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‘...THE CRIMSON REPUBLIC controls the Electric. The Crimson Republic thus controls the water, the air, the food. The communications. The centralised control of the Democracy has been broken.’
The hand came over Djalo’s mouth as he swayed in a semi-conscious daze.
‘Don’t say a word,’ the voice said predictably. Djalo of course complied willingly, and struck out with electrifying precision to a pressure point on his assailant’s leg. Sadly though his guesswork was poor and his movements were slow, and winced when his wrist was thrown up against the concrete wall.
‘Calm down, for hell’s sake. I am not a D-polic. And they don’t know what’s going on anyway.’ Half-upright, Djalo wrenched his eyelids open, to see the shadow of a man looming over him. Against the poor light of the streetlamps, it took several seconds for his eyes to adjust, to make out the contours of this new face: the suspicious deep-set eyes, the sharp nose; a general look of frowning thought. Djalo suspected he wasn’t that tall. ‘Now, stay quiet when I take my hand away, or I will kick you in the ribs.’
Upon removing his hand, Djalo simply slid further down the wall. ‘What do you want and who are you.’
The man’s eyebrows shifted. ‘I saw you at over there, right from the start. I wondered what someone would be doing, trying to slip into the background, pretending everything’s normal when it’s quite clearly not. Impressive escape. But it puts me in mind of something else.’
Djalo’s brow similarly made cracks, his nostrils involuntarily widening. ‘Like what?’
‘Like the Crimson Republic.’
Djalo gave a loud laugh, then softened at both the volume and lack of air in his lungs, and turned his head upwards. ‘You’re joking, surely? I’m out of answers on that one.’ His eyes met with this towering small man. ‘I have no knowledge about this,’ he waved to the swampy darkness, like a stain that had appeared rudely out of nowhere, ‘whatsoever.’
The fizzing line of fire between their eyes held for some seconds, and the newcomer turned slightly, relaxed. ‘Maybe. We’ll see I guess. What’s your name?’
‘Djalo. Stefans.’ He pushed himself up from his embarrassingly prone position. ‘You?’
The man rudely ignored him, and glanced about either way down the street, and Djalo suspected the black glint of a bolt-pistol beneath his long jacket. He said nothing. ‘What was that thing that hit the dome?’
‘No idea. Looked like a torpedo, but there was no explosion. And what someone would want with attacking Fortium Rhegardé, who knows.’
‘The Crimson Republic, maybe?’ Djalo half sneered, rubbing his wrist. Garner returned a withered and unimpressed look. ‘Look. I’ve got no reason to believe you’re not part of all this, and either you’ve abandoned things to run into chaos, or you’ve got accomplices somewhere, or maybe you’re orchestrating things right now. Maybe you’re a proto-scientist with a metal brain and you’re bypassing the system.’
‘The Democracy authorises proto-scientists, how in hell could they bypass it?’
‘I don’t know, but the Democracy’s hardly looking steady now is it?’ The hiss remained, punctuating the absence around them. ‘There’s nothing much that’s certain right now. Which is why those people out there in the Square are discovering basic human psychology now, without rules telling them what to do. And it’s why I can’t completely trust you. But I want to find out why the Crash has happened and what’s really going on. And I think you do too.’
Djalo studied the lines of suspicion around his eyes. ‘How do you think you can do that?’
‘Because I think you can.’ The eyebrows appeared meaningful.
The quiet slid back again. This man knew much, it was obvious. But Djalo also knew things, and was happy to let probing suspicions lie.
‘So. What do you suggest? You need Electric to power up the doors, never mind the security codes.’
‘The Electric,’ came a voice from the darkness, ‘is something we’re all concerned about.’ The pair turned suddenly; Djalo’s breathing stopped as the black boot of a D-polic emerged from the shadows. ‘And you, Richarde Garner, can certainly offer some information in that area.’
The man above Djalo frowned again. ‘How do you know my—’
‘Files, Mister Garner, the Democracy holds things called files.’ There was quite clearly a gun pointed at them both, and Djalo was making pathetic attempts at standing up. ‘Of course that’s the simple idea for simpler people. The truth is it’s a vast database, held on more dimensions than you can picture, with no piece of information very far from any other. And you, Mister Stefans, have been a very interesting piece of information lately.’
The streetlamp overhead flickered, with a sharp buzz; Djalo’s eyes were delivering strange things to him. A flash of the wall dissolving into brown rot, a flash of a grinning skull in the polic’s visor reflection. He held his head for a second, and let things swim back into normality. ‘I don’t... I don’t know what’s going on,’ he said, absurdly. There was a small moment where the D-polic seemed to study him, pitying his sad confusion.
‘We shall need both of you. On your feet, Mister Stefans. I would tell you where we’re going, but I suspect you both know. If co-operation is not forthcoming, extraction techniques will have to be used. This way.’
Somehow Djalo hauled himself upwards, and lurched off in the direction the black-cased man had motioned. Occasional panicked eyes watched from the darkness as they left, here and there, those terrified bodies left waiting and soulless in the shadows of the street. The light overhead buzzed again, and went out.
Marcus studied the open case before him. There were no written markings; aside from a few isolated characters on the side to identify sockets and ports, the entire article was comprised of Electric displays and buttons. Even as communications officer trained for specific Watchtower duties, he was struggling to configure the coding and characters used; the Democracy had to retain its security, and very nearly had its own language.
‘Any luck?’ asked Steill, nestled in the shadow of a block’s corner. Upon the lift grinding to its rest at the foot of the tower, they’d fled as its heavy plastic fibres had creaked and wailed. It had been a lurching, terrifying stagger for Marcus across the open space to the safety of buildings; there was no debris of course, as the colony’s glas-steel bubble had held strong. But they’d heard the aural catastrophe as the gun had crashed into it, shockwaves tearing through everything like acid through silk, and there was no telling what would hold. There was no telling anything any more. Even with his brain linked to the case through the cable in his arm, Marcus couldn’t help staring up at the deathly concrete shields that towered above them, windows empty. Geometric voids.
Anyone could be staring out at him, screaming, shouting, hurling anything at the soundproof windows—
—unable to function without light, without hope—
He refocused, glancing across at her before back to the machine. ‘I’m working on it. I can’t do much though, not quickly. Damn my head hurts. The security systems mean everything has to be done the long way round... although I guess that’s what they’re designed for...’
‘First things first,’ followed up Steill. ‘Is it connected to the central computer? Or any computer? Are they tracing it?’
‘Difficult to say... it might be an external unit, it might have a continual stream to the Governor. But yes, it’s probably got a link to the central computer, maybe beyond too.’ He frowned. ‘That’s if central computer is still running?’
Steill snorted. ‘There’s no telling now. Anyway, it means we’ve got barely any time. And we’ll have to use it to our advantage.’ There was a pause. Marcus looked over hazily, catching a dirty gleam from what looked like her head. There was the spider-like silhouette of her fingers clenching and opening, slowly, mechanically. ‘Run a search on that pod. See if we can find anything out about it.’
‘But it wasn’t accepting communication?’
‘I know, I know. But that thing survived the Gun intact. For something that size, only Class B titanarc armour could do that… if the satellites picked up its dimensions, sensor tags, equipment frequencies, anything, just run the search. What we really need to do is find out is where it is now. Before the Governor gets there.’
Marcus nodded, slightly dizzy at the mutating green digits on the display. His fingers typed without instruction though; the stockpiled years of training and mind-sculpting were navigating for him, translating and searching the system.
‘So who engineered you then?’ The question sprang by itself, Marcus didn’t lift his head. Steill twitched, phased by its suddenness.
‘I wasn’t. Someone - continued me.’
‘But you’re a droid.’
‘I am not a droid,’ Steill hissed with a venomous look. ‘I’m not a replica.’ Pause. ‘It was an accident. Big machinery, some moon all the way back in the cancerite ore belt. Frustrating really, all the old videos promise you a nice happy send-off, something interesting — not getting caught in the packing line and clogging up the travellator.’ Her voice sounded almost despondent at the insignificance. Something far above echoed in the darkness, a bleak groan of plasteel. ‘Sixty-five percent body crushed. Should have gone to the transplant clinic. But my mother had friends in particular places.’
‘That means you’re not sixty percent human. That’s illegal. You need a licence at the very least.’
‘Not entirely. Okay, about half my brain was rendered useless, but the things this man knew... only a tiny fraction of the decision-making part was damaged. Balance, nerve-transfer, simple things — they’ve got superior artificial technology and you know it. The rest of my body, well, you know the process I’m sure… titanium skeleton, regenerative flesh, after the nerve programming it was simple simple stuff. And I do have a licence, fully Democracy-sealed and everything. Look closely inside my ID chip and you’ll find the relevant files. I just don’t choose to advertise it.’
There was another brief silence. Sounds wafted on the silence from far away in the colony, but were drained to mere ripples by the time they pair heard them. Marcus’ typing remained constant.
In the gloom he noticed a twitch in the darkness, as Steill turned sharply. ‘Just look at that thing,’ she spat, staring at the metal case. ‘The whole colony’s black, dead. People have no Electric, they have nothing... the Electric just doesn’t stop... and all along they didn’t trust themselves. We trusted the Democracy. The Democracy was infallible. But they didn’t trust themselves.’
‘Gnnnnghhnnnn,’ said Marcus, head twitching. ‘They’re closing... they’re trying to set a lock...’ His fingers were blurred digits in the dark, as he tried to flee, tried to stop the chip in his brain from burning any more—
‘Pull out!’ Steill turned sharply, and gritted her teeth against the sting of cold air on her metal skull. Marcus’ left eye dizzily cornered on her in the cold gloom, the right blinking and tracking the green display, while electronic characters flashed in his brain.
‘Pull out for hell’s sake!’
‘—I’m nearly on it, I’ve just got to fend them off, it’s nearly there, damn this keyboard I don’t understand the characters, I don’t understand—’
She tore the wire from his wrist, and grabbed the case from his lap; Marcus clasped his head as it spasmed, flashes of light disturbing his eyes. With the case on the floor she scavenged desperately for anything she recognised as an escape button, and battered every red light after red light until it lay dead.
Her breathing calmed, he groaned from the floor, now still. She tugged at his arm.
‘Come on Marcus, we have to go.’ Her strength was slipping. Have to keep it at bay. ‘Did you find a location for it?’ She could see his eyebrows and face creased in pain.
‘...urgh... I, I got directionnnnss,’ he faltered. On the ground he blinked repeatedly, slowed, stopped. Eyes opened. ‘South-south-south-east, bearing of one six two degrees, speed of approximately, approximately one hundred eighty-two kay em pee aych...’
Steill sniffed, calculating. ‘That’s not far. Somewhere on the solar fields. Near the biolab.’ Something clicked in her memory. She hauled him up, and blinked in the gloomy mire. Must keep myself together.
She shivered in her thin officer’s shirt.
Was it just the dead metal in her head, and the deep blanket silence... or was it cold?
Garner retched amongst the foliage.
‘Why do we have to be here?’ he said sniffily. The sunlit trees sagged over them both suspiciously. The grass itched below his feet.
‘It’s nice.’ The proto-scientist smiled, almost genuinely, in the sunlight. The smile dropped. ‘Okay, fair enough, it’s foul. We can go in a minute.’
Garner wriggled on the bench’s gel seat as the sun’s weak light (enhanced, of course) washed over them. He looked at the pond ahead of them, where a number of polychromatic fish swam. A fountain system cunningly displayed the Democracy’s seal in sprayed water over the surface. ‘Now would be better.’
‘Well congratulations, you’re normal. Shows you don’t have much patience though.’ The semi-human tapped his fingers on the wooden arm rest, near the port that connected his brain to the system. ‘Amazing really. Look at this. It’s so antiquated. The ironic thing is, most of it’s just surface, just appearance. That tree there, for instance, is wholly metallic underneath.’
‘How can you tell?’
‘Because there’s a camera in the third branch up, and I can see the sour expression on your face.’ Garner’s ugly grimace lapsed. He glanced sideways, seeing the man’s head was indeed looking away. ‘Have you finished charging yet?’
‘No I haven’t!’ The scarred, hairless head turned to him with a frown on its front. ‘So impatient. I’m surprised they allow brains like yours to develop; there was a time once when civilisation wanted to advance, and glands and neurones were kept calm and reasonable. The Empire must be laxing somewhat.’ He slipped back, calmness flooding his face again like the glowing warmth in his skull. ‘People have hated non-human biology for a few centuries, yes, okay. Apparently the older civilisations — if you can call them that — really used to like it. That was before real science, you understand, before they could map out the structure of a tree for instance.’
‘I can’t really imagine it,’ mused Garner.
‘In what way?’
‘Well... they would just let trees and things grow? By themselves?’ He gestured insultingly to the green mess in front of him. ‘I mean, what, they just expected it all to grow on its own and somehow come out okay?’
‘Calm down. The point is that now, with the civilisation we’ve made, it’s a responsibility for us to understand why they did things, and why we dislike them now. Without reason, anything you think you know or believe is completely wrong.’ He sighed, smiling a warm smile on cold lips. ‘Charging complete. The transfer of the program is also complete. You’ll find it quite... enlightening.’
Garner nodded, glad it was done, and left the park as quickly as he could, feeling vaguely ill.