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MARCUS HEARD HIS breath sharp and shallow in the darkness, and quiet too, as though he dare not be heard. He could feel his hands trembling, but — but he couldn’t see them. Were they trembling at all? Did he have hands any more? Was he dead?
‘Steill?’ he croaked, his throat dry. The word disintegrated in the inferno of silence.
‘M-Marcus?’ came the reply, somewhere.
‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’
He stood up, and reached out in front of him. The control panel was still there, the monitor’s glass smooth beneath his fingertips, but it felt so cold, so derelict, so lifeless. As his eyes adjusted he could make out a greyer, bluer haze from where the windows presumably were, but it was still just as much nothingness for now. Holding on to the console, he clawed his way through the black to where his memory said Steill was sitting. ‘I’m coming over.’
‘Okay,’ she replied edgily. She dared not move, the absence of Electric a knife to her throat. ‘Do you know what it is?’
‘No I don’t. Why would I? Should I know what it is?’ he hissed sharply.
‘No, no...’ she whispered back meekly. ‘Just, hazard a guess, maybe?’
There was nothing for a few seconds. ‘Not sure. The Electric’s stopped. Either — either the ’Tower’s Electric has been cut, or, or... or the whole colony’s system has been shut down. The changeover wasn’t successful.’ The words echoed in the silence, words that at any other time would be both laughable and unthinkable.
He reached out a hand in the dark. ‘I’m here,’ came his voice, nearer to her but neither of them able to place it. Both felt like bodiless voices in a sea without distance. She reached out as well, and they withdrew sharply as her wrist touched his forearm.
‘The — the quiet…’ she stuttered. ‘I’m scared.’ She reached out, feeling for the once comforting plastic panel, and tapped it with the back of her knuckle. And again. And again.
‘It’s okay,’ said Marcus, sounding more convincing than he felt. He fumbled out in the dark and grabbed her wrist gently but firmly. ‘I’m sure it’ll come back on soon. There’s probably just been a, a glitch or something.’
‘You think so?’
He didn’t reply. The Electric had never stopped; he was baffled at himself for promising such things. He was nearly as frightened as she was. He doubted it would suddenly come back on.
‘We can’t get out’ Steill said slowly. ‘The comms are down because there’s no Electric. But we can’t get out to tell the polix because the doors and the lift are Electric as well.’
He shook his head to himself in the darkness. ‘There’s no way out or in.’ He suddenly remembered the other fourteen scientists in the other rooms of the watchtower.
The quiet washed over them again, held at bay by their breathing.
‘So... are we going to die up here?’
Marcus wondered whether to answer that question, when the communications panel lit up.
The silver dart cut its way through the starlit emptiness, the mass of the planet opening up into detail ahead. The swirling cloud covered its contours like some monstrous tumour. Yet somewhere beneath was its destination, the singular point its onboard computer had been fixed on for decades.
The reverse thrust engines picked up, as it neared the planet.
What do you mean he’s not there?
He’s — he’s not there sir.
Caissan grimaced. Details, Captain...?
The door was open, the lift had been used, his monitor was on.
Well this is hardly optimal Captain. Find him.
Through gritted teeth, Officer Caissan exhaled. The transmissions hadn’t been lying, the Crash had them all on their knees, and now this Djalo man had escaped.
The power of the Democracy was laid out before him, here, the centre of operations and authority in Fortium Rhegardé. Here in secure rooms inside tower blocs at the heart of the colony, Democracy technicians sat at glittering desks with multiple screens and glowing lines, blurred fingers scrambling over keyboards. His eyes flicked from one silent officer to another, and all the wires connecting them to the mainframe; sure, in theory they were all independent units — people, even — who at the end of their programmed shift would leave and return to their quarters. But here, as soon as they uncoiled the wire from their wrists and plugged themselves in, they were part of the Democracy, the centre of authority. It was fantastic...
Caissan felt like gesturing wildly and screaming, except he’d already done that. Besides. It wasn’t seemly.
...and yet thoroughly useless. The Electric wasn’t going anywhere, and for that he was thankful; he fingered his own wire nervously and whimpered silently. (He didn’t need his own wire.) They were all apparently silent, even though he could hear them in the back of his head correlating figures and co-ordinates and System details even he didn’t understand — but the air was silent, except for the beautiful hummm of the Electric.
If Caissan was angry, Governor Argent had been incensed. Nothing had changed visibly since before the Crash, but those ridiculous threats over the colony PA system had frayed his nerves the last few weeks, and his human, unprofessional side was still giddy from the whirlwind of Argent’s wrath. His transparent visor had thrown up the Governor’s image while the monstrous digital presence had welled up in the back of his skull... he shook himself, and clung to his wire, his anchor.
‘Djalo Stefans’. He viewed the man’s profile: Humidity Engineer, 43, male; wanted. And he had escaped; unexpected. His attempt of escape was only to be assumed, of course — presumably there was no other reason for the signals they’d picked up granting power to his door and elevator. The main concern lay in what source they had came from. Who could possibly have the Electric capacity and authority to control the power supply when the entire mainframe was still, as it were, fumbling in the dark? If they could switch it back on for one instance, why had they not switched it on for the colony? And what possible interest could they have in this Djalo man?
Maybe the surgery should have been started earlier. He thought back to the first announcements, the first blood-chilling announcements coming over on the colony system. They were transmitted everywhere — not just the speakers atop the streetlamps, not just the ones in the pavement, everywhere. They were heard by the fish in the deserted park’s pond. They were heard by people in their hospital beds, for hell’s sake. And for them, for him, for everyone, it was all an avalanche stemming from one tiny moment: that first time, when it was clear that someone had broken the system. The words were immaterial; at the time they’d seemed little more than idle threats. But the crackle, the tick, and the rough certain voice stamping through its demands — that had been terrifying. The Democracy was impenetrable, the Electric codes, the psychological testing, the fact that no-one else had the money to pay anyone to do it. It was terrorism, pure and simple. It was the first time he’d felt the icy sensation of fear.
Target at 4000km, sir. He looked up at the officer who’d called him through the wires, and realised it could have been any of them, tapping away into their desks. In theory they had names.
Hopefully it was the last time.
The image of a pod flashed up — it was frozen here in his visor, but far above he knew it was speeding towards the planet. Apparently the onboard computer had shut itself off to all incoming communication; that was just as well. Soon it would be little more than a streak of destruction several kilometres long, hopefully missing the solar fields — although given current circumstances, Caissan reasoned, even irreparable damage wouldn’t matter now.
Sir, defensive action required?
Caissan’s eyes narrowed. The ID code in his head was #084 — that was Hyoni, wasn’t it?
A small silence. “Most probably”, sir?
Fortium Rhegardé was the Empire’s furthest outpost, with communication to the nearest station taking months to send and receive — there was nothing to say the rest of the Empire wasn’t somehow being overrun by this “Crimson Republic”.
Apologies. Make that “affirmative”.
And get me that fucking connection to the tower.
He cast an ugly glance around the dark, grey room. If other colonies had been off-lined as quickly as Fortium Rhegardé, there was no telling how long warning messages might take to be received, if any were coming at all. The occupier of the pod was an unknown, a risk, and as such soon to be no more. And he didn’t even know which arrogant wretch he’d spoken to. He stopped, and found himself clinging to his wire with one hand, and absently fingering the scar on the back of his neck with the other. Yes, they should have started the surgery straight away.
Connection complete, sir.
It was curious that he had the ability of self-reflection in his heavily-engineered mind. Obviously, all leaders in his position — across colonies and continent stations alike — had to be psychologically verified for the post; this was why he felt only a flicker of grief for those left in the watchtower. It made sense. But it was interesting that he knew what grief was, and simply could examine his polished mind for it. He squared his shoulders, and at barely a mental gesture the silver craft before Caissan vanished. In its place, his visor threw up the view from a camera, in which two hunched figures could be seen.
‘Officers Breuvart and Ghiam?’ his crisp voice affronted through the gloom. One of the figures drew closer. The soft glow of the screen there in the watchtower lit up a long, square face, the silhouettes taking refuge under the stark ridges and chasms.
‘Yes, sir? Sir, please state your ident — oh. Sir?’
‘Officer Ghiam, you and Officer Breuvart are required personally for immediate colony assistance. Do you comply?’
‘Of course, sir. Sir, the power... we’ve lost the Electric here in the tower...’
‘A reconnaissance party is currently on its way; Captain Vai will give you instructions. Remain stationary until you are received.’
‘But sir, the power, there’s no light—’
The projection dissipated into nothingness, reflecting the watchtower’s lapse into darkness. But Caissan was calm and cold.
How soon can the Crash be traced? he questioned line #053. (Officer Fielding?)
Not soon sir. The colony network is immense, we still have no idea if it came from somewhere on the planet—
Caissan sighed. His almost unparalleled patience and resolve had been badly worn over the last few weeks. Yet the infuriation merely seemed to accumulate.
Instantly the hologram threw up thousands upon thousands of green and black squares, laid out in a perfect grid before him. His visual cortex examined them as they scrolled down.
He stopped on one.
Where is the Biosphere’s power source?
Djalo knew it was futile. No-one knew exactly what capabilities D-polics possessed — but they were the security of the Democracy; it was impossible to think what they were incapable of. The only reason he had to doubt their powers was he’d never seen them exercised. Everyone’s communication chip (at the base of their skull) doubled as citizen ID... why would anyone dare oppose the Democracy, knowing each singular moment of their lives was being recorded? How would someone ever find the means to do so, when only the Democracy had the money to pay for the technology?
And yet here he was, hiding with shallow breath from the D-police.
Here, in the colony’s park.
Like most people, Djalo found the park unnerving. Although mere tens of metres from the surrounding roads, the trees and space seemed to generate a silence, an island of curious uneasy silence. Generally it was only lone individuals who made use of the park, and they did so rarely. Even so, in the slow light of the sun, the scabby vegetation offered a peculiar state of isolation for any who sought it.
At least, it had done. Now it was black. Even surrounded by a dark desolate colony the park was a chasm, empty of sound and light. Ever since that second he’d burst through the rear door of his block – found, of course, mysteriously open – his sense of touch had driven itself to a startling level, even under the amber gloom of the streets. Now, his active eyes spotted one of the hanging UV lights that supported the sun’s rays — reduced to a mere silhouette against the dark grey, two-dimensional, useless and void.
He knew they were coming. Despite the Electric, and thus the proximity sensors in the park being useless (he wriggled slightly, one pressing into his back where he lay in the ditch), the chip in his skull would be drawing them closer to him right now. D-polic visors had 3-dimensional shape scanners, which would easily locate his huddled human figure — and at the very least their infra-red scanners would pick up the heat gushing off his nervous body like a fountain in a desert. The immediate silence still felt like a razor to his head, his ears, his brain; through it though, far away, he could hear the sound of people. The shrieks of people suddenly lost, the cries of children, the sound of feet running blindly as if going anywhere would do them any good...
Somewhere in the near distance, a crunch.
His breathing was the largest object in his world right now. No matter how still he laid and how hard he tried, the noise of it seemed to echo around the trees. His speeding heartbeat appeared hell bent on personal treason. The booming footsteps in the leaves were calm and certain, definitely closing in on him.
He wondered why he’d stopped here. It seemed idiotic now, the blind reaction of a frightened animal — at least running would have given some more time, more time to think, to live.
The footsteps stopped. For what seemed like an age in this reality without time or structure, there was no sound, nor movement. The urge to scream out and give himself away was tearing Djalo into pieces. But soon enough, the steps returned, slower this time but with alarming rhythm and closeness. Getting closer. And closer—
And in a moment of absolute terror, the shadowy behemoth of a human stepped over where he lay.
The steps continued, fading away, allowing the silence to pour back like treacle.
Djalo counted to himself. One, two, three, four, five...
At the count of two thousand, he leapt up and ran.