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MY NAME IS Archeus. I am a scientist. I study life. My studies have been quiet for a long time, but now I have specimens, and problems. These animals aren’t alive. Or dead. And they don’t have enough eyes.
There was always the possibility these animals could have fewer eyes, and no brain. Where is the central core they should have, that processes thoughts? Simple movements are easy; they could be correlated on a neurone grid across the skin, to guide actions and motion. But I saw them communicating when they were first brought here (and in the few days I have had since), barking in that primitive and alien manner. So how can they think? These things are all soft and, well, squidgy; they should be brittle, hard. It doesn’t make sense.
I have one laid out unconscious in the darkness before me. It’s uncomfortable having to work in darkness, as any scientist knows, but I have a personal device that emits light, and regular studies must continue. What bothers me most is the visual issue though. The way they are built, how can these animals cope with so few eyes? It is absurd and ridiculous. They must somehow be lucky freaks, untouched by evolution, because animals like these should be designed better than that. But no, I’ve studied the random limbs that spring from their bodies at baffling angles, and there really is nowhere else where viewing organs should be. Surely the basic ears aren’t enough to keep them from danger? It is a highly intriguing study I am pursuing, and has certainly caused mild turmoil amongst the other scientists here.
I’m about to prod the skin with a medium-powered device — you can see the flesh twitch, perfectly normal for such soft biological material. But my goodness, it’s like a jellyfish! There’s no shell, no firmness, no stability surely. Absolutely fascinating. My training and experience has never prepared me for such things; it is almost like what the first “scientists” must have been like in the ancient times, fumbling blindly and making mad assumptions about breathing and the like. There are some here, close to me, claiming they are fabricated constructs — but I am highly sceptical of such throwaway ideas, particularly from those who have so briefly viewed their behaviour. Those who have scorned my earlier work. This here is science, cutting edge science, and what I am doing here now is identifying and understanding a clearly alien species.
...Two thousand and one, and two, and three...
Marcus felt he’d been counting for an age. Yet maddening as they were, the numbers proved it — he and Steill had been sitting in silence for just minutes, not hours. Of course they were only makeshift minutes. Without the mainframe patching the time into his head he was counting blind, something he hadn’t done since he was a child. For fun. But even with a hundred seconds to a minute (and a hundred minutes to an hour) there couldn’t be that much scope for error.
‘Marcus.’ The sound made him jolt. He looked at the dim shadowy shape that sat between his legs with his arms around it.
‘Marcus I’m cold.’
She scratched absently at the locked drawer that kept their phones, just like he had a few minutes before. He sighed. Of course she didn’t mean warmth. Yes, the heaters would be off, but the insulation up here was more than adequate.
‘My head Marcus. My head’s cold.’
Phones were battery-operated; if they could just get the lock open (an Electric lock, of course), they could call for assistance, maybe find out what was happening. Right?
‘It’s because you haven’t got any input. There’s no data input. There’s nothing telling you what to do.’
Then of course he’d remembered all communication was processed by central computer, and the phones would be dead as well — just glowing devices, no hologram, no vid-phone, no clock.
He sighed again in frustration. Dependence on the Electric and the System might have meant a lack of freedom — but this was the terrifying alternative they’d been threatened with all their lives. His head felt cold too; unassisted, undirected by the computers and Electric he’d known all his life, he felt severely alone, a child detached from its mother. He knew some people had further developed brains, with anything up to half their brain being engineered silicon. Most were scientists or technicians; he knew of at least two in the colony. He’d seen first-hand how they could think at far greater speeds, and communicate from any location with human or machine, their minds balanced and digitised beyond any ordinary person. They were triumphs of technology. And here, sooner or later their batteries would run out. He shuddered at the thought.
Hopefully the back-up patrol wouldn’t be too long. And hopefully they’d be told what exactly had gone wrong, and hopefully that it was being fixed. His suspicions and basic instincts, however, laughed at such naiveté. They’d all heard the blood-freezing threats over the colony announcement system. But no-one had... no-one had actually thought... It was hard to say if the Governor’s efforts had been serious enough; the idea that the Democracy was so utterly powerless was impossible to believe. Even suspicious. And here, unless D-Polics were being sent round to evacuate and free all the colony’s population, it had to be a specific and immediate operation for two Watchtower personnel to be required.
Which raised, and returned him to, a serious question. If the Electric had been shut down...
‘Marcus,’ whispered Steille, stirring in his arms.
...Presumably unaware to the colony’s Democracy staffing...
‘Marcus,’ she said again, the fear gone from her voice.
...How did they have the power to contact them?
‘Marcus, if the whole colony’s Electric is down,’ she said with slow certainty, ‘where did they get the Electric to power the desk?’
He paused. His brow creased pointlessly in the darkness. ‘I don’t know. Maybe one of the Batteries is still hooked up?’
‘Where to, the Governor himself?’ she replied, her fear giving rise to an edge of sarcasm.
‘Mmm,’ he agreed. The back-up street lighting was one thing. This was something else.
And, as the lift lit up in the corner of the room, they’d hopefully soon find out.
They watched the green digital numbers above the doors ascend rapidly. They were only official floor numbers; most of the watchtower had nothing in it, a large hollow tube with the appropriate wires rising hundreds of metres from the colony floor. Even the control tower they sat in, science decks below them and the hundreds upon thousands of complicated devices the Watchtower held had been assembled from the standard colony kit. Most colonies were based upon the standard kit and had optional extras as the Democracy saw fit with their resources. Fortium Rhegardé, the Empire’s furthest outpost, was the standard model right down to the last diode.
Holding their breath in the semi-glow, the numbers slowed, and stopped, and the doors parted to reveal — nothing. For a split second, the cave below the luminous digits appeared to hold nothing. But then there they were, striding out of the swampy shameful darkness, the recognisable shadows of three D-polics. Inside the lift, there was a smaller glow... outlining the profile of a fourth?
‘Officers Breuvart and Ghiam?’ came the voice of the nearest, as their plasteel-capped boots halted a few metres away.
Steill and Marcus had already scrambled to their feet, apprehensive but largely relieved after the emptiness. ‘Yes sir?’ said Marcus, looking straight ahead.
‘Captain Vai,’ came the stern voice from beneath the open visor. ‘There isn’t much time. The Gun Deck, please.’
Marcus glanced at Steill, who nodded solemnly, eyes slightly narrowed. ‘The lift.’
You’d think they’d have lights on their equipment, or their helmets, thought Marcus, looking sideways at Steill as they all marched quickly into the dark mouth of the open doors. He picked out a flash of her eyes, green in the glow of the lift’s display: attentive, and a little scared, but alert. He also noticed in that half-second her eyes turn from him and to the secondary glow inside the lift itself. Which did illuminate a fourth figure. It was another D-polic, holding at waist height an open case, possibly metal. The glow was tiny, barely three buttons lit from behind — but it was enough to show the cable linking the case to the lift panel. Inside, Steill reached up to the left and pressed a button, shutting the doors. Marcus looked about edgily, the D-polics watching stony and hawk-like as Steill punched the security code into the golden touchscreen display. There was an approving beep, and the lift moved silently upwards... to the Gun Deck.
‘There are others,’ said Marcus, breaking the silence suddenly and with an edge of desperation, as he remembered the scientists. ‘On the other floors...’
‘Please, the matter in hand,’ came the flat response of the captain, not even turning. The doors opened.
Officers Breuvart and Ghiam were very nearly the only personnel with access to the Gun Deck, and even they couldn’t help walking out onto it with a sense of apprehension. In the colony’s history it had never been used; no feet had walked the floor since it had been built. The D-polic standing in the lift had pressed several buttons, and before them the large plinth bearing the gun burst into light, reds and blues glistening along the contours of is surface. The Gun Deck topped the Watchtower itself, and the walls and ceiling were made entirely of glas-steel. Transparency meant little, now the height of the tower was wrapped inside the raging siltstorm; yet Steill and Marcus were suddenly aware of the height they were at. Seeing the floor stretch a matter of metres before slipping suddenly into the darkness...
‘One of you, into the gun now,’ ordered the captain, a sharp reminder of D-polics’ lack of emotion. As the pair glanced at each other, a knowing look passed between them. D-polics were meant to be devoid of emotion, but it still grated, especially here and now. Steill stepped up, swinging herself into the padded black seat of the pod beneath the vast gun, and immediately began studying and familiarising herself with the panels, switches, buttons and screens.
‘There’s been an aggressive craft identified coming in rapidly at an angle of three-five-one, six-seven-three degrees,’ said the captain. Marcus, standing near the lift, looked at him curiously; he could only imagine the D-polic was examining some visual display or information on the inside of his helmet.
The other D-polics’ attention was split between him and Steill settling into the imposing set-up of the gun. But in the semi-light, under their policing gaze, his own eyes turned to the open case held by the man still in the lift.
Steill flicked the last switch, and there was the orchestral sound of the gun’s wiring system booting up. Above, the shadow of the guns’ twin barrels twitched through the thin mist of the flying silt. She located the wire by the side of the seat, and plugged it into the socket in her left wrist (with a sigh of relief, all the numbers filling her head again, the warmth of the machine in the back of her brain). And with a noticeable hint of gingerness, she picked up the gunner’s visual display helmet, and put it on.
‘Angle three-five-one, six-seven-three, locating...’ she said statically, digits running through her head and her vision zooming through the darkness above them.
‘Target must be taken out for colony safety,’ came the captain’s equally cold voice.
‘What’s made the colony switch off, captain?’ asked Marcus. ‘Is it the Crimson Republic?’
‘We don’t know anything yet, and it’s not my place to say,’ growled the captain, staring fixedly at Steill in the gunner’s chair. The whole of the bulky column that held Steill swivelled, spinning effortlessly clockwise and anti-clockwise as the guns tracked their target above.
The Crimson Republic, stabbed a familiar thought, passing though Steill’s world filled with grids and numbers. Suddenly an oval-shaped graphic appeared before her, backed by stars; the crosshairs immediately turned red and locked on. ‘Target located sir,’ she called.
‘Fire,’ replied the captain.
...Digits randomly flew through her consciousness, she was struggling to keep track of the pod and her own mind back on the Gun Deck...
‘Sir, what is it?’ she called, nervously.
The captain appeared to pause in disbelief for a split-second. ‘It is a target and a threat to the colony, Officer Breuvart! You will fire!’
‘Not until I know what it is sir!’
Damn you Officer you will fire! came a voice like a hurricane. Both Marcus and the part of Steill not engrossed in the machine recognised it. It appeared to have come from the captain, but Marcus could hear the slight crackle of speakers that held the voice of the Governor himself. You will fire!
Shallow of breath, Steill pressed the button beside her.
Even the polics raised their heads to the small inferno above them. While slightly hazy through the silt, the intensity of the blazing crimson-brown fireball was nothing short of apparent as the missiles launched. Marcus felt, just for a minute moment, the blast bearing down on him right up to the surface of the glas-steel...
The red died away. Silence resumed, save for the tracking of the gun’s devices.
Steill watched intently, wide-eyed beneath her visor, as the computer images of the missiles homed in — and struck the pod.
‘Target hit sir,’ she called, desperately trying to cope with the figures and specifics screaming through her head and vision. She saw the pod begin spinning, spinning.
‘Target still intact sir!’ There was more than an edge of incredulity in her voice. The gun was only standard basic colony defence, true, but even that should have obliterated such a small target...?
‘Status?’ replied the captain. ‘Is it still a threat?’
‘Target is... target is incapacitated sir,’ came her voice uncertainly. ‘I’m not entirely sure—’
‘Right, it is dealt with,’ came the D-polic’s grunt. The others continued their silence, watching Marcus and Steill. ‘Thank you for your colony assistance, you are no longer required.’ The D-polic with the case pressed a button, and the room was lost in darkness once more. Tearing the now-dead visor from her head, Steill stepped out of the lifeless column, frowning and unsteady at the change from colours to the cold dark.
‘And now, the others?’ Marcus’ request came expectantly.
‘What about them,’ mumbled the captain, switching on and examining a display pad on his suit’s arm. The small light glowed on the contours of his face under his helmet. Marcus didn’t like his face.
‘But the, the power’s down...’ he stumbled. He took a glance at Steill’s face, recognising it as suspicious again in the darkness. He found his own eyes narrowing once more. ‘There’s no Electric. And you have Electric.’
The captain paused, and turned his head up. ‘And?’
‘And, and, and you’ve got a responsibility to get them out!’ Steill snapped. The darkness was getting to her. Her teeth were starting to chatter involuntarily. She felt cold. It was just an absence she knew, but it was too sharp, too present…
‘We’re serving the colony in it’s time of need,’ retorted the D-polic. Marcus’ quickening eyes darted from human to dark figure, to the motionless monolith with the case in the lift, to the other blank D-polics... ‘And we have no time, not for you.’ The captain turned.
Part of Steill had the normality to reel at the shock of this. The very idea of being left alone in the Gun Deck. With the cold. She was left staring down this road, her panicked eyes fleeing to Marcus, the deep black cold swallowing her. She found herself shakily walking forwards, and heard her mouth yelling, yelling words.
‘You, you bastards! Is that it then? You don’t even know what’s going on! You don’t know anything about the Crash—’
The captain’s gauntlet powered into her neck, her voice collapsing with a gurgle. Marcus watched paralysed, trying to take everything in at once but fully aware of himself as a merciless spectator. The other D-polics had turned also, eerie visors aimed in the direction of the captain; even the one inside the lift had taken a step out...
Sir, we don’t have—
...The black hand lifting Steill off the floor by her throat...
‘You know nothing of the Crimson Republic! You have no idea you worm!’
...Marcus’ eyes nearly splitting as one tracked Steill’s shaking body, and the other...
‘If you had any idea what we’re dealing with—’
...picked out the flash, the tiny glint through the window...
The comet erupted through the roof of the tower in a nanosecond. Marcus’ human nerves didn’t have time to react, one second the tense dark, the next a world of pain, silt, sand, wind, screaming everything. Bare momentary flashes of the thing came at him in the following seconds, as his senses scrabbled for anything to help reason this sudden hell... a photo image of dirty steel... the monstrous object cleaving through the floor only metres away...
He moved, realising he was lying prone. He gasped for oxygen in the thin, racing air. The ground churned beneath him distressingly. He could feel shattered glas-steel everywhere around him, and could only assume the burning fire on his skin was cuts being attacked by flying grit. The wind! On his knees now he could barely open his eyes, but there was something, he was sure, something ahead. The captain’s glowing display. Moving. Getting closer. He felt sudden terror — the D-polic was going to throw him over the edge! — as thin fingers gripped his outstretched arm like ice, and dragged him across the shard-littered floor. He felt his leg nudge something limp.
He managed to turn and pull his eyes open. It was the captain.
Above the infernal roar of the maelstrom he could hear a grunting. The wind seemed to howl even more here... he must have been near the edge. He rolled, and carving through everything was total panic as his foot met empty space. There was a crack muffled by the wind somewhere behind him, and another, and perhaps a third. This was only background though, to his hands feeling and pushing at the hot stubs of torn metal rods that ran through the floor — and his half-open eyes staring at the blackness he knew lay below. He knew below him, through the floor, was the communications room they’d left an age ago. Or its semi-shattered remains.
The noises behind him came to the foreground, and to his side, near him. There was the presence of a lump beside him now. It was moving. Possibly... struggling. There was a growl from above. And a grunt.
The lump disappeared over the edge.
Again the freezing fingers pressing the grit into his skin. Being dragged again, everything ironically silent against the roar of the hurricane. Something creaked. Loudly. A... hideous tearing sound. And a crash. Something large. Very large.
Then calm; relative peace. His stinging eyes opened fully, and painfully. The dim gloom of the lift. Something scrabbling to his right. His head hurt. Only now was the dull fire coming through. Blood, grit. A kneeling figure. By the open case on the floor.
As the lift doors shut, he could just see the remnants of the gargantuan gun falling through the cracking floor...
He saw his bloody fingers stretch, his arms trying to push himself up against the wall. He slumped to the floor, looking upwards. The chaos was muffled now, still going on but fading. He saw a narrow body kneeling near him. Bloody. Some tarnished echo of fear came to him, as he saw the black D-polic’s helmet, but faded as hands removed it to show Steill’s badly grazed face.
With metal showing through.
And as her arm reached out to cradle his head, he could feel the cold titanium of those skeletal fingers. But it could wait. Explanations could... wait. Right now there was peace, as he felt the lift descend. They were safe.
Djalo looked up at the buildings around him. They were a shadow’s breadth in his mind from being ruins. No light, no sound, the windows black and void. Spaces into the same black hole. The same death.
He’d only been walking a few minutes. And mostly the streets were deserted. Occasionally a panicked figure came running past, usually crying. He considered they might as well be fleeing an invisible enemy, in thick fog, with no location and no bearings. But no, while most would be scared and worried, only a few would act so blindy. He knew where they’d be. He could see them up ahead, in the Square.
He turned suddenly in the shadows. It was fascinating and terrifying that somehow the D-polics hadn’t seen him, but here he was, clinging to the darkness by the buildings, still breathing, still scared. And soon he’d be amongst people, and inconspicuous. In the doorway beside him, a woman sat tearfully staring into space. The dirty orange glow of the streetlamps reflected off her wet eyes, gleamed on the moisture running down her cheeks.
‘...My baby...’ she spluttered in a whisper. ‘...My baby’s up there... I can’t... I can’t get to him...’
There was the clatter of footsteps as another random, sniffing body clattered past. Djalo spun round, then back, more fearful and fully aware of the fresh horrors being thrown at him. Of course, this woman’s heartbreak wasn’t because she couldn’t get to her baby at all — people left their children all the time, because the mothercot would be constantly taking care of it, measuring temperature, scanning brain activity, warming and cooling every second of the day.
But the Electric was down. And her child was alone, entombed.
He staggered backwards, away from the woman and the immovable Electric door, mouth open, thinking just how many were left like this. How many people had been left inside. He felt like a coward ignoring the wounded in some great battle … but there was nothing he could do. He had to concentrate, and the extra edge of fear honed his mind as he hastened on, spread against the cold wall. He had to keep this panic under control; he had to steel himself for what he could see lay ahead.
There was shouting, he could hear now. The figures were still only tiny shapes out in the darkness, but the loud voices were carried by the ugly, sneering silence. There were more people, he could see, in the street up ahead of him: couples clasped together, lone hunched figures rocking back and forwards, even small groups in silence as he neared the Square. Their clothes were fitted, smooth and neat as normal, yet somehow in the darkness they looked different; their straggled hair and wild eyes were those of animals, fleeing this terrifying silence yet finding it everywhere they turned. His own eyes twitched here and there, from the tiny, desperate scratches on the outside of the buildings, to the flashing lights of broken devices lying on the ground beneath them. Still beeping. Presumably they’d been hurled in desperation at the reinforced windows and impassable doors by people who knew better, yet had no answer. Still beeping, but useless. He picked up the mini-wreckage of one near him, and it suddenly occurred to him how ridiculous it was. Every mobile device belonging to every man woman and child in the colony would still work, since they were powered by batteries. And every single one was now completely useless, because they all relied on the central System. Hell, even time-keeping functions need their data sent from the computer, he thought to himself, dropping the fragments and hurrying as he became aware of people watching him. All communication devices that functioned outside the System were illegal, and so didn’t exist, on the grounds the Democracy couldn’t monitor them. No-one ever questioned it. You couldn’t question security. It’d be like asking for less air.
That’s what makes the Crimson Republic all the more fearsome. Djalo was aware there had been no more announcements since the first blood-freezing one after the shutdown. He was approaching the Square now, and their voices were louder. It would be impossible for any kind of group to function without communication devices. So they’d searched everyone, and their clothes, and their rooms. Every square centimetre of the colony. And nothing. And still the transmissions had kept coming. Trying to find an enemy that left neither Electric nor physical trace was like trying to catch a ghost with a sieve. So they’d had to open people up.
He touched the fresh scar at the base of his skull. Maybe they’d had to open him up. But they shouldn’t have had to.
He approached the Square.