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THE DOOR SLID open, and the small girl stepped out into the fresh air. It was cold now, definitely cold. She didn’t shiver though, not like the poor wretches in front of her.
‘...People of Fortium Rhegardé. The authorities of the cruel Democracy have failed to respond to or even acknowledge our threats. 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.’
People were lying down on the road, or rocking on their heels, or eyeing each other hungrily. Some motioned towards the door when it was open, but paused when it shut, and shrank back upon seeing the girl’s face. She looked strange.
Uncertain silence. The girl sniffed this way and that. ‘What’s... what’s in there?’ called someone breathing mist into the air. She didn’t breath mist into the air. Her hair was more rough and straggled than any of theirs. She turned and looked at him. Blinked. Blinked again, and they all saw something strange in that glimpse.
She barked a warning, and ran away.
Kibo ran. Who set the alarm off? Something urgent was up for the alarm to be set off. She hurled herself round past people in the narrow corridors, slamming in walls as she turned corners. People, damned people in the way! Milling about not knowing what to do or where to go! There was only one place she was needed, as a guard and a person. That passageway that lead to them and their place, that place those animals had been brought back from, barking and squealing. That passageway, which led straight past Archeus’ laboratory.
No no no! It was too late. Some idiot had let off the alarm, and they wouldn’t be waiting a second. There’d be a team of guards getting together already. Sure, she’d stand and defend the colony — her colony — if it came down to it. But there was a feeling, a growing feeling in the back of her head, that it shouldn’t have come to this. She crashed into another guard who was running the other way, a young distraught female. Kibo shook her and asked her what was wrong; she merely stared back with wide eyes. ‘It’s — it’s them,’ she stammered. ‘They’ve got out. They got Sii’bek. They’ve got out!’ She wailed and ran past.
Kibo’s heart froze as she raced on against the stream of others coming the other way, shouting, yelling. “Got”. And sure enough, as she rolled round another corner and the people began to thin out, she saw up in the flash of the emergency lights the outline of a fallen body. It was Sii’bek’s body, lying prone in her own blood. She was still. Around her Kibo could smell them, them. All of a sudden she felt unsafe. She’d only had other people to deal with before now. But she had to reach Archeus.
It shouldn’t have come to this. Were they genuinely nasty, or were they just scared in a place that wasn’t theirs? There were a couple of others up ahead. No, this shouldn’t be kicking off now, not like this. People had fought and died and done terrible things to each other when empires had clashed in the old days. Did it always come down to that? She thought they’d progressed since then, so that people like Archeus wouldn’t be thrown out of the way, so that science and reason would be the foremost issues. She was here now, she was in Archeus’ corridor, that space she’d dreaded, and she yelled his name, and they were gathered outside his door, two other guards who she knew as complete idiots, and some other things, crawling and barking in the doorway. They were at his door!
‘Archeus!’ she cried out in the passage, gasping as she staggered up towards them. ‘Archeus! Be careful, they’re dangerous, be caref—’
There was a shrill snap, and the guards stepped back. The light flashed on their faces, their expressions of shock.
She fell to her knees and screamed.
‘I’ve got something you need.’ Tired, starving, pained, alone. Djalo’s grin played on his face. His eyes were open, but he wasn’t watching. In his mind’s eye the glittering presence of the Governor swept down on him like an emerald storm...
You’re attached to the System now. We could kill you this second.
...And he knew he was alone.
‘But you won’t. I’m not underestimating the Democracy’s powers. You could have killed me many times by now.’
I assure you, your status as someone living right now is purely accidental. I’d warn against flattering yourself otherwise.
The small port blinked with lights, as Djalo’s wrist received signals from the silver case, which took them from the capillaries of the mainframe. He’d walked what felt like miles down here among the batteries, and had been careful to remember the way back through the cold avenues to where they’d come in. It was a relief to see a human port down here, compared to the vast channels that soared above him. Them, rather. Garner was lurking around somewhere.
‘The Five. What are you going to tell me.’
Surely it’s what you can tell me about them, Mister Stefans.
Djalo’s grin faltered a little bit with the shadow of a grimace. He paused, keeping a near-impossible grip on his thoughts — he didn’t have to speak for the Governor to know. ‘I’m trying to figure out the cause of the Crash, Governor,’ he said frustratedly. ‘Although right now your title hardly seems applicable. There wasn’t just five. Your man Traiser. What did you know about him?’
A number of things. We were tracking him for a while, like Richarde Garner. Why? What can you tell us about the Five?
‘Damnit! Just what do you know? What aren’t you telling anyone?’ He seethed. ‘There’s a very big impression that this really is the “Crimson Republic” and you really are, unthinkable as it seemed to me, completely powerless. But I’ve got this case,’ he raised its corner and shook it against the floor, ‘and I wonder where you’re sitting right now. I wonder how much of this is your doing.’
The sparkling dust cloud before him remained silent. It shifted over him, weighing down.
‘Or maybe you really are powerless, because this is all over your head.’
There is not much you can claim to know about this situation Mister Stefans! And very little about the answers!
‘I have some ideas.’
You have no ideas.
‘It’s a program. It’s a fucking accident. We’ve spent so long building up this empire, and put down layers and layers of designs and systems and authority, and who’s checking everything? Is everything covered? Who’s checking every single—’
I like your idea. It makes me smile.
‘Well you explain this man and his ideas!’ Djalo screamed. The batteries looked down solemnly. ‘Where were your checks on this kind of terrorism? Where were your safeguards? It’s their program and their ideas that’ve brought everything down and how did you not see them?!’ His voice was cracking, and his eyes were close to tears with anger.
What if we did.
‘I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,’ said Djalo, defying both Argent and reality in general. ‘There was seven of them. They had a plan. And they had a program. Now I don’t know if this is some experiment on your part, since you’re probably sitting cosy with your Electric somewhere...’ He kicked the case flippantly. ‘...although I can’t think what you’d gain from it. From all of this,’ he said, waving his arms. ‘But there’s a chance. I’ve racked my brains on this, on what I do know—’
Haven’t you just ascertained you don’t know anything?
‘—and it’s all a mess and damnit you’re right but... but that means all I have left is my own senses. I know there’s a fire in my stomach. And I know I can’t see any light, and I can’t find any food. It feels like a revolution wherever it’s coming from.’ He was aware of a sound. Steps, scrabbling steps echoing around the batteries. Garner?
What do you know about the Crash, Mister Stefans?
‘So here’s my proposal,’ he continued, ignoring him. ‘I can give you Richarde Garner, or at least the lump of ideas and nonsensical trash that used to be Richarde Garner.’
We don’t need him. We know everything he knows. What we want—
‘And in return you give us back the Electric. Or you give us something.’
A heavy pause in the back of his skull. The steps were obviously getting closer. There was an element of hurriedness about it.
What do you think we’ve been trying to do?
‘For hell’s sake! You think I have no idea?! I know you found them that first time, last year! I don’t care why you’re doing this now, why you’re doing what they wanted to do—’
The body that was once Richarde Garner is of no consequence to us now. What is Scharla Kim Mister Stefans?
‘—in that ridiculous revolution, different people, different languages, we don’t need different languages, we’ve spent centuries trying to get rid of them!’ But you took them. Where are they, Governor? Where are the Five?’
What is Scharla Kim Mister Stefans?
Close now, delirious steps that were fast and then slow and then fast again, and a panting. He flashed the torch in either direction. There was Garner, coming towards him from the right, bouncing against the smooth steel of the battery — or at least a shape that resembled Garner. Djalo’s eyes widened, and he struggled to keep a hold on his thoughts.
‘I’m getting off here Argent. I realise I don’t know what you know, or what you don’t know that I know, or you know that I don’t or whatever. But that supply ship’s coming in soon. And there’s going to be people who aren’t anything to do with you, and are going to help, in, in whatever way. I want Electric.’
What is Scharla Kim?
‘They’re coming,’ the Garner-thing panted.
‘I don’t care about anyone else. I want answers, yes, but I want food and water and most of all I want Electric and I’m going to be first on that supply ship...’
The horrid noise was more of Garner’s ugly squealing, his brow and face contorted as he fell and scrabbled for Djalo’s bolt-pistol. But it was the agonised retching in his eyes that froze him. That, and the other steps.
Scharla Kim Mister Stefans!
The monstrous spirit faded as he absently pulled out the lead and let it fall away, pushing Garner snivelling to the ground. There were other steps, clattering here and there, from the same cavernous depths as the creature beneath him had staggered.
Garner sobbed hysterically. ‘They’re coming. They’re coming.’
‘Who’re they?’ whispered Djalo, hoping for at least some answer. His gun was held out straight in front of him, the torch glaring down the never-ending metallic slopes of the batteries. He shook only slightly, despite his mind and hunger. He thought back to the horror they’d witnessed some eternity ago, up there, up there in the corridor. The girl — the thing — had gone, crawling off through the maze of tunnels and rooms. Could it open doors? Did it need to? His eyes darted to his gun again; in the space of mere seconds, it had turned into a lump of sad, useless metal. There wasn’t much it could do against that kind of nightmare.
The case below him flashed with Argent’s wrath. Garner snivelled and, broken, waited for sight of his doom.
It was the shape of a woman. Making dreadful gasping noises. Dragging something along the floor. Djalo began to shake, terror preventing him from speaking, and futility keeping him from shooting. Or running. Part of him wanted to die standing still instead of fleeing. The rest of him was fatigued beyond belief. This was it.
It... it was a woman. The shadows stabbed around her bent form and the object she hauled behind her. She’d thrown her free hand up against the light. Faltering, gasping, struggling to put one foot ahead of the other, she collapsed a small distance from the two of them, ribcage rising and falling.
He moved forward, leaving Garner eyeing her body suspiciously. He held the gun in front of him. She wore a silver suit that was ripped and torn and stained with blood down the legs. Her left hand clung to what looked like a plastic torso, coated with insane scratches and missing pieces, like nipples and an ear. There was a lot of blood though.
In fact, it actually was a—
The woman’s eyes sprang open.
‘They’re coming,’ she gasped.
My name is Archeus. I am a scientist. I study life.
I cannot help feeling a sense of failure.
The alarm has been sounded. I am here in my lab, sidelined and useless. And the alarm has been sounded. I don’t know why... but I’ve got a good idea, and I’m too late now.
I have been sidelined by those around me! Kibo was right; there are those in command, those who earlier pushed so hard for my results, who have now dismissed me and will not meet with me. Idiots! Bastards! They seek academic advice when it helps them and their goals, them and their policies, and ignore it when it doesn’t suit them. Kibo was right; all this time, I’ve heard third or fourth-hand murmurs of contact and conflict. And here I stand, above my specimens, above my research, with nothing.
I have lost this one. I pushed it too far — I think I interrupted too many body functions in my haste. Now it’s dead. And still none of their organs hold any understanding for me — me, someone of science, let alone any of the others. I have nothing to show them. There is no centre for processing, no articulate system — but see here, see this useless limb, the complex electrical tissue. Why is it here? Why is it here, unprotected?
I have nothing to show them.
What’s wrong with them? It’s all about power and territory. I know they’ve been using crude stereotypes to characterise these things to everyone around me; how can they do such things when even I don’t know anything about them? It’s all about territory and ownership. These creatures can’t possibly survive on this planet alone; what when we find the next planet has them on it, and the next? What makes this planet any more ours than theirs?
This material was possibly the last chance. I’m looking at it now, in my hands — it’s quite clearly their design, soft and flowing, colourful. God knows what it’s for. I can’t see the use. I’ve tried, I’ve tried so hard, but I’ve given up, alone, here in my lab, with my instruments crashing off the shelves. Now the alarm is going off and they’ll be sending guards out, nervous guards who don’t know how to act, and there’ll be contact, and some minor misunderstanding, and that’ll be it...
Shouting, is that shouting outside? I hope they’re not after me. This passage leads all the way to them and their fortress. Maybe they will come and arrest me on their way? And take over my lab as the violence begins, and claim all sorts of findings? I hope not. But there’s nowhere I can go. Is that Kibo shouting? I wonder what she—
Oh my. Another one...?
They never told me! I never even heard they captured a new one! I will have to take it out so it doesn’t disturb me, and give it back to quarantine so it doesn’t scare any of the others. But — hold on, is that another one in the doorway...?
What is it doing? What is it pointing with, towards me?
Pain. Pain like I have never felt before. I cannot... I cannot understand this. I don’t understand. Did it spit something, or have some unseen power? Now I’m broken, I think I’m dying. Kibo is shouting. Why would it do this? What’s that barking I can hear? I can’t see, everything is fading now. I’m dying. I’m dying. I’m dying.