation refused to pay for decent equipment, then acted all surprised when you came back with half your complement acting up. His rambling train of thought was interrupted by the beeping of the ‘communication request’ alert above his head. It was the hauler – the box-with-engines that dragged the ice and rock back to a an orbital refinery.
He keyed the local area radio.
“…’sup?” The voice coming through the radio was unfamiliar, not the usual hauler pilot.
“Not much. You’re early, though. Squeeze your auth key to me and I’ll unlock the field.”
“Who do you think I am?”
“Moron.” The not-hauler approached the the storage field. The entire front of the bulky craft folded. It smoothly enveloped the storage field like a snake choking down an egg. Laurie hit the all-fleet-alert. Elass panicked, and pushed every thruster he had to max. They flared, and burnt out. Communications from Elass were a garbled mess of swear of words before Laurie broke the line.
The thief twisted his ship into an escape vector. A dozen missiles streaked from launchers mounted onto his outer hull. They automatically locked in on the hapless miners.
Red grimaced, and muttered to himself.
“I’m so fired for this.”