Honest Men

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Here we go again, shooting when we should be talking. I’m sure the gigantic shrimp things didn’t mean anything, but it’s a little late when Jeff’s on the guns. One of them twitched the wrong way and his favourite twitch lights up the night. Plants, rocks, alien crustaceans, anything living in the shallows, it all turns to tumbling chunks.
“Of all the stupid, disobedient-” I see Cadenza take a deep breath before she shouts into her headset.
“Jeff! Cease fire!”
The guns continue roaring and the missiles continue whizzing and the grenades keep sailing merrily into the night. I can see Jeff’s fixed grin joy.
A new noise underpins the cacophony. It’s not a constant, it’s a percussive. A blocked ejection port? No, that would have an echo. I look about. No one’s going tribal and beating time in excitement. Nothing’s falling off the ship…
It’s coming from my right.
The weapons aren’t panning anymore. They’re all trained in one direction – to my right. Jeff’s not grinning. He’s got that head down, got-to-kill-it look. Something’s going belly up, and I think it might be us.
Cadenza screams: “Sauri!”
We’re in deep trouble: caught racketeering by one of the nigh-indestructible denizens of far Gorgoroth: legendary, implacable overseers of freelancers like myself, Cally, and Cadenza. Jeff’s not one of us, but Hutnin got eaten last trip, so we needed a weapons tech. Jeff loves guns. Not so good at maintaining then, but he brought a lot with him to add to the ship’s armoury, so we hired him. In hindsight, that might have been rash.
Where’s Cally? If we need to hightail it out of here, a pilot’s kind of essential.
A part of me is egging Jeff on: likely the only way we avoid penalties is to eliminate the one witness who can make trouble for us. The weapons continue to roar and I turn to see what our chances actually are. Perdition, it’s a red one! Of all the planets, it had to land here.
Wings wider than our ship is long snap open and I hear Cadenza scream in a language I don’t understand, but I’ve heard before – what a way to find out her favourite nightmare involves Sauri.
A large movement in my peripheral vision makes me turn my head just as the guns fall silent. I can’t see Jeff for the scarlet gobbets and blood splattered across the inside of the weapons nacelle. The escape hatch under the nacelle opens and Cally drops onto the grey grit that functions as sand round here. She rolls out from the landing and heads toward the monumental proto-dragon that’s actually lowered its wings a bit. I guess even Sauri can be surprised.
“Greetings, scion of the peaks.”
I forgot: Cally’s from Gorgoroth! We might actually live through this.
Its voice is grating and louder than the guns. Every word blows grit about.
“Kin to the earth, ill met upon a bloody shore.”
I don’t like the sound of that.
“We erred and hired one with more than ten rounds. In contrition, we offer his death.”
Time passes. Sweat rolls down my back.
Four gigantic eyes shift from ruddy amber to pale azure: “Accepted. Quit this place, never to return.”
Cadenza straightens up: “Upship immediate, people.”
As I pass Cally, I whisper: “Ten rounds?”
“Old Earth wisdom, imported to Gorgoroth: ‘No honest man needs more than ten rounds in any gun’.”
“That’s why you still carry a revolver.”
“Yup.”
A disturbing thought intrudes: “Sauri have guns?”
“Pray you never see them.”
I will. Fervently.

Trout for Dinner

Author: Helena Hypercube

“I sense a disturbance in the space-time continuum,” the old Master said portentously.
“Does that actually mean anything?” her impatient young companion asked.
“Yes, youngster, it does.”
“What does it mean, then, Master?” asked young Gavin.
“It means trout for dinner!” she half-skipped gleefully across the dark little room, picked up a piece of the odd paraphernalia scattered around, and made her way out of the door of the little hut. Young Gavin followed her, wondering if his mentor had finally lost what was left of her mind.
He blinked in surprise as he exited the hut. His eyes watered in the bright sunlight, and water flowed across the ground in front of him. Yolinda was crouched on the ground, one hand in the flow, feeling around in it.
“Is that safe?” young Gavin asked doubtfully. Some rain burned when it touched, and it was always better to shelter until it could be determined if this was a good rainfall or a bad rainfall.
“Yes, youngster,” she chuckled, “It’s safe. This is called a stream. The timestorms brought it to us. Or us to it; it really is all the same thing. You can argue about who’s moving and who isn’t, or if we’re all moving, but in the end, it all comes down to the same thing.”
“What?”
“Trout for dinner!” she crowed triumphantly, pulling a strange, squirming object from the stream.
It was like nothing young Gavin had ever seen before.
“This, youngster, is a trout. It is very good eating. These,” she pointed to some odd slits on the side of the creature, “are gills. It’s how they breathe oxygen from the water. It’s flapping around like that because it can’t breathe air and it’s suffocating. These are fins and the tail. That’s how it moves around in the water.”
Gavin looked at her dumbfounded, with new respect. “How do you know that?”
“Because I’ve lived a long, long time, since before the timestorms started.”
“There was a time before?”
“Yes, youngster,” she sighed. “And there will be a time after.”
He shivered. “How do you know that?”
“Because when Time first failed us, we know that it tangled up a hundred years, and no more.”
“Why did Time fail us?”
“Because we failed it. We weren’t content to let it be; we had to try to trick it.”
“How?”
“We built a machine that could see into the future. What we could see, we affected by seeing. We thought Time was linear, but we managed to tie it into knots. The weather went bananas.” She stopped to peer at him. “Do you know what bananas are?”
He shook his head.
“Well, no matter. We used to be able to predict it. Not perfectly, but we generally knew what was coming days in advance. Now, we’re lucky if we can get under shelter before a bad rain starts. Everything else went with it. Communications – we used to be able to communicate across the globe at the speed of light. No coherent time; no communications. No real movement of goods. Nothing. We live in huts and hide from the rain. But that device could only see for a hundred years. A hundred years of time tangles, and then Time will sort itself out. We can only pray that future is a good one.” She reached into the stream to pull out another struggling fish, having placed the first one in the net at her feet. “But it the end, today, it all comes down to the same thing.”
“Trout for dinner?”
She smiled. “Now you’re catching on.”

Taking Back Control

Author: P. T. Corwin

The people of Earth didn’t understand what they were signing away.
We were swept up in the raving speeches of our leaders, who told us of a new life for mankind on distant planets. They promised us control, a free society away from our new owners, who had come from the stars more than twenty years ago to take our natural resources and tell us what we could and couldn’t do.
Our leaders ignited us with their slogans.
And we shouted them through the streets and carried them on our banners, lifting them high against the wind.
We applauded their ideas for new technology:
Spaceships that could take us to the furthest reaches of our solar system within five years.
A machine that would transform a gaseous giant into a new Earth. Our Earth.
Food grown from a single cell inside a room no bigger than a garden shed. Food we wouldn’t have to share.
Our leaders appeared on our screens, smiling, shaking hands, a perfect picture of peace, and they promised us an ark.
And after they had convinced us to believe in the dream, they asked us a question: “Do we want to leave Earth? Yes or no?”
And many of us wanted to stay, but more of us wanted to leave.
So we told our new owners we would leave within the next two years and prepared to fit our lives into suitcases as we awaited the launch.
All of us.
Because we believed that mankind should stay together. Because we believed that we had chosen. Because we believed that we were taking back control.
We still didn’t understand.
But we would soon enough.
On close inspection, the numbers didn’t add up. Transportation of over eight billion people for a reasonable amount of time would take more fuel than existed in the world. It would take time for technology to catch up. Time our leaders didn’t have.
The machine to create our new home turned a desert into a radioactive swamp on live television, burning the reporter and the cameraman alive.
The food grown from cells fell apart like wet cement in the hands of the scientists.
But still, our leaders smiled. Still, they promised us the stars.
Some of us took to the streets with different banners.
And still, our leaders smiled. Still, they appeared on our screens and promised they would deliver what we asked for.
They should have asked us again.
We leave in less than two weeks.
The calculations show that with the current ships and resources, more than three billion people will have died of starvation before the end of the first year.
Less than two weeks. And still, our leaders smile, as if they have more time, still confident they are giving us what we asked for.
I pray they will ask us again.

Recompense

Author: Lisa Jade

Why is this cell always so damn cold?

Of course, the guards don’t call it a cell. Officially, it’s a ‘holding chamber’- a secure room where I can wait for something – anything – to happen.

I huddle into the thin, grey jacket they gave me, breathing hard into my hands. Right now, I’d take any small kindness; a space heater, a cup of tea. Anything.

But there’s nothing. Just a white square with a bed, a toilet, and a charging port that I’ve so far refused to plug myself into. Two mechanical legs and a robotic eye don’t use all that much energy. Besides, I’m sure that any power I use will just be added onto my debt.

Outside, I hear the guards talking. They refer to me in passing most days, remarking on my small frame and docile nature. She’d best hope she gets purchased soon, they say. She definitely wouldn’t survive military service.

I make a point to smile politely, just in case they’re watching through the camera in the corner of the room. Most cyborgs kick and scream. I hear them in their cells, especially at night. They throw themselves at the cell doors and roar about injustice and human rights – as though they think we’re still considered human.

At first, it had seemed like a mercy. Waking up from a terrible car crash and being told that I’d lost both legs and an eye – but that the government had offered to pay for full robotic replacements. Under the influence of shock and drugs, I’d accepted.

Once the parts were functional, they handed me the bill and five years to pay it off. And if I couldn’t, then the parts would become property of the state; including whatever they were attached to. Just like the other cyborgs, I was given 3 months to be sold to the highest bidder as a modern-day slave. If nobody bought me after that, I’d be passed to the military instead.

Even so, I smile. I smile even when the guards make snide remarks, even when I can’t sleep from my rowdy neighbours. Even when my power dips and my legs give way, or my vision starts to fail. I force myself to keep smiling.

So when my cell door opens and two figures enter, my instinct is to smile.

“Congratulations,” someone tells me, “you’ve finally been purchased. This lovely gentleman is looking for a domestic servant and a little bit of company.”

I look the man up and down, taking in his pristine suit and a gold watch that probably cost more than my old car. His gaze drops to my chest and his face briefly fills with disappointment. Clearly, he’s looking for a very particular kind of company.

Nevertheless, he nods.

“She’ll do. Come on.”

I stand obediently and he turns his back.

“You are to call me Master,” he tells me, “do you understand that?”

“Yes.”

With that he heads from the room, beckoning for me to follow. I stare at the back of his head for a moment, stomach burning.

“You should thank me,” the man says, “for buying your debt and getting you out of here. It’s better than being a soldier, at least. You should be grateful.”

“Thank you,” I say, ignoring the sickly taste on my tongue.

“You’ll much prefer my home to this dump. You and I can be alone, there.”

I tighten my hand around the stolen blade, tucking it deeper into my jacket sleeve.

“I can’t wait… Master.”

Serenity

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Fū-jiin sat cross-legged on a mat before a low table, on which rested a bonsai tree nearly half a meter across its canopy, and nearly a quarter of that tall. He rotated the tree barely a degree at a time on its mag-lev base, pausing at each mark to study, and very rarely to make a cut, collecting the tiny fragments on a white handkerchief at his side.

The tree was as old as Fū-jiin himself, and both bore centuries of scar tissue, energy wounds the tree was exfoliating over time in his patient care, thickened stripes of shiny flesh that seemed to bind his own self together like twine.

Outside he could sense booted feet sinking into the sand, closing the distance to his low, windswept home from a hundred meters out, where landing crafts were being pulled out of the water and onto the shore.

They couldn’t fly on this side of the globe, these intruders into his peace, not without risking orbital death from the watchers above, and they couldn’t see through the atmospheric haze that made this such a calm place to retire.

They must have been crisscrossing the ocean of this planet for years to find him this time.

He sighed.

He folded the kerchief with apparent care and placed it and his pruning scissors into a drawer in the table beneath the tree, then folded his hands in his lap and waited.

It may have been an hour or three before they entered, he could sense their probes, hear the digital chatter of their comms encryption. They were admirably cautious.

The breach itself was surprisingly peaceful. The unit commander simply walked through the open archway into the living quarters followed by four troopers in powered armor with weapons of an unwieldy length slung on pivot mounts from their chests, held at the ready two-handed, energy charges crackling with the anticipation of violence.

“Chao, isn’t it? Commander Chao?” Fū-jiin broke the silence first, “you’re a very long way from home.”

Commander Chao struggled to maintain his composure as he surveyed the room. It was the very model of minimalism. Fū-jiin clearly had access to intel that they had somehow managed to miss on what he had thought was particularly thorough recon.

“You’re a very difficult man to find,” Chao replied, “we’ve wasted nearly two years on this planet alone searching for you, and this is not our first nor the only deployment.” He chuckled, “It would seem that it will finally be our last.”

“Yes,” Fū-jiin smiled, the expression taking its time to fully manifest across his face.

“I am a hard man to find, and I regret that I couldn’t have been harder,” he paused, “for your sake, though you’ll find this a peaceful place to end your commission.”

Chao had, for years, resented being tasked with searching for this ghost, and now found his feelings conflicted. The stories of the hell Fū-jiin had brought to conflicts across the galaxy made him seem almost god-like, a force of immense tactical skill and violence, and yet here he was, a sad old man in a stone hut on a sandy beach in the middle of nowhere, gardening.

“You all make the same mistakes, do you know that?” Fū-jiin spoke, slowly rocking forward from crossed legs to his knees, hands spread wide on the table.

The soldiers flexed, weapons maintaining their lock. Chao waved them down.

“You show no respect for time. The sand you walked outside on was once polished glass, before wind, and rain, and time reduced that formidable expanse to dust. What has your journey reduced you to?”

He slowly extended his legs, rising to his feet with his hands still palms down on the table, bent at the waist and not bothering to look up as he spoke.

“You make poor assumptions; you see no weapons and assume safety, no technology and assume ignorance, no army and assume tactical superiority.”

“You drastically underestimate the fury of serenity.”

Fū-jiin flexed, and for everything within several kilometers, time slowed to a near stop.

The ball of energy that formed around him radiated outward in a wave, consuming everything it touched in a raging cyclone of raw, unfettered fury, ripping flesh, weapons, and craft down to their base atoms, then painted the beach with them, leaving its surface a smoldering, multicolored mosaic of freshly baked glass.

Fū-jiin exhaled, and slowly lowered himself to sit cross-legged again on the floor.

He felt the searing pain of fresh wounds where his outburst had cracked open his flesh, the smell of their cautery ripe in his nostrils.

Before him the bonsai was mostly unharmed, just a few patches this time smoldering gently where he’d been unable to control his discharge.

“My apologies, old friend,” he spoke out loud, retrieving his scissors and the white handkerchief from the drawer before ever so slowly resuming his turning of the tree on its base.

Outside the wind and the waves gently cooled the beach.

There was work to be done, and nothing but time in which to do it.

A Man of Limited Influence

Author: David C. Nutt

Michael had been hunting this last psychic for the Company for the past seven years. All the others were dead, and while dispatching the powerful, and arrogant psychics was dangerous, it was easy to find them. They usually wound up as warlords on nearby planets, as mysterious billionaire gamblers, or rapidly rising stars of academic institutions, corporations, and the odd government elite. They all followed the same profile: little or no history and then they are powerful or famous. Occasionally, a target Michael tracked was not psychic at all- just some poor bastard who had a charmed life full of lucky breaks. Michael killed them anyway. No one should be that charmed or lucky. Best not to take any chances.

This last target was an exceptionally slippery character. Twice Michael had been in the same town, on the same planet. Twice he had missed the target by mere minutes. The file on this target did not say much other than “Non weapons-grade abilities. Limited range and influence.” There was a blurry photo of the target and some hand-scribbled notes. The most intriguing, one short sentence “more dangerous than we realized.” Michael shook his head. No, just good at running.

Michael sighed contentedly. It would all be over tonight. Michael would dispatch the last psychic left on the books. No more threats from psychics, even if they were Company made ones.

Michael was out of range. He had to get close, make this job look like death during a robbery as there was nothing remotely dicey with this one. No rivals, no slighted lovers, jealous friends, no hateful neighbors. No chance to arrange the usual frame job that kept the Company’s hands clean.
The target turned down the alley. Michael smiled. He was taking the short cut tonight. A lucky break. Michael swung wide as he rounded the corner and picked up his pace. Based on the target’s average walking speed, Michael would intercept him in five steps.
Instead, the target had sped up and turned to face him. Michael smiled. Too easy.

The target held his hands wide to show he wasn’t armed. “Look, I don’t want any trouble. All I want to do is be left alone. I’ve tried to make you forget about me, but it hasn’t worked. What’s it going to take to make you stop?”
Michael sighed “Stop? I’ll never stop. You make me forget I eventually remember. You cloud my vision, it clears up. I’ve read your file. You’ve got nothing left.”
The target nodded. “Then do what you have to do.” The target turned his back to Michael.

Michael took out his Company transponder and pressed ‘erase’. He then ground it under his heel. From the sheath secreted between his shoulder blades, Michael withdrew his ceramic knife and in one quick motion slashed both of his own femoral arteries. Michael fell to his knees.
The target sighed. “There was no other way?”
Michael was getting light-headed. “No, this was the only way.”
“Sorry.” The target said.
“No problem.” Michael cheerfully replied, laying down.
As the target walked away, Michael suddenly realized just how dangerous a man of limited influence could be.