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I AM CONFUSED by my findings.
The others ask me how it goes. I can’t tell them much. There is much more studying to do, so much more, and further examinations. The first specimen has told me nothing and just confused me further; despite taking the utmost care with it, I fear I have damaged it beyond repair.
Apparently there is movement with the others. Things have developed outside, and the others are anxious, keen to move. I have heard them muttering these things for a while now though, but I am much more keen to wait, until something certain comes to take us out of this blackness.
‘This is the Crimson Republic. We are demanding surrender from the Governor, and total physical transfer of colony controls. Only then will we return power to the colony. Only then will your doors open and your taps work. 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 D-polic’s torch flashed shadows around the room. Computer banks lay cold by the walls, and the desk was of course deserted now the occupying official had been shot. Djalo was beginning to wonder exactly what the Democracy knew, be it too little or too much, and what actions were therefore being pursued. He dreaded to think what was going on in the Square right now.
He felt hungry.
‘This is where we think either, or both of you, will be able to start providing some answers.’ The D-polic was strident in his actions, having just killed what seemed apparently a fellow officer. Djalo threw a glance to Garner, who returned the look with weary eyes: the terror of the blackout and the executed child had been enough; here, in this office of malign bleakness with another body staining the ground, things weren’t becoming much better.
The polic waved them across the room with his gun, and pushed the stamp of a finger on the far wall’s door panel. Nothing happened, even when he clicked in a long series of digits. Djalo didn’t feel the heart to mock him as he had done at the front door. Waving the gun (a little unprofessionally) at the street people had been one thing, as they’d shouted and cried to get inside purely for psychological shelter, just for the sake of being inside. But the spike was still sitting there, only a tiny part remaining outside the man’s shattered skull.
Magically, the panel lit up and the door opened. The new corridor they were herded into was long and dark and bare, and not promising.
‘Where are we going?’ The D-polic turned to Garner, and Djalo was glad the dim light was just reflecting from his visor, and his features were concealed. ‘I should think you’d know that Mister Garner. Go on.’
It led on into depths and darkness so absolute Djalo thought they were going downwards even though they remained level. Locked doors passed by on either side, dead and indifferent. There were shifting tides and hallucinations in the blackness, and Djalo was hearing muffled metallic sounds from beyond the walls; of course the air system had shut down, and the dank brittle air was cold and heavy. The air system had shut down and there were sounds where there should have been none. There was another secure doorway, which at the D-polic’s touch burst into life and opened. The resulting corridor crawled a short way, then ended suddenly with a lift. An online, alive lift. There was a moment of huge puzzlement, Garner’s and Djalo’s eyes lapping up the emerald glow. Djalo noticed the pause was shared by the polic — although it was hard to tell anything behind that black visor. ‘Why... where is the Electric coming from?’
The black head just nodded. ‘Programming.’
They filed in. Djalo noticed how, despite the earlier inconsistencies with the door and shooting the guard, he knew the exact clearance code to key in, and made no hesitation pressing the lowest floor number. As the door shut before them, Djalo wondered if they’d run out of air.
The lift lowered itself rapidly and smoothly. Normally the smoothness would of course seem completely natural, but with his abandoned state of mind and the colony wasted of anything working, he found it unsettling. It slowed to a stop, and the doors slid apart to reveal another pitch black corridor.
‘This kind of place puts me in a certain frame of mind. It reminds me of certain rumours.’ The statement was left hanging from his mouth as they walked. Garner turned suddenly in front of him, Djalo catching slices of his contorted face with the torchlight.
The dirty prod of the pistol in his back was enough to move Djalo along again. ‘Like people going missing, maybe.’ The footsteps in the following silence were sharper than a blade.
‘Rumours are just that. There’s no grounding in them.’
Another corridor, another door, another lift mysteriously online; downwards, downwards. It only just hit Djalo how much his stomach was burning inside, from lack of food and the gross activity he’d been through.
‘I’m hungry,’ he said blindly, stepping into the dark lift as the torch sent their shadows madly from one wall to the next.
They descended further and deeper into the chemicals of darkness swirling around them. Between the horrible boiling in his gut and the dulling tiredness inside his head, he suspected an idea of where they were going. A buried issue was also growing from the back of his mind — but what Garner knew, and what this D-polic knew, he couldn’t tell. He was sure there was pattern in the mysterious sounds behind the walls.
The floors passed by.
The hatch slid open, and Steill dropped gingerly to the floor, hobbling away to let Marcus out. The entrance here was plunged in darkness, which was mildly surprising to them both, since the tunnel was online — although neither found it wild enough to comment on. A dim glow filtered through from a corridor ahead, outlining the bare room with the dead reception computer. Without words they moved forward, Marcus helping when the pain was too much for her to tread on. They both knew where they were heading; sitting high up in the cracked mountains, the Biosphere held the main inspection station for the solar fields. With a buggy. Even more so now, there was no time, and no options, and they had to get to the remains of the craft; something clearly disturbing had happened though, and there was no telling if panicking scientists had taken it or any of the equipment.
Creeping softly down the corridor, Steill shook slightly with the pistol held ahead of her. A pair of doorways approached, one shut, one open, which emitted the tiny blue glow they drifted through. They stopped before it by the wall, and Steill swung round unconvincingly with the pistol, nearly collapsing when she put her foot down. Nothing of danger lay beyond; Marcus turned round also, and both quickly eyed the tanks and microscopes and various complicated devices, all lit by the ultra-violet lights above strange plants on the far walls. On the floor, a dead scientist lay sprawled, a picture of upset and peace at the same time.
They moved on quickly — but simply passed lifts that led to floors above, and found more open doors and more bodies the same. Something had killed these scientists, without violence, without disruption, and without time for any alarm to be raised. The more they looked, the more uncomfortable they felt, knowing full well the severity of chemicals and biological agents being held around them. Every step took them closer to some choking death or paralysis; fears were held sharp in their minds by the gleaming vials that watched them in the half light.
‘Must have been done after the Crash,’ mumbled Marcus, his eyes passing over yet another pair of bodies in yet another room. The tanks were getting progressively larger as they proceeded to the far side of the Biosphere, as were the things inside them; Marcus had ventured in to pick up what looked like a light-emitting device on a desk, and twitched slightly when a nearby encaged creature sensed him and scrabbled madly against the glass. He only caught a glimpse of it, and felt grateful for the darkness. They hurried on, and finally came to a closed door marked ‘External Access Area’. Steill turned to Marcus, and then remembered they were lacking the case.
‘Will you be okay on it?’ he asked.
She shrugged. ‘I’ll have to be.’ She pulled the wire from her wrist and plugged herself in, silently thanking whatever forces of chance that it was still powered up. Marcus though had his attention caught by a new glow, and something in the air, coming from a corridor to the left.
‘I’ll just be a minute,’ he said airily, making slow steps towards the glow. Steill turned sharply. ‘Marcus? Marcus we haven’t got time!’
Her hiss made no difference, as an open door beckoned to Marcus from the end of the corridor. He stepped cautiously towards it, aware that not everything might be dead here. But finally he reached the door, and, glimpsing just more white-coated bodies lying within, turned to look inside.
Inside was the cavernous central dome of the Biosphere, the main laboratory. Animals crawled and weird plants grew inside sealed tanks that scaled huge heights, like some vast library of living biology. Experimental biology, Marcus knew. It was all dark, and certainly the flying silt outside meant he shouldn’t have been able to see anything — but the tanks were active, and their shifting sensors and computers shed a glowing blue light on the columns. Marcus had approached one now, and was struggling to see inside. There were flashes, tiny reflections of sapphire, some just sparkles of glitter. Tiny fish of some sort. Or submarine animals of some kind. But the computer was analysing, constantly reading, hundreds of details speeding through the digital display as he watched. They all were around him. But what was more interesting, in a total blackout where only the Biology unit had any power, was the computer’s instruction reader, which was changing just as fast as the measurements. He plugged himself in from the wrist, and wrestled with the disorientating coding of biology terms and language. It had instructions — but what instructions, and set by who?
‘Marcus,’ came the outside call. Steill had limped over through the corridor and had stared at the tanks. ‘Marcus we’re clear, we have to go.’
Marcus waved vaguely. ‘One moment, it’s so confusing, I’ve nearly got something...’
‘No Marcus, now.’ She stepped over, wincing at the icy fire in her foot, and started shaking him. ‘Marcus we have no time...’
Punctuating her remark, there was a far away beeping sound, and the dirty noise of sliding doors.
‘It’s nearly there, just a few more moments...’
‘Marcus you idiot, now!’ His eyes were glazed as he saw things in his head, while hers were watering from the pain and anxiety. ‘Please Marcus, they’re here, they’re here...’
Sobbing from his lack of response, she ripped the wire plug from the computer and hit him hard in the face. He fell against the tank, stunned from the sudden change, while she hobbled off back towards the waiting doorway. With the echo of footsteps clattering from the dark corridor behind, she held the torch (or microscope, or whatever it was) out strongly in front of her, and it lit up the small space beyond crowded with computers. Lying before her now, untouched since the birth of the colony, was the external buggy, and in one wall the airlock was set.
She nearly screamed when Marcus bumped into her, swaying slightly. Frantic now, hearing the footsteps with alarming clarity, she pressed a simple code on the lightweight buggy and blinked as the door ground open. The entrance closed behind them, Marcus stumbled round to the other side, Steill swung herself in, shut the door. Through tears of caustic terror she scrambled, threw her hands everywhere on every button and pad to find the start-up switch. Marcus frowned dazedly, took her right hand and splayed it against a flat square, which scanned the fine lines and brought the machine buzzing to life around them, lights glowing, gauges flashing. Again she took out her wrist cable and jammed it into the port. There was a noise from the entrance door. She juggled with codes to unlock the airlock. The door scraped sideways. The engine revved. A shadowy shape appeared in the doorway.
The airlock rumbled open.
Cold walls glared down at Caissan the moment he stepped through the door. Dealing with the claustrophobia of a far-planet colony had been part of his training — but now, there was a touch of concern, at the small bare walls of his living quarters and even the operations area itself.
Argent looked at him.
Caissan nearly yelped as the hanging screen lit up without warning, and the Governor’s craggy face stared down. The video link had been used a lot recently. It wasn’t strictly necessary — why speak orally when data was far more reliable? — but both he and the Governor, it seemed, preferred it for matters of importance. Such as the Crimson Republic’s threats, and the surgical operations.
‘The Biosphere is still online, sir.’
Argent’s shaven skull glared at him, knowing full well the statement was neither new nor groundbreaking.
A small pause. ‘But it’s still running! The computers are still active. They’re still analysing.’
‘What do you think this means, Lieutenant?’
Caissan had entered the room with some definite ideas, and once again, they’d been completely derailed. He hated the way Argent insisted on saying the word “lef-ten-ant”. It didn’t make sense. ‘I — I couldn’t say sir. Perhaps, perhaps the Crash is a wider cover. Perhaps they want to develop certain things...’
‘The strategic significance of Fortium Rhegardé is not lost on me Lieutenant. It would be quite alarming for the Empire if terrorists were to gain control of microbiological agents.’
Caissan bit his lip and nodded. It all seemed so simple now, now the impossible had happened. The colony was an outpost — he remembered reading its Democracy brief, apparently the budget had only been granted with the purpose of watching for signs of other civilisations. Now it was clear to everyone out there on the dead streets, and trapped inside dead homes, that it was the ideal target for a threat to their own. The nano-organism program was practically waiting for someone, or thing, to take it over and abuse it. It wasn’t anywhere near standardised yet, but the samples were there, and—
‘And these doors won’t hold them.’ He turned up to that dark face, fighting back the creeping horror.
‘But the doors are airtight?’
‘The doors are Electric, Lieutenant.’
Panic widened his eyes a little for him, and his teeth ground involuntarily. No end! No end to the frustrations and terror—
‘Lieutenant please. There is not much we can do except think. The programming and answer to the Crash are in the Computer somewhere. But a ridiculous situation needs matching with clues that don’t make sense.’
He pulled himself together a little, and stopped staring at the low strip lights on the walls. If it didn’t end, their Electric would run out too. ‘Scharla Kim, sir?’
The head nodded. ‘What do you know?’
‘N-nothing, sir. Nothing you don’t.’ His voice lowered to a hiss. ‘It descends into insanity! The Computer doesn’t even recognise some of the characters, let alone the names!’ Again the silence, as though this was a given. ‘It scares me sir, it scares me what could be the cause of such alien interference. The Empire is a singular nation. We have the same culture. How could—’
‘Shut up! You are in this position for your intelligence, or so they told me! Caissan searched for a bolthole, anything, anything to escape that relentless glare. ‘We have to think round these issues. Flexible thinking is required if we are to uphold these ideas; it’s not just our lives at risk, but the very notions of civilisation that we hold dear.’
‘Of course sir, of course, it’s the only answer.’ He found it. ‘Sir... I don’t want to seem alarmist...’
‘The supply ship?’ Caissan’s nerve collapsed. It was ridiculous trying to converse with someone who could read your thoughts ahead of you; he nodded. ‘It’s due in soon now. As you know. If things do not improve, we might have to consider... evacuation.’ He stood there under the screen, naked under the Governor’s gaze and the umbilical cord he held in his hands. The light picked out the buried lines around his mouth and forehead, and picked out the pock marks under one eye.
‘No.’ He exhaled. ‘The Crimson Republic hasn’t torn us from here yet. If structure truly fails us, then the escape pod is there. Until then I want security to screen for biological agents to two-point-seven percent of a nanometre. And find the damned programming thread to the source of the Crash.’
‘It’s not footsteps.’
Djalo heard footsteps.
‘It’s not. It’s dark and you’re hungry and tired. And it’s deep, so the metal makes noises by itself.’
Tap, tap, tap...
They’d stopped to rest on a landing, somewhere near the top of what seemed an industrial gutter complex. Flashes of the torch had passed over ominous doorways, some of them frozen while sliding half open. There was no-one here: the only company was the eerie creaks of metal through the floors, above and below. The D-polic had turned the torch off to save using Electric, and while pains were stabbing Djalo in the stomach, he saw shapes and things swimming in the black ink before him.
It was too rhythmic. Sometimes it stopped, sometimes a faint clatter. But definitely there.
The voice of the D-polic sounded from somewhere to the left. ‘If neither of you are quiet, I might have to shatter your arms.’
‘Oh shut up,’ Djalo retorted. ‘You need both of us for information you think we have that we don’t.’
‘If you didn’t have such information, we wouldn’t need you.’
A sigh from the direction of Garner. Djalo frowned to himself, or at least thought he did — it was hard to tell in the darkness. ‘But you have no idea. We could be lying. Whereby the only option you have is the threat of force; so if we truly did know nothing, we’d be forced to make up any random drivel. Anyway this is ridiculous. Word games in the dark with a polic? I thought you were more professional than that.’
‘Mister Stefans, I believe you are doing more talking here than anyone else.’
That was true. Djalo’s mind pictured Garner, suspiciously. He’d been very quiet since the shooting of the guard, or in fact when the D-polic had marched them off through the streets. Maybe he was talking now, but Djalo couldn’t quite hear; he was drowsy, drifting off, slipping down the wall to the comforting cold floor.
Steill lay back in the sensor-laden seat. She was tired. She turned to brush Marcus’ hair from his forehead, the shadow from the single light snaking over a closed eye. She might sleep too, just for a small while; the only other exit on the colony was where the Square led out to the landing bay, which was halfway round the mountain ridge, so they had time if they were being followed. And the neurones in her head were so disrupted and torn.
Scharla Kim. The words wouldn’t go away. It was just the, the fascinatingly ridiculous idea of data not having a direction, or file name, or any reason to be. She’d turned over the instruction-message — or what little she’d saved in the back of her skull. None of it seemed to have any pattern or order. She looked at it now in her mind, a skeleton set of digits, enough to give an outline — but once again, she was tired, and over-exhaustion would do no good. They could rest, get some strength back, and hurtle on down the ancient track into the low-lying plains and the solar fields. She couldn’t see them, not in the darkness, but they were lying there spread out on the invisible landscape before them, redundant and resentful. They had to get to them, quickly, and find anything they could from the wreckage of the craft — the forces involved in the missile hit and the collision with the planet would have been huge, but clearly the armour was good, and hopefully pieces would remain. Certainly the data recorder would remain intact. But who knew what was left inside? A Democracy diplomat from the Empire Hub? A scout from the Crimson republic? Even in times of normality it was peculiar hanging on the edge of the universe, not knowing what was going on. Sometimes it had scared her to think what they had already developed in some of the core tech-stations that just hadn’t reached Fortium Rhegardé because of the sheer distances involved. Right now it was terrifying. She felt a vague chill of vulnerability. And the tip of her foot hurt still stung badly, even after the delirious moments when her brain had simply shut off sensation. Being semi-artificial (ha! What did that word mean?) had its advantages, and the microscopic cellular robots were a part of her system now; inside the mess of boot rubber and torn flesh, healing skin had already begun mounting the stumps of real bone.
She padded one of the buttons on the buggy’s status screen, and then realised she didn’t know how to work it. A panel displaying the rear was still flashing red, from where the D-polic’s pistol bolt still remained lodged. She struggled over in her seat, turning to look at the sharp black tip breaking through the surface, and wondered about the dark blue nanotex skin. Upon tearing through the airlock, the lack of outside pressure had pulled the material coating tightly into the gaps, as it was designed to do — but she’d barely even heard of it, and never seen it in action before. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her frantic driving down the clear but winding track had certainly done the structural suspension no good, crashing over random rocks and cracks with just age-old headlights to see by. Even hearing the constant scraping sound of the silt outside made her nervous. She was quite sure it wasn’t meant to be driven in such conditions.
She settled back, breaking open the lid of the flask they’d found with foully ancient liquid inside, which must have been distilled when the colony was made. Steill screwed her face up at the taste of it. Or even being designed. It was water though, or water-plus really, and they were both thirsty. Lying down now, and closing her eyes, she allowed herself to slowly fade away. Only her emptying stomach bothered her now.