DEVOLUTION by Jez Kemp DEVOLUTION by Jez Kemp



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See the Leviathan drift through the ocean, of infinite shadowy corners. It looks around its vast hulk; left and right, above and below; indifferent. It’s focused on its destination gracefully for such a bulk — but then, clumsiness is only caused by blunt friction, which it doesn’t suffer from. The behemoth is huge. Monumental, against the glow of the stars. The shadows swirl around its gigantic fins, while its load is ethereal, weightless, ghostly in its tranquillity.

It can tell its journey is nearly done. But what of it? As all creatures, it thinks only on limited guidelines; like most creatures so big, its slow pulses of thought never question such givens. Somewhere inside lurks the certainty that nothing lasts forever.

It glides onwards.

* * *

‘...WHICH IS WHY the Democracy has failed us! It’s why this has happened, it’s why they’re pretending...’

Garner sighed. The Square was not centred in the colony, but at the edge, where the laboratories and climate centres thinned out into the red-brown rock of the planet. The enormous glas-steel dome was close here, the curve coming down to earth where it met the huge chrome-laden struts and girders.

‘...just an exercise! I heard about it happening on Xhovin Terros, they just took the whole colony and...’

The Square was made of fake flagstones — not real stones of course, nothing was made of real stone; presumably it was out of some sense of nostalgia. Garner had never seen anything made of real stone.

‘...shutting the Empire down, piece by piece, they’re taking over, can’t you see?!’

The Square led up to the edge of the dome, and a tunnel that led underground to meet the vast landing pad outside the colony. With the dim amber streetlamps lining the wide space, a few red and others blinking randomly, it gave the impression of some lost decaying runway. In the dark it looked even more barren than the cold desolate buildings.

At least it’s meant to be empty, Garner considered, eyeing the outside void through the gaps in surrounding heads. The arguing had started as a simple debate between two people over the nature of the blackout; twenty minutes ago the Square had been empty. Now, despite just ten or so people declaring point and counter-point, this chaotic mesh sat on top of the silence. People were frightened, and confused, and upset. People without direction was worrying.

People without food, he reckoned, would be terrifying.

He looked around at the hundreds of figures gathered around the central column. Several stood on the block beneath it (next to the fountains that failed to work), the self-thinking heroes who apparently knew what was going on and presumably knew the answers, what with all the gesturing they were doing; more fearful voices came from the crowd below, resulting in the barely decipherable mess of anger and confusion. All the fear. All the panic. Multiplied by the number of people there were. From a distance, it would be fascinating, almost amusing... but the edge of panic was too keen to ignore.

His roving eyes were caught by something, something in the corner where evolution had made contrast much more striking. He found himself surprised to see another figure stepping out nervously into the light, all the way across the Square. There was something different about the slow steps, the nervous frame, the head tilting up to squint at the streetlights. This in turn made Garner look up himself, at the huge metal ruts and pristine girders holding the dome up. He was getting the next supply ship back. Had been, at least. And he guessed a lot of the others here were now thinking the same. Turning back, he watched the calm (and above all, relaxed) figure arrive and merge with the crowd of silent, soulless people. Garner was struck by this person, and only just realised why: this man was comforted by the surrounding bodies, as he slipped in, barely noticed, normal. No-one else was pretending everything was normal. No-one else was trying to act that way.

‘...We don’t even know what the Governor knows! They could be taking over his headquarters right now...’

‘...possible that it’s just a glitch in the programming?...’

‘...how many times, there’s never a problem...’

‘...surely there’s a first time for everything? What, what if the Democracy’s not infallible?...’

Not wishing to be caught watching this figure, Garner looked away, at other things. He also had no reason to stand out, and especially not at a time like this. The fountain's waters lay still; the column bearing the Democracy’s seal in chrome stood dark, defiant but thoroughly undermined. He splashed some fingers through the cold water. He suddenly felt a chill — and realised the air was colder than it should be. Only just. But noticeably. He saw the occasional person give an involuntary shiver. In the back of his mind, he knew what it was: with no power, the colony’s climate control systems would be inactive. The dehumidifiers would be dead. Already, people were feeling the massive heaters had gone cold.

And when someone first needs a drink, he thought grimly to himself, gripping the carbonised stone with his knuckles, they’ll find the taps don’t work. He looked back again at the still water. They'd be drinking it soon, and hell knew how long before it ran out. The shouts were coming no closer to solutions. And around and inbetween the raised voices was that silence, the same thick, heavy silence that had struck him upon the blackout — here it was broken only by the crying of an occasional child and the soft ramblings of a desperate mother. Most were either watching, or blankly staring into space, presumably listening. Or maybe not. It was the ragged hair, the glazed expression in the face, the same presence of shivering terror that betrayed the smart clothes’ sense of normality. The same impression of refugees. Not knowing what was going to happen next; terrified of the thought of nothing happening at al—

Suddenly there it was. His heart rate shot up, his pupils flashed wider. Because fear was now an unfocused movement, between people’s heads, across the Square — and panic was a D-polic striding out of the darkness. The voices around him quietened one by one as they saw it, the last making an abrupt cliff-fall into silence. It wasn’t just one D-polic. It was a patrol. A squad.

They should have been pleased — the D-polics may have appeared threatening, but to the people that meant safe. Until now, thought a part of Garner's brain that wasn’t panicking, managing to observe the faces of the bodies as he took rushed looks everywhere around him like a cornered animal. Now they were fearful, and suspicious of everything.

‘Look mama, the polix are here,’ came a child’s excited cry. There was no answer.

‘What’s happened?’ called one of the bolder arguers. ‘How have they managed to shut off the Electric?’

There was a ripple of nervous shuffling as the crowd noticed the D-polics begin to fan out as they walked, creating a barrier between the people and the main exits from the Square.

‘Please remain where you are,’ came the rough voice of the lead figure like an automated device, ‘remain calm and do not panic...’

‘What has happened?’ demanded another voice angrily. ‘We deserve to know!’

‘What are you doing to get the power back?’

There were several children crying now, and people were starting to back away around the fountain. Garner held his muscles taught, against his automatic nervous trembling. His brief glances around saw the other figure was more noticably anxious; he seemed to be looking out, across the Square, for means of escape. But it was a long, open run across the flagstones. And only an idiot would attempt that when—

There was a loud crack as the D-polic fired the pistol. Only a couple of children dared scream... mostly what followed were more sand grains of silence. The crowd stopped moving, held their breath. The black figure held high the dirty black steel device; only those near the front could see the metal spike splitting the fabricated rock by his feet.

‘Do not move, or we will have to use necessary force,’ continued the D-polic. Eyes moved, watched the black figures slowly begin to circle the crowd. ‘My name is Captain Singh, and I am under specific instructions from the Governor for the good of the colony. We have a list of n—’

It was so sudden. The heavy gasping of a child somewhere to the left and behind Garner turned into footsteps. Small but forceful.

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap bang.

The running stopped.

An obvious shriek arose, and various gasps and mutterings. But again, mostly the result was to sharpen the fear. Garner looked, and caught a glimpse of the body, and wished he hadn’t. He knew from basic training the guns had a magnetic accuracy program that would find metal, including an implanted network chip. And that photo-shot of a glinting spike lodged in the head of the child’s body, lying where it had skidded to a halt, would be an image he’d have trouble forgetting on sleepless nights.

If there are any more nights to lose sleep on. He checked himself, the mother’s screaming (and sudden silence as the captain barked an order) bringing him back into focus. To his right, a man began fiddling with a useless, beeping electronic device in ridiculous panic. His twitching eyes came to rest on the captain, then the gun, then the guns of the other D-polics.

‘I said I have a list of names which we are to collect. For the safety of the colony these people are to be arrested and detained until we are satisfied—’

‘How can you “arrest” us?’ yelled one man. ‘You can’t, you can’t keep us here like animals, or, or...’ The slice of quiet before the next person’s voice was self-explanatory. Safety was now suspicion. The dead child spoke with its silence for everyone on what they thought about being arrested.

‘You, you j-just killed that boy! How can we trust you?!’

‘What do you want?’

‘—until we are satisfied that—’

No-one saw the captain’s eyes jerking nervously inside his helmet as he yelled. And no-one could hear the short, sharp messages the D-polics gave each other through the airwaves.

‘Who are the Crimson Republic? What aren’t you telling us?’

‘—none of them present a risk to the—’

‘You dare treat us like this when there’s no Electric! My wife’s trapped inside, there are so many people inside and instead of...’

‘...my baby! My baby...’

‘...storming down here without any explanation...’

Garner saw him raise his gun at the crowd.

‘—so will you please YOU WILL BE QUIET WHEN I AM TALKING—’

The distant roar stopped everything. The few looking up at the time saw the tiny red-white glimmer high above, through the dome, through the silt. All turned their heads upwards; all knew what it was. It had just never been used.

The airwaves sparked again. Captain, the gun...?

A mental shrug.

It takes specific personnel to operate the gun. Surely the Governor must have mentioned something?

‘Why... has the gun been fired?’ spoke one of the crowd, slowly and quietly.

The captain’s training was being stretched, as he tried to cope with both forms of communication.

‘I have a list of names—’

‘To hell with you! What’s going on?!’

‘We have a right to know!’

‘—step forward if your name is read out—’

‘The people inside will suffocate if the Electric’s not—’

And this time, there was the crash.

It wasn’t so visible. It wasn’t even that audible. But inside everyone felt that same horror, simply at being able to hear it from the Watchtower at all.

Garner heard the first step behind him, and watched detail by detail as the moments unfurled. Here, having seen a child executed by a captain of the D-polix, this man — the man who’d wanted to remain anonymous, to look normal — was running. It was only the second step, and in this slice of time Garner simultaneously admired his bravery and pitied his idiocy. But in the next moment (as he backed away, out of the line of fire), he saw something different, as the man snatched the glowing device this bystander had been scrabbling with.

Across the way, the captain had seen as well, and was raising his bolt-pistol. The inevitability of the shot was total, and Garner knew the captain needed only a certain amount of accuracy. But he was already watching the electronic device — which - just - came - out - of - his - hand when the bolt fired — and the tiny fireworks that trailed behind this man were a sparkling testament to his escape. The brief seconds of his escape anyway, while the captain appeared rather stunned; his arm raised again though, taking aim—

When the monstrous crack hailed from above, as the metal thing struck the glas-steel dome.

Out of the corners of his own eyes, which were turned upwards as well, Garner saw every single person stop, and turn. He saw the grimy silver shape career off into the gritty darkness – but he knew the man would be taking the moment, and he turned away himself. Singular others about him, he saw, were moving towards the D-polix in their perfect moment of confused distraction. And he strode through that moment, coming up beside the Captain, who was aiming his gun again.

The ensuing chaos was fascinating to Garner. He couldn’t see it very clearly, and had to remain focused on ducking, pulling, removing helmets, cracking heads — but it was there, again in the corners of his eyes, the boiling emotions, the terrified ignorance, the actions of those who bolted for half an answer in a world absent of anything. But he didn’t forget where that man had headed, and soon enough, as the cracks of the bolt-guns and D-polic armour was dying down, he slipped away into the shadows.

 

 

Terrified, Djalo took the moment.

Within two steps he was already at some speed when he tore the glowing, bleeping device from the man’s hands. There were some precious, savoury moments of pure nothingness, two, maybe three steps’ worth as he burst free of the crowd. Then the drawn-out yell, man, woman, D-polic, he didn’t know, like the mother’s defunct screaming it had already faded into the background — because his shaking icy fear was all honed to one point, one steely point...

The device shattered in mid-air behind him, centimetres from his hand, as the spike meant for his head shot past.

...Everything was so slowed down now. It all passed normally, yes, but if he’d look back Djalo would be able to pick out each instantaneous moment with the detail of a decade: the relief of the shot missing, the few more glorious steps towards the buildings, the rank terror as he knew another shot was coming and he wouldn’t make it, wouldn’t make it — and the shrill alien screams of something new being seen...

The hideous clang married with the evil crack! sound as the metal shape bounced off the dome above them. Most eyes followed (as it shot off into the silt and the darkness, sparks trailing everywhere), including those of the bemused D-polics; Djalo’s own spewed tears above gasps that knew his stretched moments were final. And yes, there was a gun outstretched for him. And no, not all eyes were on the pod.

He threw himself stumbling over a low wall, crashing to the ground — the cold concrete on his face again bringing back images of that child’s stricken body. And he lay there, for seconds, minutes, crying his eyes out. In the back of his mind something still said that if he was alive, he should be running; but he had to let go. This was all too much, had all been too much, and the tears and grunts and sniffs and moans and spittle and mucus that poured from his face showed it...

The next thing he knew, he was still lying there. And the ground was still wet. But he’d stopped now, and felt ready (and fearful enough) to get up again. His head hurt and his left hip felt bruised. But mostly, there was the shock of just still being alive. Somehow, the electrifying immediacy had gone — as the world unfolded again, outwards from the immediate details to the rest of the world, the sounds from the Square filtered through the leaden air. He scrabbled about on the floor to the wall, and hauled himself up.

Already the shots were becoming less frequent. The mass of bodies was confusing at this distance; it appeared to Djalo as some shifting, single creature, splitting and joining randomly. Some bodies lay on the floor, not moving. Fresh blood glistened in the yellow fungal light. But now Djalo could see what was happening. One of the bodies was all black. And now, the hulk of a D-polic without its helmet came staggering out of the writhing mess, with two, maybe three people on its shoulders. It fired its gun without control into the air. Djalo watched as within seconds, metres from the melee, it collapsed to the ground.

And there it was, so clear. The crowd turning. The crowd following. Even at this distance, Djalo shuddered at seeing their eyes. Ones that had very quickly passed through panic, fear, and had nothing left but something cold and naked...

Alone in the darkness once more, he heaved his tired muscles up and ran.

 

 

Caissan seethed. Outside, his face was the usual calm, open display it always was. But the operations room was a different world now, and communication by sight mattered little; inside, his neurones and wires burned with speed and rage. Every other man and woman in the room could feel it through the Electric; it was, of course, impossible to turn away from.

All those centuries! All those slow long centuries carving a safe nation, where people would trust and respect authority, torn away in mere moments! The watchtower, the Square, Stefans, everything was falling apart at a terrifying rate.

Captain Singh?

The sounds of the Square had unnerved him. Worst of all was the absence of sound that had surrounded them, the silence of hundreds amplifying the methodical crunches of helmets, armour. Skulls.

Captain Singh?!

The air waves remained empty.

Captain Vai?

Sergeant Klimt?

There was a flicker across the line; a connection formed. Caissan easily separated the sound and the thoughts, the running steps and the panic.

...Sir! Sir!... (panting through visor) ... We couldn’t stop them sir...

Where are you Klimt?

North Street sir...

(more running steps)

(getting closer)

...Sir, why, why?...

(crash as something fell to the ground, the alien emotion — panic — with the sound of a helmet being unclipped)

Klimt?!

(blinding red hot agony punctuated by the cracks of a skull on the concrete.)

Klimt?

He clenched and unclenched a fist. No point trying to control them further. Where did they have to go?

We have the resources. We are in control. He repeated this for a few seconds.

Caissan considered it like having multiple arms in your mind, controlling what they chose: communication links here, colony layout graphics there, against a backdrop of thousands of flicks and switches. Naturally, the brain had been compared to a computer in the — well, that century they developed computers. But, but to think of the simplicity, the laughable crudity of the time; without specific micro-biology there were no mental exercises; without mental exercises the brain had been just a lump of nervous tissue, an animal’s notice board with some ridiculous philosophy. Using it as a computer had been the largest human step since. It was almost beautiful, especially since only the Governor possessed a faster, more agile brain, and Caissan had been clinically trained for—

Along the banks of neon detailed screens, something bleeped at a Democracy technician, making him blink. Sir, came his thought wave as he looked intently at the screen in front of him. File recovered responding to Scharla Kim.

Caissan raised an eyebrow. Type?

Just data, sir, replied the officer, shaking their head. Caissan’s eyes narrowed and darted from side to side, searching for a figure shaking their head. I can’t decipher it. The computer doesn’t even recognise it as a file.

Patch it through.

Staring at the numbers, the random glittering digits projected into his eyes, he couldn’t filter anything out. He would have to pass it up through to the Governor.

Maybe there was something in it though. Something familiar?

Suddenly something scratched in the complex mental switchboard of his brain. He dropped the numbers scattering and brought it to the fore:

Sergeant Traiser. Locate Sergeant Traiser.

* * *

Kibo stood to attention in the cold passageway as Commander Pa’thai swept by. But she never felt the cold, she was a guard... maybe it was in her mind.

The commander’s bulk paused, and turned. ‘Something the matter, Sergeant?’ There was something calm in his deep voice, something her other seniors lacked.

Something most people lacked.

‘Sir?’

Pa’thai’s face tensed a fraction. ‘The look in your eyes, Sergeant. Troubled, I’d say.’

She itched. ‘I am a guard, sir, I do not—’

Sergeant these are not usual times and I do not expect usual behaviour.

Kibo allowed her eyes to twitch, then relaxed a little. ‘Well sir, I guess... I guess I miss the power,’ she said, while thinking of the abomination in the room behind her. ‘I miss light. I long for it to return.’ She clamped her mouth shut again, frustrated at having let slip on duty. The commander’s intent gaze remained for a few seconds.

‘We all do Sergeant. We all do.’ With that the Commander swept off again into the darkness.

Kibo slouched again. She might have been a guard but there was no psychological defence for the thing that lay in the room behind her. No-one expected aliens, even all the way out here. It was foul, it was — strange. Even the thought that Archeus had it knocked out didn’t bring any comfort. To be fair, she didn’t trust Archeus that far anyway. He’s always a little removed, a little too involved in his work.

They were somewhere out there now, evil things. Who knew how many there were?

 

 

The object lay pulsing, calculating, breathing (with precision, like a metronome), seeing, processing, perishing. Regenerating; expiring. Alive, but not alive.

Of course it rarely mattered to people now. The fringe religions who’d thought it obscene that something could have ‘life’ not given to it by a god, the ones that had battled so hard in the early centuries, had all eventually broken away from the Empire in search of new systems and stars. Most or all were chased and crushed by the Democracy. As the decades and technology passed, and the old religions’ meaning had been undermined by new fragment beliefs and splinter groups, the credibility of religion itself had inevitably caved in. Inescapably, science had shown man that life was not divine or sacred — merely complicated. And once it could be replicated, and refined, the old mysteries lost the little sparkle they’d had left.

So perhaps the object was alive; perhaps it wasn’t. But nothing would change what it was. And here, there were none to watch it; it was alone and uncompromised, and had its instructions.

It lay by the rocks.

 

 

An obvious bolthole for any escapee would be the Biosphere tunnel.

That was what Sergeant Edwards had thought, searching for this Djalo Stefans. It was a fair assumption; in theory it was an exit point from the colony. There was of course no access to the Biosphere except for cleared personnel...

Edwards sent out a mental signal to Captain Ch’kei.

...and the power was down of course anyway. But people didn’t act logically. And where was there to go in the colony?

The frequencies lay unassuming, bouncing emptily over the rocks and shadows.

This wasn’t right.

Especially the new signal he was picking up against the silence. Not direct, not communication; the presence of something. Background ticking, ticking, ticking, awaiting instructions. Instructions?

His nerves were tightened now, locked down to every display and input device his equipment allowed him. Each trained step towards the corner of the last lonely building was a shade dirtier than silence. His muscles arrested the skin of his fingers and the black plastic of his gauntlets, right up against his bolt pistol; the other hand clenched nothing.

Awaiting instructions, awaiting... entry?

And then, as his head turned to see past the wall, the view unfurled before him. The steel doors of the tunnel set into the rock, lights on, awake. His eyes twitched rapidly, rushing from one sight and moment to the next; the road meeting the scientists’ blocs up ahead to the right, the field of open space banked by the faraway rock face (edges still clean, fresh as the day they’d been cut), the old rocks lying discarded either side of the road, the streetlamps subdued by the darkness, the body. The black-suited body.

The situation and reaction all registered before he did; his heavily structured training brought him to the ground as his eyes searched for snipers. There were none. He knew that. But something required Sergeant Ch’kei to be lying there ahead, still. And the doors were on. The doors had power.

Nothing happened, progressively. Calculated minutes went by, and he edged himself up, using the cover of the scattered rocks and cliff fragments to make his way to over to Ch’kei. His gun strayed around in front of him, his sensors scavenging the darkness for other signs of life. He wasn’t scared; his training didn’t allow it. But things weren’t right. He brought himself close to the road and closer to the body that lay there stark and uncompromising. There didn’t seem any traces of assault or other reasons for its arrested state, as Edwards just stepped out from behind a rock. Far ahead of him though, the darkness shifted. A small girl was stood there. And an alien horror rang out from her black eyes.



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