Shadow Syndicate by Hal Postremo

Shadow Syndicate
by Henry Pailing writing as Hal Postremo

Prologue: Crash Course
Chapter One: Brave New World (Part)

Prologue: Crash Course

Sometimes a single event can change everything; but change has not always been a good thing for us. There was once a great war that consumed the entire globe and threatened all. It was labelled that second of its kind, but the final chapter was far more terrible than anything that had come before it. At the height of socialist nationalism, Nazi Germany developed a dark and terrible weapon based upon the emerging nuclear energy science.

Unfortunately, for all of them, it was used.

No one really knows what happened for sure, the most popular theory is that a French freedom fighters cell gained access to an important control facility. Meddling with the brand new technology, one way or another, nuclear hellfire was unleashed upon the entire continent. Untested projectiles underwent unsanctioned launches that vaunted them high above into high wind currents. There, they detonated and created a shower of radioactive fallout that covered most nations.

Only more southernly reaches such as the Iberian peninsula and some parts of southern Italy managed to escape the fallout that would last for decades to come on the continent. Of course the Nazis collapsed as many of their people quickly died, entire countries wiped out in a matter of a few weeks as more people lost their lives than at any other point in the war. Dark death had come to western europe and the horrific dangers associated with nuclear power was never forgotten.

However the British Isles were fortunate enough to not become victims to the nuclear fallout. They were almost disgustingly quick to celebrate the victory, but the war had not yet ended for everyone. Far away eastwards there was a new world power taking centre stage. Their ultimate surprise attack against a weary and tired western world would be shocking to all and yet in some twisted way inevitable.

Japan had been fighting a harsh war with the Chinese for the better part of a decade. However it was not until they discovered, and promptly named, a new mineral called kameosa that they finally had the overwhelming power to take victory. The first war machines of a new type rolled out onto the shores of China. These were the progenitors of what today we know as the infamous walking tanks of imperial Japan. Powered by overunity engines, they just kept on marching and fighting until they had conquered all of Asia.

Then, before any response could be formulated, the Japanese assaulted the west coast of the United States. Underwater mechanised terrors ripped apart the hulls of the US naval vessels, the warships bombarded the costal defences and then came the walking army of metal and destruction. But this was not to be an easy victory for the imperials, as the Americans fought back with everything they had.

Despite being weary of the fighting, and still shaken by the cataclysm, Britain was still eager to help their longtime friends. So it was fortunate that a brilliant mind in Minerva Sheldrake had come forth with a new technology that could possibly help setup effective defences against these kameosa-driven war machines. The Aurora Dawn project quickly started in Iceland and along the eastern boarded of America. Tapping into natural power sources, in particular geothermal, along with more unconventional and to this day clandestine ones they setup a wireless network to direct vast amounts of electrical energy.

Unfortunately by the time the first colossal airship carriers were launched into the stratosphere, the western coast had been lost. As the Japanese continued to advance both the US and Canada devolved and accepted both the help and authority of the British. A new kind of commonwealth was born out of this, a Neo-British Empire as some call it today. In the strangest twist of all, the power of the royal family was re-established with the prime minister conceding power. This all came about due to a renewed nationalism, seen as a direct counter to the imperialist nature of the Japanese. Fighting fire with fire on the battlefields of morale and duty as much as militaries and evolving allegiances.

Finally with the Battle of Chicago, the Japanese war machine was stopped from advancing any further into North America. They did not expect the first two airship carriers the Neo-British Empire fielded against them. Death from the heavens became the signature trick of the new Atmoscorp of the British, a military service born from the merging of the Royal Air Force and the Old Service. The tide was changing, but even as new aurora network transmitters were set up along the east coast and in Chicago, the Japanese were not done yet.

What was thought to be an almost laughably easy victory became a war of attrition as the Japanese quickly through new railgun technology to bear. An arms race ensued with each side pursuing a different path to a gain a trump card. All the while the possibility of nuclear arms was ever present, but none dared to pursue that particularly path ever again. Instead the modern militaries fight with electrolasers, railguns, self-powered robots, flying battle-stations and devastating area-denial aurora network weapons.

Today the world is divided between west and east. Whole countries transformed, far from the two superpowers being Japan and Britain on their own. There are allies to the west such as the Iberian Republic and the Scandinavian Union, both forged out of terror after the nuclear cataclysm. Whilst in the west, China is oppressed by a combined Taiwanese and Korean military supported by the Japanese. Australia barely holds its own against occupation with guerrilla tactics being used by the underground. India has become dependent on the aurora network technology for self-preservation, erecting an energy field that ensures their independence but also cuts them off from everyone on the outside.

The entire planet is a mess, as a never-ending war consumes all resources, all innovation and all hope for peace. Two arrogant superpowers have undergone cultural atavism with a slew of dangerous technologies that have ruined so much already. More factions arise with rushed treaties and desperate governments scramble for ways to minimise damage to their countries, or look for ways to flee and live the good life as aristocrats elsewhere. What else could possibly go wrong now?

Chapter One: Brave New World
The aurora network is not anywhere near the greatest marvel of the modern age, but it was what established the revitalized Commonwealth’s dominance in the West. Indeed, if it had not been for the ability to transmit such massive quantities of energy wirelessly, the entire north american continent might have been overrun by the Japs.

In effect the aurora network now serves as a shadow counterpart to the Earth’s intrinsic magnetosphere. Via this hijacking method the primary transmission towers in Iceland -geothermally powered- are able to prevent copycat signals from existing. Minerva Sheldrake, the original architect of this system, famously said “Nothing short of the power of the Sun can shut down British power now.”

-Arthur Roach, historian

The great hulking craft is assailed by strong atlantic winds as it flies far above the dark seas. It rocks ever so perceptibly and the people inside find everything leaning one way before they collectively change their minds and lean the other. Although the weather buffets hard against the flying vessel it keeps its course very well. Aurora pylons peppered along the craft’s surface surge and become brighter as they enter the storm with rain battering down on the vehicle’s metal skin. More power is being drawn from the network and fed into the turbines as they whine and work against the elements for the benefit of their creators.

Inside the airliner everyone is trying to not let the storm get to their nerves; but of course a great many of the passengers are all failing at keeping an air of unconcern. The odd person is already feeling just a little airsick, but none are allowed to get up so they have to be content with paper bags that get soggy very quickly. Stewardesses brace themselves as the airship shakes a little and then resume trying to calm the passengers down.

One of the people aboard does not require feeble assurances. He is the pseudo-famous, and in some circles infamous, private investigator Atticus King. The dark furred American coyote reclines in his seat as the vessel rocks away. He knows these fights and the chances of him meeting is hand from a freak turn of fate seems all too unlikely to him. Being an ex-Pinkerton agent he has seen and most often been in almost every unpleasant situation a person can conceive of without joining the armed forces. However despite his experience, King has never desired the chance to fight for the British Commonwealth. His reasons are his own, but the thirty eight year old has been getting increasingly more independent over recent years.

Relief sweeps over the passengers as the airship comes out of the storm. Stewardess’ smile much more convincingly now as the airliner comes in on its final approach. Peering outside via the porthole Atticus watches as they descend through the storm clouds. Far below the city, his city, New York appears with its impressive infrastructure greeting the airship with dark towers. Along the sides and the rooftops of the skyscrapers there are blue glowing signs of the aurora network pylons. Drawing power from the ether provides an unusual benefit in helping to light the streets simply from the spectacular antennas of the pylons.

“We are coming in for docking now ladies and gentlemen.” An announcement all across the cabins sound via the PA system.

There is a slight swaying from side to side as the airship quickly descends into the urban jungle. Its point of contact is the docking platform affixed to the top of the popular Empire State Building. Struts from the donut shape structure reach out to greet the airship. The flying contraption’s engines turn and blast air so as it gently bring it down, the noise inside the ship and the buildings dampened thanks to sound insulation in the walls and bulkheads.

Atticus shifts in his chair as he puts his dark brown greatcoat on, then adjusts his fedora. Couplings from the docking platform reach out and grab the airship as the engines start to spin down. A long, protected whining comes from the turbines as the coyote stands up and starts moving down the aisles. One of the stewardesses tries to stop him but he ignores her, the docking is almost finished now anyway.

A cage locks around the metal beast, cradling it far above the rainswept streets of New York. Rain pours down its cold hide, concentrating around the indents where the turbines rest. From a distance it looks a fair bit like some kind of giant beetle that has affixed itself to the Empire State Building. The airliners are not built aerodynamically at all. Instead they rely upon the immense power of the aurora network, especially across the Atlantic, to force themselves along in the air.

King is the first to step off the airliner, feet deftly skipping one step after the next. He follows the signs to an express elevator and takes it going down. He has no luggage, so no need to wait for it to be offloaded. He straightens his tie whilst the machine descends the first few floors of the building. The control panel is shiny enough so he can comb his fur a little too, trying to not look as exhausted as he is feeling now. Just as he finishes flash grooming himself the elevator stops and its doors open. Atticus steps out into the aerodrome’s check-in.

He checks with a grumpy looking member of staff working the night shift. Atticus shows the guy his passport and signs off the necessary documentation to finish his return to North America. The half hearted wishes for a good evening fall from the man’s lips even as the private investigator is already walking towards the second elevator behind him. Stepping inside he hits the button and the machine takes the coyote down to the ground floor of the Empire State Building.

Then King is out onto the rain swept streets of the city. He pulls his collar up and adjusts his fedora as a particularly bad spray of rain kicks up. It weaves through the streets as a horizontal blizzard of not so frozen water. Hell of a welcome. Atticus grunts and heads out into the vicious weather. There is somewhere he needs to be as quickly as possible, before a certain someone starts to realise the mistake they made. He flags down a taxi and tells the driver where to go after clambering into the back, rainwater getting everywhere in the car’s interior.

With icy blue eyes Atticus looks upon the city, his city, as it careens past the window. Up above at the very peaks of the metropolis’ famous skyscrapers, receptor pylon after pylon glow with energy bring drawn wirelessly from the invisible aurora network. The costs on physical infrastructure is reduced tremendously for power and information services, although the military uses are what is more important to the Neo-Commonwealth. The visual effect is of an artificial Aurora Borealis, hence the name, that shimmers along the rooftops of every city or town it is used in. New York is no exception to this and it is enough to keep a person up at night just gawking at the dazzling lights at night.

The taxi crosses over from Manhattan and into The Bronx. Rounding the dark and slick streets here the taxi quickly comes to the private investigator’s destination. As it finally pulls up to the curb King thumbs the driver his fare and steps out of the car and into the rain once more. The feline taxi driver waste no time in driving away as this neighbourhood is the last place he wants to linger in. Atticus though, well this is just business for him as he looks up at the abused apartment building he needs to go into.

Turning the door handle slowly King finds the front door unlocked; even at this late hour nobody bothers. This is probably proof that the landlord has given up trying to prevent intruders and lets the rent payers protect their own individual apartments however they see fit: probably with a gun. Speaking of guns, the private investigator delves underneath his coat and wraps his fingers around his old faithful. He unholsters his firearm: A “Zeus” branded electrolaser handgun; its exterior construction is of sturdy brass and it looks like a long barrelled revolver bar for it ending in a multiple pronged barrel with a metal wring wrapped around them.

Almost a month back now, King took a job to investigate the disappearance of a local family’s daughter. Their last known whereabouts gave him a lead which led to a chain of nightclubs that operate all across New York; catering to different people for different pleasures. Eventually this had drawn him to London, where he had gone to personally acquire further information (read: pummel thugs’ faces mercilessly for answers, sometimes with rebar) out of a barely organised gang of drug dealers that had started expanding across the Atlantic. As happens too often with people who cannot pay for their fix, things turn from bad to worse. Regular patrons eventually become the dealers’ victims in a privatised industry for who knows what. Atticus will be sparring the details for mom and dad when he gets her back; and he is going to get her back.

The investigator starts to ascend the abused wooden staircase in the apartment building. His feet are making more noise than he previously had hoped for, so he changes the pressure from his heels to his claws. That reduces the sound a little as he takes more careful steps, but the wood is too creaky to truly out manoeuvre into quiet submission. If he is right then the two lieutenants of the New York branch of the drug cartel should be on the third floor, making sure their captives are ready for tonight.

On the first floor there is water dripping down from somewhere above, apparently finding its way inside from a leak in the ceiling. There is damp and rot all along the flight of stairs which King is ascending. Thankfully the storm seems to be getting worse outside, with the shear raw noise of it now beginning to mask his own creaking footsteps. Small blessings then, but nothing to be too confident in as he reaches the first floor and the coyote checks his corners. A quick sprint and he is on the other side where another flight of stairs lead him up to the second floor.

Suddenly a loud booming noise startles the private detective. He clutches the grip of his gun as sparks violently erupt from light fixtures. Electric white bolts shoot from the brass fixtures and leave burn marks on the wood floor. This startling and odd display of electromagnetic activity is probably due to some dodgy wiring combined with a stray thunderbolt hitting a network pylon associated with the apartment building. The P.I.’s black fur is sticking out from the back of his neck. There is more noise now coming from above him. Footsteps from the third floor, obviously the electric discharge has rattled them too. But something unexpected calls out above the sound of the storm; a girl’s desperate scream.

Atticus leaps into action, charging up the stairs he reaches the third floor just in time. A couple of brutish individuals, one a large ursine and the other a thuggish canine, burst out from one of the apartment doors. In their hands are large cases, probably filled with illegal narcotics. So they were clearing out. As their eyes focus on the fedora wearing figure of the coyote, they are already in the sights of his gun. Their mouths open to yell out in protest or warning, the bear looks to be letting go of the cases before charging forward. King refuses to give them a chance.

A phased laser array fires first from the mouth of his gun. Highly energetic blooming takes place in the distance between the electrolaser gun and its target, the bear. Ionisation of the air allows conduction of a high voltage charge which arcs across the air and makes contact with the thug’s skin underneath is fur and clothes. Synapses and nerve endings are assaulted by the new source of artificially produced electricity and quickly renders the large man unconscious. His friend has already dropped his cases and is now trying to dart back through the door. A second shot is fired from the firearm, this time taking out of the dog making him crumple up with forward momentum knocking is muzzle into the wall just beside the doorframe.

“Ouch.” He says with a smile as both criminals lie unconscious but breathing on the floor. He heads on towards the door, pressing up against the wall beside it before peeking around to see the room empty.

Creeping his way inside, Atticus keeps his vigil, cautiously checking all corners. However there is a resounding lack of anything at all in this place. The room is ugly and worn down with damp wallpaper peeling away, clearly not a place suited for occupancy. He goes into the adjacent rooms and forces every closet he finds open but there is most definitely nothing in the entire apartment. Ceasing his search for a moment Atticus goes back into the hallway and checks the cases both thugs were trying to carry out with them. Prying the lock of one open, he finds multiple transparent sachets inside, each filled with a redish brown powder. Sky, the most popular illegal narcotic. If the other cases are filled like this one too… It must be the local operation’s entire stash, they were likely using the apartment as one of the ever changing “safes”. Quite a find but it does not help him release the girl.

“Unless…” Atticus cracks open a new idea, one that is the most dangerous yet. He may not be able to find the girl on his own, but he knows just who does. But this is going to require a little preparation. So he confiscates the cases one by one, and exits the building without so much as a goodbye to the sleeping thugs.

Posthuman by Henry Pailing

Posthuman by Henry Pailing

(Book Extract – start of a Novel)

“Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law

PL (Post Landing): 00:00:38

In the twenty third century bridges of light connect the settlements of mankind. They reach across the heavens to touch one world and then the next. The Solar Nexus is the name of this system, this collection of roadways. Each one ends in a terminal, a central structure where matter and men seemingly appear or disappear from or into thin air. A poet might describe it as a harkening back to Bifröst, but an engineer sees such things much more practically. Maintaining a transmission beam that does not lose a single fermion over those distances, for space is not devoid of all matter or energy, is no small task.

Along one of these tentative tethers a person is being transported right now. The energy-matter, or engmat as is the favoured portmanteau, stream’s destination is the ageing city of Atlas; the first city on Titan. Strange disembodied consciousness trickles back and forth until the individual’s body coalesces from the blinding chaos into one solid whole. Solar Nexus terminal T-1 successfully delivers its newest passenger. The dark haired man stretches a little feeling his extremities, a mental tick people tend to pick up after going through an engmat stream. Finishing with exercising his fingers the man steps off the little platform in the centre of the domed room he finds himself in and walks into the hallway just outside.

His body is not entirely flesh and bone, and his mind not entirely neurones and biochemicals. Several different implants down to nanoscopic devices practically infest his whole body. Cranial machines expand his mental faculties, an entire left arm replacement has left him with a multitude of “features” whilst on the surface its synthetic skin looks natural, to name but a few technological features. He is a transhuman, a new person for a new age and in his line of work it serves as an overwhelming advantage.

Outside of the terminal room a hologram is waiting for him. To a vanilla human they might at first glance be fooled into thinking a person is actually standing there, but the transhuman’s eyes can see in infrared and are failing to detect body heat emissions. The avatar of a man begins to talk, his voice cleverly thrown onto the projection to enhance the illusion.

“I regret that I cannot not be there to greet you in person marshal. Public interest has quickly reached a critical point and I am restrained by the responsibilities that pushes onto me.”

“No matter Administrator Grey, this interaction is sufficient for me.” The marshal is already connected to Titan’s nets. Holistic algorithms and classified data mining software already monitoring the “feel of the land”.

The marshal represents the most powerful law and para-military hegemony in existence today, the Terra-Righteous Group. Long ago, in another time, that name might have been a political correctness nightmare, but today’s meta-culture is a lot more direct. In a cluster of worlds where information and people travel at the speed of light, concepts like poverty, global war, racial, political, sexual and religious prejudices have become outmoded concepts. The only significant problems remaining are scattershot organised crime and the occasional natural disaster; as such the TRG has risen up to tackle these problems in the most direct and most efficient manner possible. And the only catch to this? When the TRG shows up, just shut the fuck up and do as you are told to.

The specific reason for the TRG’s presence here is still stranger than the man they have sent still. An object was detected only thirty eight seconds ago. This object entered from beyond the Kuiper belt and conducted an arcing trajectory before entering Titan’s atmosphere. The startling thing though is that its flight path was observed only after the object began its controlled descent onto Titan; thus also preventing interception of meteor deflection systems. Only two possibilities present themselves to those with access to the data: Either something perfectly fooled several clusters of observation satellites and proximity nets of which there is no proof of tampering so far. Or that the foreign extrasolar object defied the fundamental laws of physics and material science, by travelling at super luminal speeds and then surviving an astonishing deceleration. Both of these explanations offer something inherently dangerous and frightening:

The object was made by or is being directed by a vastly superior intelligence in comparison to that of humanity.

So potentially very dangerous, but also very rewarding if the right people get to it first. Thankfully restrictions on travel, along with a general safety warning have been issued to all citizens of Titan. However just now the marshal discovers a problem. One of the data miners feeds a profile directly into the marshal’s cerebral cortex. It is a family of four caught near the impact zone of the foreign object. In a picosecond the profile for each family member is sorted by his augmented hippocampus.

“It appears two terraforming engineers, their child and indentured AI are likely involved at the impact site.” The marshal dolefully informs the panicking administrator.

“I’ve got ’em, signalling fo-“

“Don’t bother, electromagnetic interference is continuously increasing from the epicentre. I shall head out in your fastest vehicle and assess the situation as normal. Hopefully the involvement will be minimal.” Indeed the amount of communications jamming radiation coming from the foreign object is definitely suspicious. A quick calculation projects that all long distance wireless communication will be impossible on Titan in a matter of two hours. The marshal forwards all of this to Administrator Grey, along with his requisition I.D. for the vehicle.

“Of course marshal, anything else?”

“Yes, tell your people to stay clear of my investigation. The TRG thanks you for your cooperation in this crisis.”

***

PL: 00:14:05

This was supposed to have been a regular check on a biomatter conversion station on their way back home. Chief Technician Hank Idris and his always serious spouse Dr Jessica Idris-Houne do this simply routing every Tuesday. They collect their daughter, Ophelia, from Atlas’ Carl Sagan Highschool and check on the bio converter before returning to Hyperion, Titan’s city-hub base for terraforming activity. This Tuesday however is turning out a little different than the routine.

“I still can’t get a signal. But I don’t think the T-links are down.” Jessica informs her husband from near the back of their converted flying utility transport. She has been checking on the vehicle’s own antennae system, but no mechanical fault can be found.

“Is the system dead?” Hank shouts over his shoulder but does not turn around. His eyes are focused, squinting actually, at whatever it is that got lodged in a small grove of specially grown trees; themselves engineered to maintain the terraformed atmosphere out here. But all he manages to see is a faint glow from what must be some sort of impact crater, yet the grove itself seems strangely unaffected. There should’ve been some kind of blast wave from an impact.

“It has to be too much interference. The hardware itself is checking out.” Jessica shouts back and makes her return to the vehicle’s cockpit, but then stops as she sees her daughter no longer immersed in cyberspace. “Are you alright dear?”

“Yeah, ‘mm fine.” She looks a little shaken, but that is only because of the sudden disconnect. “What’s happened? Why have we stopped?”

Her mother briefly summarises for Ophelia that they witnessed an object impacting only half a kilometre away. Shortly thereafter all wireless communications were lost, not even satellite links are working now let alone terrestrial ones. Ophelia announces her own dejection in so few words, having been interrupted from something which her mother suspects was not exactly family fun. Just now the fourth member of their little family rolls out.

“Something very untowards is affecting my systems.” The synthesised voice comes from a metal ball which starts unfolding on the ground. It is the physical shell of the Idris’ indentured second generation AI, Jerome, and never Jerry. Propping itself on four legs, the top of the sphere pops up to present a sensor array with discernible “eyes” to give it a slightly more personable appearance. “Something you’re not telling me hmmm?”

Jessica does not feel like placating the tetchy automaton. So she just walks on to join her husband whilst Ophelia tells the metal ball what is happening. Jerome then climbs up to join the girl, only to be kicked off as it begins on one of its long lamentations on what it could be accomplishing anywhere else than Titan with its high level heuristic programming. As it hits the ground it curses and shakes itself in agitation before rolling away and back out of Ophelia’s world for now.

“What do you think? Wanna go see?” Hank has that look on his face again, the one Jessica has learned to have an instinctive aversion to. Nevertheless there is something out there which Jessica has not known for a long time: A mystery, and possibly a challenge too. After a tremendously tense pause of a whole fifteen seconds she gives in to the eyes he is now making.

“Alright, but we go in with hazmats on.” Hank locks down the controls before following his wife to put on their gear. He tries to get his daughter’s attention but she is already plugged into her terminal again, the device blinking away hooked onto her armband.

“Just leave her here, you know teenagers. Always trying to passively disown their parents.”

“I keep trying to forget what it was like.”

***

PL: 00:19:32

Leaving their moody daughter back in the transport, Hank and Jessica bounce around on the low gravity surface of rural Titan.  Although the terraforming project has already enabled a breathable atmosphere to replace the previously toxic one, only in urban areas can near-Earth normal gravity be established. One of the problems Dr Idris-Houne works on in fact is developing a means of simulating normal Earth gravity across Titan without increasing its actual mass and thus destabilising its orbit of Saturn.

The hazmat suits, although bulky, do additionally provide the advantage of small electro-plasma thrusters. They are custom made just for workers on Titan, although only a few people ever actually need to use them these days after the threat of cryovolcancoes was nullified early on in the colony’s life.

As they approach the grove Hank checks his instrumentation. The air is normal according to specifications; a higher percentage of oxygen is present as expected due to the trees. But the electromagnetic interference, whatever it actually is, appears to have a definite source of transmission directly ahead of them. In fact the extreme background radiation is starting to mess with the equipment internals.

“Ach it’s being fucking stupid!” Hank growls as his voice is projected thanks to a speaker in the suit. His hand clenches tightly around the handle of the toolkit he is carrying.

“Nothing we have has electromagnetic shielding, not for something like this anyway.” Jessica says back and goes on to speculate. “This kind of interference is almost like a weapons grade EMP attack. Maybe not a burst, but almost just as strong a signal being distributed across a large area. If so then this would suggest it is deliberate.”

“Why would anyone set off an EMP on Titan?”

“Just an observation dear. I really have no idea” Jessica frowns behind the visor of her suit. “I’m going to get a closer look. Are you coming?”

Going on ahead of Hank, she leaps with all the force in her legs and uses the thrusters to zoom forward. It is a little rough on the landing but she makes it without tripping. Now in the middle of the engineered grove of trees she can see the remarkably small crater. Her husband bounces across the ground in an attempt to catch up to her quickly; his competence at using the thrusters not quite as high as Jessica’s. However before he even arrives she is already approaching the object and stops about fifteen metres away from it to gawk.

There is a strange shimmer in the air and in the centre of it there are blurry colours of light. All instruments are failing to work via her hazardous material suit now. She deduces that the same electromagnetic interference is causing the strange disturbance into the visible spectrum of light. Unfortunately because of the curious distortion it is impossible to make out what the object actually is, at least not with the blurred and shimmering halo of light around it. Hank Idris catches up now and stares quizzically at the object whilst standing next to his wife.

“Any ideas?” She asks him whilst continuing to stare at the strange light at the centre of the crater.

“Well the crater is too small, it must have had some sort of decent at the very least. Whatever it is.”

“I agree.”

A moment of silence passes between the two. It has been a long time since any member of the human race, let alone a highly educated one, has had to deal with any unknown other than that or death. Even without the information that the marshal possesses, the two know deep down in their bones that there is something intrinsically alien about the object in front of them.

“So what do you want to do?” Hank asks with his hand reaching her shoulder reassuringly. “We can just go back to the transport and let someone else handle it.”

“No,” Jessica shakes her head inside the helmet. “We’re not letting someone else get a first look at this. Maybe if we get a closer look the distortion will begin to clear.”

He protests, suddenly feeling a lot less curious about the object. At the very least, he argues, that he should be the one to approach it first and that she should keep her distance. Dr Idris-Houne does not listen and tells the technician to get a safety harness from out of his toolkit. They will use it as a lifeline, if something dangerous happens then he will just have to pull her back in the low gravity. Hank hates the idea, but he prepares nonetheless by attaching the cable first to one of the larger trees.

Once they are ready Jessica starts to make her way forward across the mostly flat ground. Occasionally she has to look down and carefully lift her foot over a particularly thick root from one of the majestically tall trees. Her husband remains behind her, keeping a firm grip on the cable attached to his wife’s suit. Each footstep she takes makes her heart race faster, but the mysterious anomaly in front of her is beckoning Jessica to come closer. As she gets close enough to touch the edge of the distortion she looks back at Hank as if to ask his permission

He nods to her, his grip tightens around the cable and she turns back to the unknown. Reaching out with one a single arm she pauses just a fraction from the edge of the distortion. Before she can reconsider one part of her brain overrides the other and she plunges her hand into it. There is a slight dragging sensation as though she is moving her hand through a fluid, but nothing painful or the least bit unpleasant occurs. Jessica pulls her hand back and turns it around examining it. With everything appearing safe she takes her first step into the unknown,

As the scientist heads into the breach her sense are assaulted by strange upsets. Not just her vision but other senses, especially proprioception and balance are adversely affected by the electromagnetic anomaly. Dr Idris-Houne almost tumbles forward but stops just in time before she can fall upon the object. Everything becomes clear now, her body adjusting to existing within the inner shell of the distortion.

It is beautiful, like something from out of ice sculpture gallery. Metal and opaque crystal seem to merge into one another as the object levitates about a metre off of the ground. Jessica starts taking mental notes. It is cylindrical in shape with rounded caps, but its surface is uneven with almost crystalline formations appearing all along it. The metal part of its construction seems fairly asymmetrical, and is a silver coloured alloy with rivulet like imperfections just noticeable; assuming that they are imperfections.

With its overall structure combined with the knowledge that it fell from space, her best guess is that it is a capsule. A disturbing thought crosses Jessica’s mind regarding what it might be. Just suppose this is a military prototype, something that malfunctioned, they could be in a great real of trouble with the TGU. But looking back at the floating capsule it does not strike her as anything even remotely human in design, nor contraction materials. The continually thought of it actually being some kind of alien probe runs through the back of her mind making it giggle like a school girl. But she is getting ahead of herself now with visions of presenting this great discovery.

Popping her head back out of the distortion bubble she shakes away the nauseating sensation this causes and calls for Hank to join her. For a moment the man just stands there, the pent up dread he has been accumulating combined with the sight of his wife’s disembodied head just getting to something deep down inside himself. However he let’s go of the cable, attaches one for himself just in case, and approaches the distortion in much the same way Jessica did.

“Don’t be shy Hank, come take a look at this.” The engineer stops just inside of the anomaly, his head feels as though it is spinning around.

“For fuck’s sake Jessica, you sound giddy.”

“What’s the matter? I thought you wanted to see it too.”

“Yeah well, something here is giving me the creeps.” He is telling the truth as well. As he stares at the capsule with his wife, the scientist, he has a wholly different range of emotions playing; ones stooped more in fear and dread, and less in excitement and curiosity.

Jessica looks back at him and points to the toolkit. He sets it down on the ground and depresses the switch on the side making it open up all by itself. Inside the toolkit there are a range of technical and durable devices ranging from gas spectrometers through to adaptable power tools. These are all tools which are of use to a terraforming engineer, but not to study a strange foreign object. Walking over to him, Jessica hunches over her husband as he squats down over the open case.

“What do you want to try first?”

“Just checking my suit instrumentation now. It looks like the interference is the same but hopefully direct contact will help us.” Pointing over her husband’s shoulder she picks out what can only be best described as an industrial tin opener-type tool. He looks back up at her with an incredulous look on his face. “Lets not fuck around,” she explains with obvious impatience.

***

PL: 00:39:14

Simply unacceptable. The marshal is fuming on the inside whilst maintaining his cold exterior, even all of the way out here with no one to make an impression on. Appropriating his means of transportation, something mixed between a bike and a jet with two engines at each end, was complicated by the increasing interference with wireless systems. This delay may have already cost  But he is starting to calm back down, his destination in sight.

The grove of trees are obscured in some of the different wavelengths the marshal can observe. Electro-magnetic distortions seem to wrap around this little area, clearly the source of all this. Something like excitement builds inside of him and it makes his heartbeat race. He sets the bike down and dismounts before he begins to approach the grove. Suddenly the distortion field shuts off and as its effects dissipate the marshal becomes aware of a transport on the other side of the grove.

Outline and registry instantly confirm it, the Idris family are here. The cyborg breaks into a striding gait that propels him somewhere above the average human’s peak speed. Compensating for the low gravity he reaches the centre of the grove as his inbuilt sensing devices do a complete scan of the immediate area. But he does not need the report blinking in his peripheral vision, ready to be uploaded into his memory space, to understand this.

A macabre sight of seeping crimson and torn organs litter the ground surrounding the capsule. They were obviously both adult humans and the report the marshal now loads up summarises they were Hank Idris and Jessica Idris-Houne. This is not good, and for reasons other than those which are obvious, the capsule is empty and the marshal has a new quarry loose on Titan. His mental functions speed up, he can only do this for a limited time with the synthetic synapses pushing the organic ones. He grabs a firearm from his belt, upholstering it as nanosecond nerve endings connect the weapon directly with his augmented nervous system.

Continuing to look around the gruesome scene he fails to see any trail left by whatever emerged from the capsule. On a hunch he goes through various analysis sensors for the air. What he finds is a very slight ionisation occurring, something electrical has disturbed it and has left a faint trail which billows out onto the other side of the grove. Whatever this thing is it apparently went off in the direction to where the family’s vehicle lies.

With his gun still drawn he starts to sprint through the grove, the capsule will have to wait for later. But as he quickly draws in on the Idris family’s vehicle, a subroutine in his cerebral augmentation starts warning him of something unregistered in its threat assessment database.

Pathfinder, by Gerry Fruin. (Adventure extract)

Extract from action adventure story: Pathfinder, by Gerry Fruin.
Work ongoing! (Section of Chapter 1)

The van disappeared as dark clouds hurtled over the tops then just as suddenly it reappeared in a quick burst of weak sunlight. His mood was sombre and his mind in automatic, as he watched disinterestedly as the heavy rain once again shut off the image.

‘An odd place for a small van to be at this time of year,’ filtered slowly into his tired mind. It did not feel right and he started to look with more intent now. Faintly he made out the van as one of the rear doors swung open and as the image disappeared once again in the murk. He thought he had seen a naked figure leap out.
Believing the weather was playing tricks with his vision he turned to look at the receding cloud and waited for the next view using his peripheral vision. This was a much more accurate way to obtain a snap shot of any vague movement, particularly at night or as he was now, in very poor light conditions.
It could not be someone going to relieve themselves naked in this weather, whatever was going on in the van. He smiled at his salacious thoughts. Yet there it was again. Yes, it was a naked figure no mistaking – it was a female. In an instant he was fully alert. She was running towards his position over the rough, fell-top grass and hard, sharp rocks.
Quickly he calculated the distance before she disappeared again about one hundred and fifty metres away. This was no ordinary situation. A man appeared round the side of the van with what ‘John’ was convinced was a weapon.    
At the sight of the weapon his military training kicked in. He moved instantly, working out an interception point with the woman. ‘What the hell was going on?’ he asked himself, as he cut the distance to the position he had last spotted the naked figure.
Again, the fickle weather gave a flash shot of the van showing there were more figures. In the split second he had sight of the shapes, he guessed three and possibly four dark-clad men. Two were nearer so they must be chasing the woman, he would have to be careful now as he would soon be coming into their direct line of sight. Then he saw the naked figure less than fifty metres to his right, whether she fell or dived for cover, he was not sure, but she was lost to him.
Closing in on her, he knew she was no physical threat, no way could she conceal a weapon, he took no humour from this, as he knew something was seriously wrong. To confirm that, the cloud lifted and he clearly heard the sharp crack of a small calibre handgun. ‘Christ’ he thought, ‘more than serious, a kill was about to go down.’
It was not a military issue and he should and could turn away and disappear into the low hung cloud, but a naked woman? He did not pause to consider the ramifications, this felt wrong and he could face the consequences later.
First, stop the killing.

Please note no editing has been done yet!

BABIES AFLOAT by Ruth Nunn

BABIES AFLOAT

          Six small, fluffy balls with tiny heads, treacle coloured, with the characteristic yellow stripes of all mallard ducklings, swam with incredible skill for such young and tiny creatures. Competent they may have been, yet they never ventured far from their doting parents.
          
          Dad’s head, in the sunshine, shone from green to blue and back again. Mum, a less glorious bird in various shades of brown, with a small blue stripe on each wing, was no less proud. The pair had a brood to awaken the maternal instincts of any passing female, and I was totally enchanted. Neither could two male humans, idling by on a boat brightly painted in red and green, resist a second closer look.

          The Victorians had built the canal to be worked on: an important means of transporting goods for trade. In the days when barges were pulled by heavy horses, the canal had seen these craft steered by men who sweated on sunny days such as this. Today, when the colourful boats come complete with engines, and when even work would be so much easier, the canal is a place only for leisure. As I made my way along what had once been a towpath, I met the occasional lazy barge manned by people with little more to do than shout a friendly “Hello” and continue to admire Spring on the water.

          All  around me, life was beginning. A pair of moorhens had three chicks. A pair of coots had two. Another coot hen sat, still conscientiously warming and guarding the eggs in the nest she had so cleverly woven, just above water level, around the reeds by the far bank. Two slender white swans swam with a couple of cygnets to their side; and closer inspection revealed that a third was riding piggy back style between the folded wings of one parent.

          Just occasionally, I met another human or two, accompanied possibly by a dog, stopping to admire rabbits dancing around the spacious fields to either side, or to stare, silently, at the heron. Long-legged, long-necked, with a thin grey body and a long pointed beak, he was incredibly shy. So long as he could perceive no-one watching him, there he stood, watching, statue still, just waiting for some poor unsuspecting fish to pass him by.

          To us humans, the canal was an escape from the troubles of everyday life. All around us, everything was beautiful. The trees grew tall and slender in so many shades of green, their branches dangling low over water which rippled in a gentle breeze, but flowed in neither direction. A plant rather resembling wild rhubarb grew in abundance by the waterside, its enormous leaves healthy with so much clean water to draw on. Tall green sticks poked out of them sporting extravagantly shaped blooms in the brightest of yellows. Butterflies with a single orange tip to each cream-coloured wing darted back and forth, as did a smaller deep red-coloured species. And on the water, the ducklings still swam happily, their only concern in this peaceful world to keep sight of Mum and Dad.