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Electric just doesn't STOP.
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[...THE PALE SUN hangs lonely in space, bright but young. In its orbit, one planet, two planets, three — and a fourth, a dry, craggy sphere…]
Djalo frowned. The e-mail was clearly only one page long, and even that was blank except for the two words.
[...Somewhere on the frozen tides of rock, nestled in a ring-shaped ridge, is the bubble-encased colony of Fortium Rhegardé. Outside the ridge, on the flat plains, lie the vast solar fields. They are tranquil and silver, powering the colony...]
They didn’t flash. They didn’t stand out. They just sat in the middle of the screen, sly and unassuming.
[...Above, a silt-storm rages, screams, rampages across the valleys and jagged craters. It’s a ferocious hurricane, blocking out the light and warmth of the growing star, moving across the colony with gradual certainty...]
Djalo scanned the message’s information, which was, of course, no help at all. The message had been received at 05:76:43, and the sender had concealed their identity. All the computer could provide for ‘Time sent’ was ‘data insufficient’. It had the symptoms of a prank message, but not the character; it had the straight-edged nature of the government, but not the information.
[...The colony’s main computer is already making the necessary calculations.
Initiate power supply relocation, thinks the mighty computer beneath the child-like structures and buildings.
Locating secondary power source... thinks the computer.
Battery power supply located... thinks the computer.
Temporarily switching colony power supply, thinks the computer...]
/ the screen twitched.
/ the computer twitched.
Just a little; a small, involuntary flicker, the display being pulled taught suddenly like electronic skin, as
the computer’s sprawling entrails jerk at the alien command, electronic signals scrambling through its system at such an unprecedented
occurrence, the like of which Djalo’s panicking nervous system had never seen before, his pupils shrinking to pinholes as
—the last photons of light hit the solar cells on the planet’s surface while—
—the last photons of light hit Djalo’s retina—
Everything went black.
There seemed to be some more light down here. In the depths. It’s all ready to happen; the silence here is only temporary, as the clock counts down. It’s all ready to go.
It’s all ready to happen...
‘I’m not set.’
...until this moment.
The silence darkened a shade. ‘H4, this is the time. This is the moment. Everything is set.’
‘But it hasn’t been thought through. Everything has been focused on this one point, not enough has been—’
‘H4, this is not the time for questions.’
‘Questions were never asked in the beginning!’ The hiss slithered and soared through the darkness above. The glow of their implements shone on the uncertain faces.
‘Have you lost your faith?’
‘It’s not a question of faith. We wouldn’t be here right now without meticulous planning. But to carry on afterwards without the same planning is ridiculous.’
‘But this must go ahead.’
‘There is still time to abort.’
‘Abortion is not possible! Steps have been taken that are irreversible!’ There was a pause; a beep sounded, with an air of finality.
Battery 47 configuration complete.
‘This is the moment. And it will happen.’
Steill watched the light rapidly receding across the silver plains below. From up here in the Watchtower, the view was little short of spectacular — the vast glas-steel dome could be seen from edge to edge, and the solar fields formed a perfect, unbroken silver lake around the colony. Or at least they would have. The sun had disappeared behind the swirling, shifting mass of gritty chaos. The atmosphere was still just clear enough to make the space surrounding the planet take on a deep, rich blue, while those stars beyond the storm shone brightly.
But the light was disappearing fast.
‘Are we okay?’ she called out to the other watchtower officer, Marcus.
‘Everything seems fine,’ he replied, without looking up from his monitor. ‘Computer’s gearing itself up, looks good for another changeover.’
There were a few moments of quiet, blemished only by the quiet beeping from various instruments. Steill looked over her area of the communications console. She paused briefly to examine the security cameras’ views of the Biosphere, a small, lonely bubble high up on the southern side of the ridge. Isn’t that what they were doing a little while ago? she wondered, frowning at the image of white-coated men looking into their screens and devices.
‘I can’t wait to get off this shithole,’ she said abruptly. She turned round in her seat. ‘I mean, what the hell were my parents thinking? What makes crawling out to the back end of the Empire so appealing?’
Marcus sighed. ‘You’ve asked me that countless times in the last month,’ he said impatiently. ‘And no, I don’t know. And I don’t care. You hate this place so much... Some of us have actually been to another part of the Empire, and appreciate the peace here.’
A little thrown, she turned back, cowed. The silence rushed back in like water behind a sinking stone, this time more uncomfortable. The very last slivers of light were vanishing from the edges of the solar fields; she returned to looking through her telescope, scanning the rocky emptiness beyond them.
Something was missing.
‘Umm... Marcus, take a look at this...’ she began uncertainly.
He didn’t hear. ‘Everything’s running okay. No malfunctions. Guys down at central computer should have everything running smoothly. Five, four, three...’
The strip lights overhead flickered.
‘Looks like we’re alri—’
The lights went off in the biology laboratory — although there was no-one alive to miss them; no-one alive to fumble clumsily in the darkness. Instead, the bodies seemed content to lie where they were, quiet, dignified. Elsewhere the looped security tape betrayed the real scene, which was frozen but disturbed. The scientists’ bodies gave no clues as to their demise, and their personal instruments remained still and untouched. The tables, the samples, the glass tanks — all were peaceful, almost grateful for the rest the darkness had brought them.
Yet the computers whirred on.
Analysing, calculating and constantly detailing the genetic samples, the vast banks of lights and displays flashed madly and without human direction. The computers had new information, and new instructions.
The streetlights were dead. A new, ugly, alien world had descended upon the buildings and concrete, a world of icy chaos, of cataclysmic silence. For while the people on the streets stood still, looking skywards, their minds reeled, writhing in confusion.
The Electric didn’t stop.
Electric just didn’t stop.
Everyone knew how it was made; everyone knew it was made. In theory, everyone knew it could stop. But it just didn’t. It never had. There was no reason it should. Why would it? It was Electric. It was inconceivable. People didn’t just stop breathing, did they?
The world was suddenly colder than ever before. The distant crying of a child sounded as everyone felt, naked and lonely.
And then the speakers on every streetlamp and on every street crackled into life.
‘People of Fortium Rhegardé. The authorities of the cruel Democracy have failed to respond to or even acknowledge our threats...’
‘...As such, we have been left no option. As of now, Fortium Rhegardé is under control of the Crimson Republic.’
The room’s speakers died again, the words echoing in Djalo’s mind. Then he was left alone again, alone in the dark.
Darkness scared Djalo. His eyes, like most people’s, had never had to adjust to it; now he was entombed in his own personal state of nothingness for minutes, hours, days. For a child of the Empire, brought up on technological wonder every second of every day, it was death: no light, no sound, nothing, nothing. Adrenaline rushed through his system, all waiting for something to happen and terrified because nothing was.
Eventually, he rose from the computer chair slowly, his memory more than his eyes making out the wide window his bed lay under. He extracted the lead from the computer and let it wind back into his wrist — with no input, the wires in his arms and the back of his head were now just silent metal. He lightly fingered the recent scar on the back his head. Maybe they’d had to open him up like everyone else. But they shouldn’t have needed to.
He knew there were no objects on his open floor, but his steps were still short and low, his arms outstretched in front of him. In the space of mere minutes he had been reduced to the level of a primitive, a foetus, struggling and fumbling without direction or certainty. Bumping softly into his bed, he climbed up onto it, and looked out onto the city.
At first, there was nothing but darkness. Shapes shifted and patches of grey spread and vanished, but it was nothing more than his own eyes floundering, struggling, incapacitated. Then, here and there, one by one, the streetlamps’ backup power began kicking in, and whole rows of sentinel fireflies began lighting up. Their orange light was duller than their usual white-yellow, and some sputtered and died barely seconds after coming alight, but the cityscape soon arose out of the blanket shadow in the half-light of fungal gloom. And there were tiny shapes down there too, tiny dots frozen in the orange syrup but soon moving, in ones and twos, randomly, scattered and confused. They were quite probably running and screaming in panic and fear... yet from here, from up here in the muffling silence, it was so small, so meaningless, so curiously irrelevant.
Only it wasn’t irrelevant. He turned back apprehensively to the void that was his room. What... what should people do? What should he do? Stay calm and wait for the power to kick back in? Even in the bowels of uncertainty Djalo suspected that to be futile. The emptiness promised nothing. It was starting to eat into his mind. Discomfort was rapidly turning into panic as he heard his heartbeat rise...
‘Dead,’ he said. The word cut the silence smoothly and was swallowed up just as quickly. ‘Breathe. Fist. Mutilation. Fucked. Fuck. F.’ At least he heard the words, he was alive, he was here. He was conscious. But his strength of mind was breaking down quickly; there was no proof of the sounds, the fading swearword from his lips… it was all suddenly less real...
It could all turn back on in a second. There might just have been a problem switching the power supply for the colony.
But there are never any problems.
He slowly stood up from the bed and made his way, centimetre by painful centimetre, to the door. The silence was now clawing at the edges of his mind, the panic rising in his oesophagus, his pulse beating with accelerating immediacy. Breathing slowly, trying to calm himself down, he reached out into the darkness — and his fingertips made contact with the plastic doorswitch. With a small sigh of relief, he allowed himself a tight smile, and pressed the pad. And pressed it again. And, with the ominous silence remaining heavy, he continued to press it.
The door refused to open.
His breathing quickened; the situation was crystallising before him with painful clarity. There was no light because the only lights were powered by the colony’s system; the doors would not open because they too were powered by the Electric. Everything was run by Electric. Everything. Surely there was a back-up? He glanced out at the tiny, flickering, dilapidated streetlights. Why had everything relied so heavily on just one source of Electric?
Because there are never any problems.
Everything was secure. Engineers, programmers and equipment — there was no way any of them could function outside controls; the Civil System was virtually impossible to break into. But maybe, Djalo reflected, it was not so much that... If something went wrong there would be an outrage. Electric was part of the running of life, never noticed but always there. It just didn’t stop. There was no reason for it to.
A sudden sound made him jump; the computer monitor crackled with static. A pinpoint of white light expanded to fill the whole screen, shedding a dim glow over the whole room. For Djalo’s drowning eyes it was a saviour, once again every flat plane outlined, once again able to judge existence with distance. On the screen the words ‘signal output’ appeared, and the wire he’d been using earlier flashed with a small blue-orange spark. He moved and picked up the end, examining the chrome tip, and frowned at the screen, then the door. He glanced outside again; neither inside nor outside world seemed to be lighting up as well. It laid itself out as nothing short of suspicious, even considering such a blackout. But Djalo wasn’t stupid, or slow. Taking the cable he pulled it quickly over towards the door, towards the tiny socket beneath the panel on the wall, and cursed as it nearly tore out of the machine when it reached its length. He grabbed hold of the wall-mounted unit and tried to pull it out, to no avail, before remembering the output lead attached to his right wrist, reeled up inside the elbow. Setting his jaw firmly, he plugged the computer lead into his left arm...
...[ uncodified input : decoding ]...
...against the noise in the back of his head, he unreeled the lead from his right wrist, and plugged it in.
There was a click, and the door whirred open.
He remained still for a second, the background interference fizzing in his head, and then unplugged both leads; one wound back into his arm, the other fell to the floor. The words ‘signal output’ vanished; the screen remained white.
He took one last look at his room, and stepped outside.
The white glow failed to travel far down the corridor, but either end was dimly lit by wall-mounted lights from outside of the block. Softly but with a quick pace, he walked down the corridor towards the front of the building, to the window overlooking the street. Slowly passing doors on the left, right, left, right, left, right — he was sure he could hear a faint tapping somewhere. Yes, there it was, a little further down the corridor. He stopped in front of one particular door, and listened to the quiet tapping, a slow maddening metronome in the hollow silence. Djalo was suddenly aware that it was someone inside their room, tapping on the door rhythmically, senselessly. Disturbingly. Tap, tap, tap, tap. The blackout felt an age ago, and they’d probably screamed and banged on the walls, wild and desperate, only to find themselves alone in the silence. The mental image of someone reduced to sitting there just beyond the door, wide-eyed and still, tapping, tapping, was enough to make him cringe. He opened his mouth to call to them, whoever it was — and then closed it. What could he do? He knew there was at least four hundred people in the entire block; he’d be able to do nothing for any of them. With the crazed tapping scratching at his brain more than the silence had, he walked on towards the lift.
He wasn’t sure if he’d expected the elevator to operate or not; upon reaching it, he pressed the pad on the wall, just to be greeted by further mechanical silence. For whatever reason he had been able to get out of his room; it didn’t mean that the lifts would work. He growled and threw himself to the wall, then collapsed to the floor, sighing in exasperation at his newfound imprisonment — again, how had it come to be that living blocks relied solely on the two elevators? And yes, once again, because they didn’t go wrong. There was no need for anything else. Djalo had heard that even until a few centuries ago, people gained height by climbing a permanent series of angled ‘stages’, or ‘steps’, or something. So inefficient, but so practical! On reflection though, in his current state of mind, he might be prepared to take the sixty-metre drop from the window. If the window wasn’t powered by Electric too.
Then, the elevator lit up.
Makes sense, he supposed, as his nervous system relaxed with the sound of Electric. If someone or something had truly wanted him to leave his room, they would also want him to get out of the building too. He pushed himself up onto his feet, and watched the green display above the doors whirr through its power-up procedure. Glancing back down the corridor, he reflected on how the water system ran on colony power; that even though they had food, all canister openers were Electric. He shook his head, and stepped over to look out of the window, and down at the streets below.
He frowned. There, near that streetlight... was that a pair of D-polics?
There was a momentary flash, and strip-lights down the corridor exploded into light. Djalo turned, rubbed his eyes against the sudden brightness, and saw the lights had come on between his open door and the second lift. Furthermore, as the second green display also ran through its initiation sequence, the doors slid open. He turned back to the closed doors in front of him, and the ascending green digits above them.
Something was wrong.
Relief transformed to suspicion, his spine went cold, and his pulse raced once again.
The digits nudged closer to his floor number.