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THEY WATCHED ARCHEUS from across the canteen.
‘He seems so thin,’ Sii’bek whispered through her food. Kibo ignored her for a second, then threw a swift glance across at the lonely scientist. She shrugged.
‘No-one’s been eating much, have they.’ She glanced around the dark, sparse space of metal benches. She remembered when it had been busy and well-lit. Thank god they still had emergency power here, here with central command.
‘But come on, you know him.’ Sii’bek nudged her pointedly. ‘It’s those things he has to deal with, isn’t it? He looks really haggard. It must be so depressing.’
‘I think he likes it,’ mused Kibo. She paused to actually look at her food, and regretted it. ‘It’s the discovery. These things are what we’re here for. New life.’
‘You could sound a little more convinced.’
‘Well, do you like the idea of them or something? All those tails and things where they shouldn’t be?’ Sii’bek wrankled her face for a second, and fell apologetically silent. She looked back over to Archeus, who was eating his meal in a slow, dejected fashion.
‘Go and ask him over.’
Kibo looked shocked. ‘What?’
‘Go on. He could use the company.’
‘I think he’s perfectly—’
‘Don’t say it. He’s not fine, no-one is at the moment. It’s dark and horrible and everyone’s scared shitless.’
A look. ‘Witless?’
‘You know what I mean. I’m going.’ Kibo sighed as Sii’bek stood up and walked neatly over to the scientist. With due fairness, Kibo was the only one he really knew here, since they’d both been posted from the same planet, and just a few weeks apart too. But she was a sergeant, and took her position responsibly, and didn’t really like the look of him anyway. He was too thin, but he’d looked that way at home. It wasn’t attractive.
She gave him a cold smile as the pair returned, which he simply returned with a nod, sitting down rather uncomfortably. There was that familiar, flinty look in his big eyes.
A completely false sense of civility overcame the table.
‘So,’ she said, ‘how goes the research?’
He shrugged calmly. ‘It comes and goes. I’m not especially happy at the moment. I suspect the conditions aren’t good enough for them, and being away from their kind for so long is probably distressing for them.’ The threat of these things somewhere across the planet struck them all.
Kibo’s mouth stayed open briefly. ‘Distressing? They’re just things, they don’t get distressed. I was there when we found them, they barked and squealed and don’t seem any more capable of distr—’
‘I think Kibo was just surprised at your lack of scientific language,’ Sii’bek’s placating voice said. She gave Kibo a look, and turned warmly back to him, as he remained silent. ‘A while ago you were talking about “specimens”. You could say that the conditions—’
‘And as for that, our living spaces are barely—’
‘—might damage or disrupt your specimens.’
Archeus didn’t appear any more soothed for her voice; his eyes remained slightly narrowed defensively, as they had done the moment Kibo started speaking.
‘On the contrary.’ He drew himself up from his slouch. ‘I’ve been watching them almost day in, day out since we took them in. And yes, they do seem to display some intelligence, although god knows where they get it from.’
‘Did you ever find out what happened to that one that died?’
He frowned at Sii’bek. ‘How did you know about that?’
‘Oh, Corporal Drrakn told me.’
‘Did he.’ Archeus’ mouth tightened, and he appeared even more defensive. ‘People aren’t supposed to know they’re even here. It’s hardly professional when officers keep talking.’ He gave Kibo a sideways frown, who frowned approvingly in agreement. ‘Yes, it was only a few days after we took them in. Perhaps it was the sudden change of environment, not sure, it’s hard to tell even now. And the body hasn’t kept well, even in alcohol.’ He frowned at the table now, lost in thought, before looking up suddenly with slight urgency in his eyes. ‘You know it had metal in its—’
‘I don’t think we need to know everything,’ Kibo said firmly.
‘But it shows they have—’
‘We are still eating.’
Revolving numbers and displays flashed before Caissan’s eyes as 3-dimensional grids flowed inside his head. Comets trailed sparkling green digits; his fingers gripped the wire tightly. Data... it was a rush.
But here was a kink in the smooth flow of it all. This chunky, ridiculous cube — this offensive lump in the data — was upsetting him.
The rear of his skull still burned with the fury of the Governor; truly, this was a tumour, an impossible tumour. Caissan had agreed and shared the anger. It wasn’t even a file. But it was all they had.
In front of the Crash and the distressing backdrop of the colony falling apart, the two words sat before him. The other minor officials were directing the D-polics and tracing this battery command and that Electric notification tag; he was barely fussed any more. The Governor would be aware of every detail as it arrived, and wanted results now, declaring that the problem needed thinking round and not battering through, which Caissan had thoroughly agreed with. Caissan knew this data had something to do with it, and cringed at the beautiful digits having been thrown together so, so ridiculously. It was unspeakable, infuriating, because it didn’t make sense. And obviously this Stefans man would know something, with that signal sent to him from the craft simply entitled “Scharla Kim”. Was it a code? Did these two words make sense to Mr. Stefans? With a mental limb, he eyed the collection of surveillance data in the back of his mind as it writhed and transformed. Finally, the reports and data feeds from D-polics hunting the two escaped Watchtower officers — a tertiary objective, since even with an Electric case they could do little harm. In principle.
Maybe they knew about Scharla Kim?
No; more crucial issues were to ascertain the pod's role in all of this, and the mystery of the Biosphere’s continuing power.
Sir, Biosphere power supply located.
He spun round from his own thoughts, his visor bringing the light display with him. And? Where is it?
Battery Ø16, sir. We configured the node identification path from waste signals given off outside the area’s CPU transformer. The officer beamed with pride through the wires at the discovery, having put years of training and dedication to some great use.
You stupid prick! Where else is it going to get Electric from?
The question is why is the programming allowing it through?!
But these were tiresomely delicate affairs, and were taking time. The block before him was burning his mind more than anything of this whole damned catastrophe.
The main problem was it simply didn't configure to any programming or code the Democracy software could identify. And the Democracy ran everything; even cutting-edge encoding couldn't go halfway to what could be de-coded. And yet here was this, this thing, this infuriating box that was nothing and meant nothing, save a name. Which suggested something highly sinister: that somehow, a renegade force or group had developed superior technology and slipped under mainstream security. There was still the possibility it was just one crazed mastermind constructing it all. No ideas seemed possible let alone inviting, but there were just no other answers.
A blue chevron dashed into view on his left, sparkling against the empty background and green gridlines. And at this, Caissan raised a strong mental eyebrow, for this was an incoming message from the next colony, and most likely the local Empire Correlation point. Most of the basic communications devices on the colony had been severed by the Crash. The sapphire arrow swept up and bobbed before his mind’s eyes. It was a glint of hope, and thankfully secure.
At this moment in time, that meant as little as the reason-lacking block in front of him. But it was something. He could feel the tentacles of the Governor behind him in his mind, watching. With both care and fascination, he examined the message with gentle scanning thoughts, and opened it.
Beneath his visor, he gasped involuntarily at the transmission details; the list of colonies the beam had passed through went on and progressively on... Kyrgiiz, Chan-mein Tor, Bayairchlla, right through the old cancerite ore belt and through the substations of the Charkhar twin sun system... further, further, deeper into the heart of the empire, picking its way through strident cities and wheeling supernovas alike. Cho’orintz! The city of seventy million! Names he’d only heard of... some he hadn’t. The further it progressed through co-ordinates and the contortions of space around planets and suns, the less he could be certain; his once proudly detailed map of the local universe was becoming rapidly insufficient. Caissan could maybe recognise an occasional planet or noteworthy colony in the list, then just one, then none at all from the spiralling collection of names. Names that, distressingly, the computer didn’t recognise.
And so, this apparently pristine parcel had travelled countless months, years, decades... to get here. Its final destination, Fortium Rhegardé, a tiny colony hanging on the edge of the empire.
“>>>Gher fönghi exclam-zz-zzz5 « destruct »
>>>W61 jj-take-take-run exclam-56^e4
>>>What for? What for? V-74êta-55 hrtak/scar/iqarn…”
And on it went.
Every officer felt it through the wires, the spasmodic mental fury as the Governor convulsed inside his own private world, ranting in tides of indecipherable code. Two officers had noticed Caissan fall to knees under the weight of it all, although most didn’t dare look up. They knew, amidst tracking and code that was leading nowhere, it wasn’t good news.
Caissan gritted his teeth as his brain burned with Argent’s fury, and felt the urge to weep at the tragedy of it all, the tragic senselessness of it. It didn’t make sense! The colony was cracking apart and blackness encompassing them all, and in the midst of this chaos, a singular message from the exterior that could help them, could help figure this anomalous hell — and it was faeces, more items of uncontaminated ridicule, more items that didn’t make any sense. Why didn’t they make sense? Why were they so hatefully irrelevant? It wasn’t a cover for data, there was no secret coding here. Caissan had been thrown back into a world of helplessness, as the list of place names reeled on relentlessly into alien depths...
He turned his mind to something else; his visor raised, and the glistening apparitions of his local landscape dropped away. In the low light of the operations room he eyed the human beings, which in theory they were, and was received with momentary glances. He breathed in; he breathed out. Sometimes he needed a moment of clarity without the flashing lights and numbers. Well, in front of these eyes, anyway, he thought, rubbing the wire. He glanced at the proto-scientist in the corner.
Öhfberg, answer me when I speak to you.
Sir my name is Tarachi.
Do you feel any different, being mostly synthetic?
From when you were mostly organic, I mean.
The silver disc planted in her bald head glinted, as the woman failed to look up, stop typing, or appear anything short of professional.
Not really sir. I do tire of these questions. Certainly the process swept away minor defects in my brain. I remember my psychology feeling a whole lot cleaner at the time.
It must be good having synthetic eyes.
Well yes sir. Of course don’t forget my “synthetic” friends outside, who will die slowly and painfully when they can’t recharge in approximately twenty-six hours.
The Biosphere’s familiar dome reared up in his mind. The continuing power supply to the colony’s biological unit. What did it mean? Biological warfare by the Crimson Republic? Everything else seemed unsolvable; this issue at least was earthly and basic. He laid out a grid of Biosphere images in four dimensions, each pinned with labels of codes for every split second leading up to and after the Crash. There was little data, but at least it was specific:
The Biosphere was running from Battery 16, and while the seconds around the Crash remained serene and unassuming, certain changes had occurred. The most notable of which was the looped security video. There were 6 cameras inside the Biosphere’s laboratories, and all of them switched at exactly the same second, precisely 24 minutes and 45.7 seconds before the Crash. Caissan zoomed in closer, arranging the split seconds of footage like frames from the simple videos of old days, and examined the point of switching — it had been very carefully done, pasted in to replace the live recording with hardly an Electric stitch. But each camera had verification codes. And Caissan could see ghostly characters that shouldn’t have been there. He copied these, correlated the related icons, and fed the Computer with detection commands. Lovingly, helpfully, the processors narrowed down on a central point, buried inside the wall behind a specimen tank. A device — yet again of sophisticated technology — planted with care and precision and at some impossibly early date in relation to the Crash...
Sir! A warning flashed in one of his peripheral eyes. Sir, serious trespass—
Caissan was already ahead of her (or him, or them). Behind him was the rejected cube of green digits, and already fighting off the rejection codes from other officials was the digital skeleton of Steill Breuvart, Watchtower officer, Class B. Sitting here, inside his skull, examining and copying the digits from the emerald block and the bobbing chevron.
How are you here? Caissan’s training was wearing thin. Through the scarlet javelins of defence programs, the Breuvart skeleton was still taking handfuls of numbers and figures from the block.
It stopped and eyed him back. What is Scharla Kim, Lieutenant?
He sat there stunned for a few moments, before programming kicked in. Officer Breuvart that is not information within your—
Haha! The spectre brayed in his face. You idiot, Caissan! Your bafflement is so obvious! And yet the Democracy still pretends to be in control?
He frowned, and snarled. Go ahead, take it, fool! It’s meaningless! There’s no correlation to be found. I’d return to your running, Breuvart, before the cluster patrol catches up with you.
The skeleton glanced once again, but the hail of red arrows had become too much, and another skeletal arm appeared out of nowhere to pull her back. Upon standing she was hit several times, and with a glare of painful accusation, the image stepped back and disappeared.
Caissan sighed, and refocused his mind. The Biosphere drew near again, just with a different perspective — he had a new idea, something he’d not considered before. Yes, the Biosphere had 6 security cameras. But there were no Electric islands on the colony, and the biological research cameras were also connected to the System. He navigated the narrow entrails of wires and programming to access them and see what they saw, but found it was dark, and only the shifting specimens were easily visible. Adjusting the light detection and focus though, and maybe, maybe there were shapes in the background...?
When he saw them — one by one, saw the bodies — his nerves tightened once more. He opened his eyes, and took in physical light again. And then the heavy voice in his head:
Lieutenant Caissan, I require discussion. In private.
Steill and Marcus collected all they could about the scene, quickly. The backup power had failed this area, and the streetlights stood useless on their tall pedestals, one flashing crazily. But the gateway tunnel to the Biosphere was powered-up and the doors were online. And the flashing of that streetlamp was all the more ominous over the two dead bodies.
‘Ideas?’ whispered Marcus before the macabre open space. Steill could only shake her torn, pallid head. She brought herself back to the moment, focusing artificial eyes on the black bodies.
‘No obvious signs of death. No violence.’
‘Who knows.’ She set her jaw straight. ‘But the polics are out here. And not in there,’ she motioned to the waiting doors. ‘And we don’t have much time, or any options.’ They crept out, calm but hurried, into the open. No darts came, no unseen monsters screamed out from the rocky darkness; just the smooth steel of the tunnel arch, and the entrance pad beeping softly to itself. Marcus was quick to open the chrome-laden case, and clipped in the wire; the panel lit up with the door’s greeting communication. He typed swiftly, cursing quietly when red responses came up and denied him access. Steill watched him through glances as she scanned the dark buildings behind them. No-one following. Yet.
‘Marcus what are you doing,’ she said as he became increasingly frustrated. ‘It’s a door, it should do as it’s told.’
‘It’s not responding,’ he grated through his teeth. ‘The damned thing should be receiving the codes — and — it’s — not...’
Grunting in aggravation, she bent down and took the case firmly from him. The numbers and figures appeared alien and random at first, but after a few moments, she eased into typing; before long, the panel glowed orange with compliance, and the huge doors slid open. Without speaking she hurried inside, pausing only to grab him by the shoulder with metal fingers and drag him along. The flesh was healing rapidly but was still disgusting. He grimaced. Punching the pad on the internal wall, the doors returned.
‘It’s a medium-grade security door and this is a Democracy Electric case which only the Democracy should have,’ she stated, calm to the point of mechanical. ‘You just have to bribe it a little, not batter it down like a storm wind.’ Marcus wasn’t listening. He knew his limitations in regard to specific programming, and while Steill was sitting again with the computer, he gazed around at the metal-plated tunnel rising before them. Even without back-up power in this area, here was the Electric in all its force — and with visitors, the sensors had started moving the rubber-lined platforms that rose far up into the rock of the mountainside. The strip lights overhead were tinged with soothing blues and greens, presumably easing the horrid sight of the blasted rock walls. Hanging at regular intervals, Marcus could see, were old diagrams of various creatures and organisms, on real paper — another sad, nostalgic attempt at holding onto the past, without understanding why.
Steill was still typing, the case plugged into this side of the door. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Tightening security,’ she said ironically, fingers moving fast. ‘The more time we have the better. The less time we have, well.’ Marcus had seen glimpses of the bolt-pistol in her belt outside in the darkness, and seeing it here in clear light was reassuring. In a small way.
‘Are you sure you can do that?’ He bent down to examine the constant flow of data on the screen. She nodded. ‘Like I said, this is the Democracy’s own software. It needs to think we’re polics barricading the door from escapees. The problems will start when they teach the System to recognise this case is not in their hands. What we need to find out now is why the laboratory is still online.’ She delved into the mainframe, isolating the Biosphere and its Electric system. ‘I don’t get it,’ she said, frowning. ‘All the data from the Crash says the Biosphere’s offline; there’s no power, there’s no System response. Which would mean... the Electric’s been reinstated by an exterior source.’ She looked up at him. He looked back.
She gestured with her face a baffled lack of knowledge. ‘There’s no telling where on the planet the Crash came from. Whatever reasons the Crimson Republic have for keeping the Biosphere powered up — with dead people outside — well, the signals are in this mess here...’ She trailed off, spotting something in the apparent chaos of colours and characters.
Marcus saw it too, a certain trend in the data formation, a tell-tale flicker in the corner of the screen. ‘That’s — that’s Caissan, isn’t it?’ She nodded, biting her lip, and narrowing her eyes. ‘He’s in the System. Only to be expected, I guess. But at least we can use the opportunity...’ The screen changed, too fast for Marcus to understand anything, and the new shining formula of green and blue was no less straightforward. Steill was excited though, and hastily pulled the lead out of her left wrist to plug into the machine. ‘He’s stuck with something, something to do with the Crash. There’s a file, and, and some instructions...’ The padding sound of her fingers slowed down and eventually stopped, as the calculations went on inside her head. The screen still swirled and shifted and boiled, but her eyes were shut.
The silence of the rocky walls rolled back on them, and the shadows held fear for Marcus again. He scanned the data and patterns on the screen for items he recognised, picking out the new amber digits indicating Steill’s presence inside the computer. It didn’t make any sense, neither the blind data nor the commands; some of the characters he didn’t even recognise as even the Democracy’s. Something interrupted his attention though, as dribble dropped onto the pad; he turned, and saw Steill’s head swaying and her eyes flickering. He grabbed the case back and typed with speed — there was of course the wire from her wrist, but he knew the sudden shock from removing it would be no good for either of them. He navigated the symbols with what codes he knew, and severed the veins of data keeping her inside the System, dragging her out by force.
Random lights burned beneath her eyelids, as she swam back to the sound of her own panting. She could feel the wire back in her arm, but the rear of her skull still itched painfully. She opened her eyes.
‘What?’ Marcus blinked and shook her on the ground, to which she batted him away and sat up. ‘“Scharla Kim”? What’s—’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ she said shrugging it off and packing the case up. ‘We have to go.’
The silent ascent through the rock on the platforms was eerier than Marcus had imagined. It was a long way — presumably the colony planners hadn’t given the credit for a shuttle service or something similar. The distant light of the doors had long since shrunk to a dot, and despite his good basic training in biology, the wall-hung specimens looked dark and weird in the low light. Steill had sat down; Marcus couldn’t help wondering if she was resting or recharging. He wasn’t even sure there was a difference. It still unsettled him though, that she seemed full of energy and directness in a way she’d lacked when she was human — well, pretending to be human. The flesh was healing well, although as he understood it, the micro-cellular robots were simply spreading the existing flesh out over what wasn’t covered. (Robots? Organisms?) But a large part of her titanium skull still showed, and the emerging bone of her left hip disturbed him.
Although the power was on here, there wasn’t much light — there was no need. Despite the comforting whirr of the conveyor machine beneath them Marcus still felt everything exaggerated in the silence: the dark, the distance, the seconds of time. Steill was outside of it, it seemed, in some weary daze from having the Electric used to invade her head. But he was slowly refocusing (mentally at least), and the quiet was creeping back through his skin again. He nudged Steill as the platform approached the doors of the laboratory — it stopped by itself and waited obediently for them to get off. She pulled herself up.
Two bodies lay, rather undignified, either side of the portal.