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THE SUN SPARKLED on the blonde child, lying happily in the lush grass. There was a single cloud, somewhere off to the right, but apart from that the sky collapsed gloriously into the space above. It faded to lighter blue where it met the horizon, which was level from end to end, except where a patch of sandy hills in the distance looked like some mouldy, decaying landscape. The rest lay open though, bare, beautiful. It was very pleasant.
‘So are you going to do it?’ The brown girl next to him was chewing some grass. He turned to her. ‘Oh yes, of course. It will be good.’
‘But won’t some people be unhappy?’
‘Maybe. People are just... people. They just want... they just want what they want. Don’t frown like that. I don’t like it when you frown.’
‘Hmm. I’m not convinced.’
‘You don’t have to be. I know who you are, I know why you’re here.’
She turned on him with a mischievous smile. ‘And I know why you’re here.’ Her brown skin was very unusual — he’d never seen it before — but he liked that. Her face shone warmly, like a smaller, earthy sun. The lips in her smile had traces of dark blue. Her right eye and her small red birthmark made a perfect alignment with the sun in the sky. Her head curved against the open blue. It was nice.
‘Only because I let you know. Come on, let’s get down to that tree.’
‘You never let me know!’
‘I did too.’
Skipping, running, tumbling down the hillside, they came to a final rest in a heap of hysterics. They giggled as they tickled each other. There was a stream nearby, curling gently round the lone tree. He stood up, pushing at her playfully on his way, and walked neatly over to the tree. It sagged (not unhappily) in the sunshine, and the space all around was flecks of green leaves or blue sky.
‘I don’t understand though. People will hate you.’
‘It’s not just me, there’s others as well.’
‘They will hate all of you then.’
‘But they’ll like me in the end!’ He turned rather suddenly, his hair flapping over his face in a way he didn’t like. ‘Look, you see over there?’
‘Of course they are. Aren’t they big?! The view from them must be great!’
She laughed. ‘You can’t climb them, you’re too far away. It would take years.’
‘I’ll have years one day.’ He sat dreamily in the low fork of the tree.
‘Yes but until then,’ she said, ducking under a branch to surprise him, ‘there’s only us. Just you and me here.’
He saw the cold flecks of blue in her eyes, and liked it.
They exchanged uncertain looks, neither with anything suitable to say. Then Steill looked up, and read the largest word stamped across the doors, which was ‘Quarantine’.
And then she looked back at the bodies.
‘I’m not happy about this,’ she sniffed.
‘Where else are we going.’
‘We don’t know what kind of hell’s broken loose in there because of the Crash.’ She shuddered, remembering the Biosphere ironically held only the most sophisticated (i.e. deadly) virus samples. ‘It might not even have needed the Crimson Republic to make its way outside.’
‘Like you’ve said, we’ve got no options.’ Marcus glanced nervously back down the tunnel. ‘We’re still standing now. Anyway, aren’t you immune to disease or something?’
‘Very funny,’ she replied, wrenching her face in aggravation. She stepped slowly to the side panel, placed a hand on the scanner, and found nothing happened. ‘What the... I programmed this door to receive us. It should be ready to receive my handprint right here, it’s got my code, there’s no way it — oh no...’
A faraway bleeping sound echoed alarmingly up the passage to meet them. Marcus looked to meet Steill’s frantic eyes. ‘They’ve —’
‘They’ve trapped us, I understand.’ He took the case and plugged it into the doorframe, initiating the start-up codes to power up the door. ‘This isn’t right, if he’s cut the Electric from the door it should be fine to open...?’
Steill shook her head nervously. ‘He knows we’ve got the case. He hasn’t shut the power off, he’s just barred access.’
‘Then what can you remember about the codes for the door?’ Another rejection sound drifted up to meet them from the main entrance.
Steill looked panicked. ‘I don’t know... I don’t know if it’ll be enough...’
‘Well just type for hell’s sake!’
He knew the anger was unnecessary, but it wasn’t the time for apologies. He eyed the faraway depths down the transit tunnel while she typed, nerves tightened and locked down for any shift in the distance beyond the moving platforms. Behind him her breathing was getting faster as her typing gained nothing.
‘I can’t do it... There’s nothing here, there’s no gap, there’s no gap...’
‘There’s always a gap!’
A third faint beeping sounded to them. She was shaking her head rapidly. ‘There’s no answer, it’s blanket, blanket refusal...’ He turned and ripped the case from her hands, studying the codes and responses. ‘Watch the entrance and keep the gun steady. And switch it to normal before you fire it!’
‘There’s a built-in mode for avoiding other D-polics, you have to switch it off.’
She stared at him incredulously as he struggled with codes he didn’t know how to use. ‘I can’t configure this! It’s just a gun!’
‘You’ve got a Class B Democracy weapons training?!’
‘Doesn’t train you to operate a pistol!’ There was a moment of quiet filled with chaos. Steill looked down the tunnel, trembling now, and then looked closer to the moving conveyor belt system. Opening the operating panel on the floor by the wall, she plugged her wrist into the socket, and felt the glow of Electric in the back of her head again. The operating instructions were easy to overcome, and the platforms soon slowed to a halt — as there was a whirring sound below, and her synthetic eyes picked out black dots moving at the end of the tunnel.
‘Get down!’ she hissed. Marcus dropped to the floor, careful not to let the case make a sound, and for a brief second there was silence. Then—
—the huge crack of a metal spike striking the doors behind them, splitting the metal with an ugly gash. Steill aimed as tightly as she could and fired back, knowing full well it would miss. But they scattered, the black dots, all three, no, four of them...
‘Progress?’ she called quietly back to him, not moving her eyes. Marcus shook his head silently, terrified and frustrated at the blankness of the machine’s response. There is always a way with technology. There is always an answer in the programming. But there was no answer, not here without the keys, and especially not against Argent. And there was physically no way of getting through any locked door—
He looked across, and saw the shady outline of the quarantine hatchway.
Another brazen shot came screaming overhead and buried itself beside the first; two more quickly followed.
‘Marcus?!’ came Steill’s rising voice, firing off two random bolts. One of the polics had hooked into the other end of the conveyor system, and she fought a losing battle with the Electric in her head as she watched the other dots climbing, becoming black figures in the near distance.
‘Steill what central code did you give for the general quarantine procedure?’ called Marcus, sidelining the door’s main entrance programming.
‘What?’ she cried back, another volley of bolts hissing past them. ‘Err, twelve-nine-six^upscore[iron-uu-tibi], I think... maybe [tabi], or something... why Marcus? I hope you’re going somewhere with this...’
Marcus knew his programming limits, which was why he wasn’t going into the system to unlock it, just sideways, around it. She was right: you had to trick the System and just use what you had...
Another barrage ploughed into the space and walls around them, one bursting through the rock ledge beside Steill. She had given up with the conveyor system, and it whirred into movement again. ‘Marcus?!’
With a triumphant beep, the panel glowed orange and the chrome hatchway opened. It was barely wide enough for a person. ‘Steill, the hatch, now,’ said Marcus firmly, still typing. Steill glanced round, and recoiled as a bolt breezed past her face and blitzed into the panel above Marcus. She fired back at the D-polics now no more than hundred metres away, and scuttled along the floor. Waited for another set of bolts to be fired... and scrambled as fast and focused as she could up into the tiny hatchway above. She aimed her shoulders diagonally and made it though well, but upon pulling her legs inside she screamed as a bolt blasted the toes on her left foot apart. There was no time to stop though, and wincing and crying she turned herself round in the low, narrow space. Screaming a wild torrent of abuse she pointed the pistol out of the hatch and fired continuously at the platform with the D-polics on.
‘Marcus?!’ she screamed above the blasting. ‘Marcus are you nearly there?!’
Breathing fast Marcus typed the last digits, pressed the [enter] pad, and hurled himself towards the hatchway. The lone case was left open on the floor, counting down in golden flashing numbers. There was a brief gap in the relentless fire from Steill’s pistol as Marcus pulled his body through, and a terrifying pause where his hips momentarily stuck. But the ensuing bolts from below fell on open space or flew into the ceiling above them, as Marcus was through — and when the countdown reached nothing, the hatchway shut firmly.
Inside the tiny space, little more than a metre high, the only sound was their gasps and Steill’s wincing as blood pooled on the floor. With a series of grunts she managed to rip off a piece of her trouser leg. The end of the boot had been ripped off, and the two largest toes still wriggled next to the bloody mess where the other three had been. He wrankled his nose and edged sideways as the blood oozed towards him.
‘How — how did you — you get it to open...?’ she gasped.
He shrugged. ‘It needed to be tricked. Maybe the doors were under heavy locking codes, but the hatchway is only joined to the main system, quarantine functions on separate guidelines. Just had to ease it open. Like you said, bribe it.’ She screwed her face up as she pressed the material into the wound and drew breath through gritted teeth. Then she looked at him directly. ‘We don’t have time. What now?’
He brought himself back. ‘Now? Now it thinks there’s severe infection located in the tunnel outside. Hopefully they won’t be able to clear it for a little while yet.’
‘Shit. That means they’re already working on it. So how do we gennnngnnnnngaghh how do we get through that?’ She threw her head sideways, indicating the second hatch, which read ‘Decontamination’. Marcus looked at her blankly in the semi-light.
‘I had to leave it on a provisional locking set-up,’ he sighed, collapsing against the wall. ‘I was hoping you’d be able to sort it out.’
‘What, that and the lack of oxygen?’ The sarcasm was more biting because of her pain. She pressed tiny buttons on the internal lock for start-up codes. ‘Oh that’s nice,’ she pondered, trying to hide the hideous burning in her foot. ‘We’re recognised as living items.’
‘And it probably thinks we’re specimens.’ Her voice was sickly and heavy in the violet gloom. ‘Which means at least it’s giving us oxygen. But this part of the System seems okay...’ She frowned, pressing more pads. ‘...and there was no quarantine procedure initiated before we got here. Which means everything inside should be fine.’
‘And the dead polix?’
She frowned further at him. ‘Possibly dead by the same thing as the two outside. But nothing’s a surprise any more. And if the Crimson Republic can cause a Crash like this, and they’re running the Biosphere, hell knows what they’re capable of.’