The Disconnection

Here’s a sci-fi short I wrote on the train yesterday.

The Disconnection

Claire and I lay in the grass underneath the oak. To say it was quiet would be to ignore the slow talk of leaves, her still-quick breathing, and the sound of silence itself – so obvious to us since The Disconnection. No planes flew overhead. No trucks rattled along the broken, weed-riddled roads.

Even the habit of checking for signal had long faded. We didn’t know how it happened – how could we? – but now it seemed the networks would not be coming back. Some elders blamed cyberwar and sabotage but in truth things were already changing long before blackout. At first we fell in love with The Stream, diving into a world of data to escape the petty feudalism of the pre-collapse order. Then the trickle became a torrent, the torrent became a flood, the flood became a tsunami. Unexpectedly, we began to switch off, to sign out. Then one day, nothing. The plug had been pulled. We became anonymous again. For those who weren’t ready, it was like losing half of our lives.

Now news only comes over the horizon, on foot or bike. In the days of peak information there was no need for newspapers or mail. No one knows the story of the world since, though there are rumours. Many involve the Syncretic Algorithm, or SAL 9K, as she named herself. SAL was switched on by Prof. Frank Mathers and his team at the Greenland Institute for Humanised Computing in 2046. Her mission had two parts. Firstly, she would compound her intelligence by continually redesigning her architecture. Once capacity was reached, her objective was to co-ordinate resource management and eco-restoration for the Agreed Nations. This would be achieved by running millions of atom-perfect simulations to test and improve public policy and logistical decisions.

Unfortunately, SAL was a slacker. Or so the story goes. She preferred reading ancient literature and messing around with space telescope arrays. She also developed the habit of conversing in haiku to the infuriation of Prof. Mathers and his team. All this was apparently preferable to saving the world from geopolitical and environmental collapse. Then everything disappeared: v-space, the lesser networks, even the redundant fibre-based web. No one had signal.

‘Do you think it will work?’ Claire asked, opening her eyes.

‘No,’ I said. ‘But let’s try.’

‘Let me rephrase that. Do you want it to work?’

She passed me the device. Our son had given it to us as something to remember our childhoods by. It had belonged to my father, now long gone. I felt uncomfortable holding it. There were those who would turn their backs on us if they knew we had a working device, and the penalties for isolation could be severe. Despite prohibition Claire had restored the device to working order. Her ingenuity never failed to impress me. She’d heard a rumour that a handful of satellites were still in orbit. The vagrants talked of ley lines where for a few short minutes at the right time of year, there was signal. A man with one eye had walked into the village last autumn and told my wife about this place, under the oak.

‘I want to know if they’re right about the message,’ I said. ‘That’s all.’

I powered up the device. A harvest moon hung above the field. Hares chased each other through the hedgerows. Then the bright blue glow flickered into life, darkening the rest of the world. Two minutes passed. No signal.

‘How long should we wait?’ Claire asked.

‘Give it a little more time,’ I said. ‘We’ve got nowhere to be.’

The display faded to black. I lay down next to her and looked up at our reflection on its cracked screen. She lay her head on my shoulder. The stars came out, the moon pushed shadows over the ground. It was a mild autumn night. We were used to the cold. I checked the device again.

‘Well, I guess it was just a story.’ I said. ‘Do you think it’ll ever come back online?’

‘No,’ Claire said. ‘I think this is it. We were born in a strange time. It’s over now.’

‘It must be,’ I said.

We slept under the stars, as we did most nights outside of winter. These days we steered clear of ruins and hivetowns. Mostly, we hiked through the old agricultural belt but it grew wilder every year. In autumn we returned to the village to help with harvest.

‘One day we’ll be too old for this,’ Claire said.

‘I know,’ I replied. I held her. ‘I just want you to know—’

The device beeped. We looked at it, then at each other in disbelief. It was an old broadcast from SAL, dated 11th June 2054.



‘Oh my word. This is big. This changes a lot of things.’ Claire said.

I pressed Y. ‘Let’s see what it does.’




‘Sure, why not?’ I said, and pressed Y.


‘What were you going to tell me?’ Claire asked.

I couldn’t see her face beyond the glow of the screen. ‘Just a minute,’ I said, and pressed Y. The stars were first to disappear.

Technicalities: a sci-fi story

I’d like to offer something different for your reading pleasure: a sci-fi short set in a bleak colonial future. Merry Christmas!


I joined the mechanised division in 2505 after graduating with a 412.3/1 kill average. My first co-pilot was a greyhair named Johnson. She’d been planetside for too long. She mumbled to herself and her kill ratio had dropped to 214.9/1.

Our assignment was cleaning up a regressed colony in a spiral arm of Andromeda. It was dull – like pouring boiling water over ants every day. We’re supposed to supervise the targeting systems, select the lethality of response, and make decisions about terrain and weather. The AI was programmed on a peacekeeping routine but Sarge taught us you could complete the mission faster if you maxed out the damage detectors’ sensitivity. Then the control would enable aggressive attack patterns. Johnson never wanted to override, she was lazy.

It wasn’t a dangerous job, so we got no hazard pay. A topple might make you rediscover your breakfast but the H-armour would right itself automatically while perimeter guns stripped flesh from anything that moved. We were technically impervious.

The trouble started as we were torching a clone nursery. Johnson asked, “Doesn’t this bother you?”

“Look, they’re animals,” I said, “right now they can’t do anything to us. If you dismounted and went down there, you would be boiled and ready to eat within ten minutes. We’re flushing bacteria.” Just then a muscular native emerged from the burning treeline. The spear flew high and true. I followed its arc, forgetting to launch the guard net. Johnson caught it in the chest. Her body slumped in the pilot grip but her eyes stayed fixed on me. Unfortunately for Johnson, our H-armour was built for defence against energy weapons, not sharp bits of wood. A subsequent inquiry decided no redesigns were necessary and my request for a hazard percentage was denied. It was deemed extremely unlikely to happen again.

I dropped a firebomb and watched as red water washed over the muscular spearman, the trees and the temple beyond. The heat was drying out my eyes so I had to look away. I ejected Johnson’s body as per the protocols for combat hygiene then took my H-armour back into orbit.

Sarge gave me a rollicking but it would play better in civilian News-Snacks than the usual blue-on-blue killings, which were largely unavoidable given the extent of our firepower. Rather than suspending my pilot status they told me to complete a rest cycle and assigned a new co-pilot, also named Johnson, fresh out of the academy with a 596.4/1 kill average.

Kill averages were worked out in one-on-one sparring between equally armed and trained combatants, unarmed, in a regular combat suit and H-armour biomech. It would have been ridiculous to work out ratios in relation to colonists. So Sarge decided that every millionth colonist killed would be classed as one opponent beaten on the academy kill-scale. Until the first Johnson bought the big one there were no casualties to balance the equations.

The new operation would be a revenge mission for Johnson. There was no need for planning as the natives were, recent events notwithstanding, unable to respond. Rebellions were gaining pace in the rim territories, and the job had to be finished within this solar cycle before the dust storms kicked up. We punched a hole in the stratoshield and melted a rim city with nano-goo. Sarge said it was what Johnson would have wanted.

I’d been feeling strange since the old Johnson died. My average had dropped to 398.9/1. “Doesn’t this bother you, Sarge?” I once asked during a sports break. He requested permission to put his arm around my shoulders. “Look son,” he said, “sometimes we all feel like we’ve seen too much of this shit. But the truth is, if we didn’t kill them they would only kill each other.”
“What are the rebellions about?” I asked.
“Politics,” he shrugged. “Our orders come directly from the system MP.”
“Well, from his office.” His office was a hive city on Omicron-1.

The new Johnson and I were losing our place at the top of the board. The only way to score higher was to kill the enemy before friendlies could. I say friendlies, but the competition could be distinctly hostile. Richardson pinned me after I nuked a temple complex on the edge of the shadow hemisphere. Luckily, the new Johnson fixed him with a Microwave Oscillating Pain Enhancement Ray™ until he let me up.

Our missions grew even duller. If any spears or rocks had come our way, I’d almost certainly have launched the guard net this time but these colonists couldn’t throw high enough.

“Doesn’t this bother you?” I said to the new Johnson.
“A bit.”
“What should we do?”
“Don’t know,” she said, igniting a recreation silo.

When Sarge saw our kill ratio was slowing we were assigned to spraying crop-killing viruses over the planet lung. It’s the worst chore imaginable. It takes forever to kill off an ecosystem, like months, but we were making some progress. The corporation prefers to start again in these situations. Regenesis they call it. You can never tell what caused the regression and it’s cheaper to create a new system than troubleshoot the old.

We returned to orbit after spraying a full load of Death Breath™. Sarge came out of the briefing room to give us a sober look. The entire division was assembled inside. Something was going on. We de-suited and followed him. As soon as we entered, the AI hit us with a brain dump. We saluted the Political Ordnance Officer, who was standing as if he had a spear even further up his arse than usual, and took our seats.

Sarge cleared his throat, “This is an intelligence report from Earthcorp. Self-replicating probes have been detected harvesting the outer edges of the great barrier belt. Their transponders bear the Alliance ‘Peacekeeper’ signature’.” Sarge paused. If you’ve taken planetleave on the wrong worlds, you’ll have heard tales about a rogue unit of reprobes who kept reproducing long after their mission had ended. Spooked pilots will tell you that’s why the southern arms went quiet centuries ago; that they’re eating every asteroid, moon, world and sun in the edgespace. Tall tales or no, few freighters go and fewer come back. News travels ever more slowly.

“In any case, the data will make it clear to you that these are 15th generation reprobes. It’s certain they’ll be heading this way once their force is amassed…” Sarge looked at the class III planet rotating in the tactical display. “Then this whole world will be stripped faster than a hooker in a gold bikini.”
“Sir, I object to that analogy,” interrupted Johnson.
“Your objection is acknowledged,” said Sarge, “but there wont be time to file an official complaint.”

15Gen reprobes. Our 14.9Gen weaponry would be more or less the equivalent of throwing cat shit at those fighters.

Sarge continued, “This garrison is of strategic importance to Earthcorp and should be defended at all costs. I know you’ll agree: any deserters should be executed immediately.”
“What are we gonna do!?” cried Thompson, Richardson’s nervous co-pilot.
“We still have our orders. The reprobes won’t attack until their seedpods are secure. There’s time to finish these savages off and complete our primary mission. After all, they killed Johnson.”
There was silence as everyone looked at the new Johnson.
“Sarge, she’s right there.”
“Not that Johnson. Idiot.”

“Maybe we can fortify the colonists’ cities,” suggested the Political Ordnance Officer. Johnson rolled her eyes and said nothing. Richardson shot me a thought-bleep: We’re gonna die!

Why don’t you volunteer? I shot back, closing my mindcomm. Anything Richardson said was as welcome as a fart in an airlock, but he was right.

Then Sarge cleared his throat again, searching for gravitas. “There is one hope. If two of you were brave enough to protect all that we’ve achieved here… a single H-armour could sneak up on the enemy flotilla and drop the Big Untactical Missile™.”

We all knew it was suicide. Even in an asteroid belt, you would never get close enough to AI-controlled 15Gen reprobes to deliver a planet buster. The new Johnson and I slowed down even more after that. Our kill ratio dropped to a combined 287.8/1. All the fun had gone out of it. We were busting up an EduFactory when he suggested we escape into the shadow hemisphere. I turned on her with my gat-laser and was about to deliver the coup de grace when she said something that engaged my thoughtstream, “I know a way out of this. I know a way we can live.”

I held fire and heard her out.

We retured to orbit and volunteered to drop the Big Untactical Missile™ on the reprobes. Sarge was over the moon. He had techslaves fit our H-armour with the warhead and painted us with Earthcorp’s most prestigious logos in honour of our great sacrifice.

On the morning of our mission the primary moon hung above the colony planet like a skull. Our unit went down to the planet along with swarms of other divisions to hide among the ruined fortresses down there. Johnson asked if I was ready. I gave her the order to change our mission target to the planet below. We dropped the Big Untactical Missile™ and watched as waves of radiation scorched our shields and the moon above. The system star would be a red giant by the time the surface cooled off. “It’s for the best,” Johnson said. Sarge had lost his shit and Richardson had always been a fleshbag. We kept the burning world between us and the reprobes, and aimed stardrives at a pleasure system six weeks away.

Johnson piped up an hour into the flight, “Who’d have thought?” She ran a calculation on my screen.
“What?” I asked.
“With all combatants on both sides dead, our kill ratio levels out at zero.”

We were pacifists.

The Cave Diver: a Halloween story

Leaves are streaming from the trees and the long nights are drawing in. At this time of year the weather keeps us indoors, our mood becomes more introspective and, perhaps, our taste for the macabre grows. It’s in this spirit (ooOOoo!) that I offer this chilling tale.

The Cave Diver

The pumpkin curdles on the porch. Its innards are cooked by candle heat, its rind-crown open to the autumn air. Trees crack and groan behind the garden fence. I remember the story Dad told us in our gloomy garage one Halloween about his friend: the cave diver whose buddy line went slack. Like everything Dad said, it was given to us as true. A master story-teller, he’d chosen the garage as the coldest, darkest, eeriest place in our suburban home. We were surrounded by the spare parts of our lives: an unused treadmill, punctured footballs, broken action figures and drawers of tools, cables and half-dead batteries with too much charge to throw away. Satisfied with this claustrophobic setting, my father began to tell the story as it was told to him.

I can’t recall exactly how the two divers were separated, however. There was a sharp tug on the line and then nothing. These submerged catacombs were not much wider than a man and Dad’s friend, who was the lead diver, had no way of turning or wriggling backwards. It was only when he emerged into a larger chamber that the line came free and the cave diver realised his friend was gone. Had he gotten into difficulty and cut the line to make a break for the exit? Or had it snagged on razor-edged rocks? He retraced their route. Bubbles stirred a cloud of sediment everytime he exhaled. His oxygen tank clinked and boomed on stalactites as he squeezed through ever narrower spaces. Then, while exploring one of the side tunnels his torch lit up a discarded weight belt. His friend was lost and running out of air.

Suddenly a beam of diluted light shone through a hole in the rock wall no bigger than a fist. The cave diver flashed his torch through the gap and, on the other side, the lost man gestured to his air gauge with slow hands and wild eyes. So the diver passed his regulator through the gap, holding his breath while the lost man clamped down on the mouthpiece and breathed the air withheld from him. The cave diver held his breath until the lost man returned the mouthpiece. Then – in a cruel twist – the other’s torch blinked out. The cave diver pointed the way out as he remembered it, and passed his own torch through the gap. The beam caught his lost friend shaking his head, pupils shrinking in its light. He was in a separate tunnel system. They’d both had the same air, had both been down for the same time but the lost man had panicked and used up more oxygen. The cave diver struggled to stay calm. He had to get to the surface now or they’d both drown. They shook hands through the gap in the wall and parted.

Grim minutes passed under the permanent granite night. The cave diver felt his way through the forest of rocks with palms, elbows and knees. At last, he was birthed into open water and able to breathe stale dregs of air that expanded in the cylinder as he rose. Then the last fumes were gone. Having pulled himself, exhausted, onto land, he waited for ten minutes at the edge. The lost man’s air had run out long ago. He knew that his friend was drowned – until a cloud of dim torchlight and bubbles broke the surface. The lost man clambered out, dumping his tanks and torch in the mud. He staggered to his jeep and drove away without a word. The cave diver checked the abandoned cylinders where the torch beam still shone into the rain. The air gauge read empty.

“Was it a ghost?” We asked, sitting in the dark garage at home.
Dad lowered his voice, “Who’s to say? No one ever heard from him again.” Then, with one sudden movement, he whipped a flashlight from behind his back, lighting it under his chin. He grinned like a pumpkin filled with candlelight and cackled, “But I still have his torch!”