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Projects to be run, lives to be run
|Chapter 14 ->|
WHERE ARE YOU?
I can’t tell you that. You know I can’t tell you that.
This is ridiculous. I am learning everything about the program and nothing about who I’m working with.
Garner was calm and relaxed, except inside where he was restless and suspicious. His eyes appeared to rest calmly in front of him, looking across the cafeteria where two girls chatted and giggled. But every glance, every innocent sideways look, was well-aimed and specific. He was looking for someone.
I need security codes.
For what, where.
What? They could be the D-polic in the corner, or the two talking to his right. Or they could be off-duty. Hell, he couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman. You’re not needed at the Biosphere. That’s not your jurisdiction.
As back-up. What if something goes wrong? I need to know the codes as well.
Don’t you understand, it is not your place to know these things? One of the girls ahead gave him a glance with a smile, before bursting out laughing at something her friend said that was clearly hysterical. If something was to go wrong it would all be cancelled, aborted, finished. You know full well this all relies on every detail being perfect down to the last programming digit. And how the hell could you go poking around at the Biosphere unnoticed? This is hazardous enough having this conversation here. An officer sipping his drink to his left gave him a furtive look.
If people would only show me things, maybe I wouldn’t be so concerned about what comes after. I’m very frustrated with being treated like an incompetent.
A pause. He was plugged into the table; almost everyone was. But D-polics had radio transmitters. Which meant it could be anyone. Two D-polics, helmets resting on their table, knocked back two sets of laughing tabs. The girls glanced at them. The polics glanced at them. The girls glanced at him. He glanced at them.
Perhaps because the more frustrated you get you more you act like one.
Damnit of course I’m frustrated. He gritted his teeth involuntarily. I’m here to see Caissan about rock sampling. Rock sampling!
Maybe... because you’re a geophysicist?
Genius. You’re so sharp. I’m so happy I’m working with someone so sharp. Garner snarled in his head. It’s so — it’s so pointless! There’s nothing out here, the asteroids are the same, the dust is the same. It’s so mind-numbingly tedious.
Calm down. You’re forgetting Fortium Rhegardé’s strategic significance out here, right out at the frontier. Besides just keep your patience, for hell’s sake keep your patience. Afterwards everything will be different.
Garner nodded. No more menial jobs for everyone. When this all comes apart.
Remembering, though, that you will have to give up your authority then?
His sly smile was met by an indignant mental grunt. The time is approaching quickly and your attitude is still inappropriate. Is there anything you want that I can give you, without having completely wasted my time?
Garner stepped out of the lift, straight into Caissan’s jaws.
He stopped. Lifts normally opened at corridors, or large rooms. Not right in someone’s office.
‘Good morning Monsieur Garner,’ beamed Lieutenant Caissan from behind the desk. Garner nervously glanced around the minimal room, suspecting it was a ploy to catch people out. It was.
‘Is it?’ He brought himself to attention and nodded. ‘Sir?’
‘It certainly is Monsieur Garner,’ replied Caissan briskly. ‘I would excuse you, but you’ve been on this planet a number of years now—’
Garner opened his mouth.
‘—Democracy years, that is, and I’d expect you to have adjusted by now. Now, I’ve had a look at your geo-sampling report...’ he brought up details and data lists on the hanging transparent screen in front of him, ‘and there’s some intriguing points on it, certainly. What are your thoughts?’
Garner tried to retain an air of seriousness. It was difficult. ‘Well sir I’ve been looking at this steady wind of dust coming from the next sector—’
‘Ah yes, at an angle of six-three-two, four-nine-four?’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Garner, trying to keep up, as Caissan smiled expectantly at him. ‘As you can see, the levels of ferrosilite and enstatite are up every month on last year, and I was wondering if perhaps it was a solar cycle rather than just random drift.’
There was a pause. Caissan smiled. He wore the type of suit no-one wore, the futuristic one with no collar that zipped up diagonally across the chest. No-one wore it because it was too new, and had been too new for hundreds of years. ‘What else do you have?’
‘Uh — well, we’ve fully analysed those samples from canyon #56, six hundred miles south of the colony—’
‘—and pretty much the same as the rock we’re built on, sir.’ Garner held his gaze firmly at the wall ahead of him, over the head of his superior.
Caissan stared up from the desk for some seconds, then lowered his brow into a frown. ‘I hope you’re taking your responsibilities seriously, Monsieur Garner?’
‘I am sir.’
‘And I hope you realise the importance of Fortium Rhegardé as part of the Empire?’ At barely a mental gesture, a glowing hologram flashed up above the desk, stars and systems slowly spinning. Garner remembered that personnel had radio transmitters at the rear of their skull, like D-polics, with no need for wires or cables — not like him, not like ordinary people. A tiny flashing pink dot, hanging rejected and alone towards the bottom, indicated Fortium Rehgardé’s place in the grand scheme of things. ‘We’re at the forefront of the Empire, on the very edge!’ said Caissan majestically. ‘Who knows what wreckage from past civilisations we might find, or living creatures from new ones? We hold a great responsibility in our hands, carving a new path, a new path for the Democracy...’ He trailed off. The enthusiasm had slipped into a frown. They both flashed glimpses at each other.
‘Sir, permission to comment on the nature of my occupation?’ Garner broached.
‘Sir it’s rather menial.’ He let the stone sink.
Caissan mused. ‘Agreed.’
‘Sir, if you’d allow me, I might even go so far as to say the whole colony—’
‘Now stop there,’ Caissan interjected, raising his hands. ‘You can say what you like about your occupation, you chose it, that’s your issue. But you’ve come here of your own accord—’
‘Sent here by central command at Trinigal station,’ mumbled Garner.
‘—and you know perfectly well the strategic importance of this colony, so I will not hear anything against it. Now, I’m very busy and if there’s nothing else crucial to inform me about, then I want you to correlate your findings in this dust wind with the astrolab people and simply follow up your general program of duties.’
‘Please, Monsieur Garner?’
Garner left his mouth hanging open, and shut it, stepping back into the lift. The doors shut and he descended, more bitter about geo-sampling than ever before.
Caissan sat back in his chair as it swivelled round; the wall behind him raised to reveal computer banks and technical officers of central Democracy offices. He spun back for a second, glaring at the hologram. Fortium Rhegardé had drifted to the top of the rotating hologram, a reminder of the Empire’s large scale where there was no up or down. He glared a few seconds more, then collapsed the floating image.
On the very edge! The forefront of the Empire! He tried not to let his face drip into the same cynical scowl, and failed. All the way out here, on some cold rock no-one really knew about. Of course Garner hadn’t come here of his own accord — who would from Trinigal station? His eyes glistened at thoughts of all the people. People! Thousands, millions of people! All that social interaction, the complex governance, the systems, the data, the projects! They needed the Democracy there, needed it to function. Millions of people arranged together, helping each other, all interdependent! It was beautiful. There were bare thousands of people out here.
He froze, and brightened up suddenly, optimism washing over his face. He was second only to the Governor here, but there was no telling when the Governor was looking, looking through the wires. He scattered the thoughts from his head. He was his clean, pragmatic, emotionless self again. But not without a pang for those people, those projects to be run, those lives to be run.
Steill was gone.
Marcus careered across the bare red rock through the storm, the buggy crashing up and down and the heavy black unit grinding in the seat with every lurch. The videos on the main panel still played, those crazed videos, those alien images.
Amidst the roaring silence of the silt outside, his breath was short, sharp, and the only sound inside the cabin was from the console before him. This was a period of hell, where every second was crucial and concentration absolute, yet time passed so slowly. The same void without change. He was curling round, back round the craggy ridge that held the colony — returning to the Biosphere would be useless, and there was still a high chance a patrol sent out would be coming the other way. But there was only one other entrance back into the colony, and that was by the Square, from the landing pad. Part of him not intent on the way ahead, or terrified by what lay beside him, fancied he could see it up ahead, that great plateau which dwarfed even the colony bubble with its size and simplicity. But he knew it was just shapes forming in the darkness, in the swirling grit.
Another world! It had to be. They could replicate anything with graphics, sure... but, but, but why? What on earth could it be, when the language on the craft’s recorder was completely alien? He’d attempted to configure some of it, particularly any recent coding or programs which would have occurred upon meeting the planet. Or from engaging with the Democracy. But what little he could find didn’t seem to say much. Logic had descended into anxious aimlessness, selecting options he couldn’t possibly identify. That anxiety was with him now, carrying this message that carried him through the blackness. This message that would give them answers. This message that would show what was going on. That would bring the Electric back.
There had been sounds, strange unidentifiable sounds which seemed to be the language of this people. People! Yes that was the shocking thing. Other worlds had been found by the Democracy, and contact with another race, well — it was surely a matter of time. That was what Fortium Rhegardé was for.
But they were humans. Whatever remained now inside the demolition of that pod had been human. Humans, with different language? It was unthinkable. It was so blasphemous. They looked different, taller, wider eyes, paler skin... But the Empire was one. The Empire was united, same people, same culture, same language. Inwardly he shook his head.
Sounds. It was completely wrong to Marcus, just simply wrong, as voices continued over the images of wherever this being had come from. But there’d been two sounds he’d recognised, the first being “Di’imoklacy”, which despite the lurid tones and strange emphasis he’d still picked up on, and which proved beyond even his doubt of its origin. But “Sha’arlala Keem”, that had been said, definitely, many times. He could even recognise the alien characters depicting this word, as they constantly appeared amongst the alien garble when mentioned. Where had he heard it before? Hadn’t Steill mentioned something similar?
The darkness hurried on behind him, urgent to stay where it was. The time between each stomach cramp was diminishing. Whatever, he was fairly sure he could stay alive long enough to get back, and show the Governor, who — whatever he knew — could restore some reality to the world. Failing that, the supply ship was due any time soon. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too many hours too late.
Sniffing. There was a silence, a beautiful silence without the hideous low sounds she’d heard earlier. And she was lying in a crumpled heap with her head against a wall. Her bloodied foot had started sticking to the inside of her boot, and it was excruciating to move. But, slowly awakening her, there was something sniffing close by. Very close. She hoped it wasn’t sniffing her. Bits filtered back to her. There’d been a tunnel, and through her suit she’d felt arms holding her in the dark... appendages holding her in the dark. But there’d been no nerve agent to subdue her, nor anything to turn her suit’s light off, and she’d caught a glimpse of what had been holding her. After that her brain had simply shut down.
Something touched her shoulder.
Against her better judgement she lashed out with an aching arm, and quivered with terror at what she might have disturbed. It squealed though, thankfully, a sharp ugly squeal, with no resemblance to the monstrous sounds that had dragged her in... low, bestial, bellowing... please, anything but those sounds...
Her eyes snapped open, and saw something less than human. It snarled at her, with a glint in its eyes, which Steill realised was the spark of her helmet’s light. There seemed to be no other light in this dark space. The creature lashed out at her, and while she flinched, it simply bounced off her glas-steel visor — before she could try and fight back though, it lurched away from her, tugged back by something.
She lay on her side for the time being, as she woke up properly; it was easier to imagine things at right angles than to push herself upright. It didn’t look like there was much to see though. Off to her right (which must have been the ceiling) some curious crescent-shaped object gave off a green glow. Less far right, and up and down, away in the murky gloom, were contours — grubby flesh-coloured hills. And there they were, the flint sparks of light in frightened, vertical pairs of eyes. A polluted sense of relief ran through her, that these were humans... just what kind of humans. But something struck her then, which was their lack of visors, and the panting sounds that came from the ones above her. Disorientated, she pushed herself upright to see where she was.
The space didn’t even roughly fit the word “room”; it was simply an oval hole in brittle rock. Opposite her was some kind of metal plate with a dirty transparent hole in the centre. It looked like a door, but different, and there was no pad to open or close it with. The glowing green object was more suspicious now, mildly inflating and deflating. She considered it a living object and tried not to look at it again. Lying on the ground were flat things, dark but with patches of light grey. She reached out to touch one next to her, and found it firm but spongy. Looking again, she considered they were actually a light grey, simply coated in dark splatters.
As for the wretched creatures before her... There was three of them. Two were off to the left, with the thing that had assailed her being pulled down by another. Off to her right, pressed in hard against the wall, the third was lying down, quivering. A dark stain seemed to be oozing from between its legs. The panting and grunting from the pair to her left seemed to lessen slightly, and keeping her eyes on them (as they did on her), she pushed a button to release her visor, and choked on the foul air that swept into her lungs. It stank of faeces and worse unmentionables. Through eyes that began to water she saw the creature make another lunge, just to be dragged back and beaten savagely by the other one, before hitting back. Bestial noises filled the noxious air, and with the closeness she felt a sense of crude horror. She felt the desperate urge to pull back her visor and breath clean air, but there was no telling if she might need it again. There was no telling how far she was from the colony.
‘ ’, she said, opening her mouth, and not knowing what to say. She focused the light on the non-aggressive thing, which backed away at first, but held her gaze. Like the others it had rough black hair, but it covered most of its face in a beard, unlike the other one lying in the corner.
‘Damokhasee,’ grunted the thing. She examined it more closely from her sitting position, trying to block out the pain from her foot. It was of course completely naked, and covered in dirt and faeces. But beneath the grime, cracks and gashes ran across the skin, and older scars and wounds seemed to be healing badly. Its genitals hung raw and swollen, clearly infected, and she threw a shocked and pitying glance to the poor thing that lay stricken by the wall.
This thing held nothing but excited curiosity in its eyes. ‘Daaamokhassee. Damokhasee.’ It was gesturing with an emaciated arm. She saw on it what looked like primitive, painful gnaw marks.
Wiping her eyes on her suit, and trying not to breath too deeply, she took her hand away from her face. She gave it a puzzled look. ‘Damokhasee?’
It nodded wildly. ‘Yah, yah, yah. Demokasee. Home.’ It pointed with the stump of a finger, badly infected and failing to heal — and then pointed again, and again, and looked crestfallen in defeat from the directionless rock.
Steill let her mouth hang open, then winced from the foul air and shut it again. These things were from the colony. They were people of Fortium Rhegardé. Or had been. They must have been held here for hell knew how long, in this tiny space, with just a single hole for waste, this tiny forsaken place with nothing but each other. No Electric. Nothing to use it with. Nothing to say or think or do. She looked back from the cowering thing (she had difficulty using the word woman) in the corner to the aggressive creature, now lying down, whose equally infected genitals were becoming less excited. Held here in this nothing space by, by, by...
The calm thing crawled forward and crouched down. It kept nodding, and seemed more confident to open its mouth. ‘Demokasee. Lon tiiiiiime. Here lonlon tiiiiime.’ It (he!) threw a nervous glance to the poor thing to her right, and with in a startling flash of humanity, looked guilty.
She couldn’t think on that point though, as she stopped looking at him and actually saw his body. There — was — no — right — arm. Instead it hung out of his right side, just below the ribs, a hinged stick of dead flesh. It flapped and bounced as he moved. She let out a scream. And she screamed...
...which caused chaos, as the thing lying down began yelling, and the thing facing her yelped and screamed also, backing away into the gloom. Not only the arm. She’d seen articulate cuts, mechanical cuts, across his chest and legs, and — tubes — extruding from particular points.
Something grabbed her foot, her broken one, and with a shriek of pain she kicked out. The decrepit woman had crawled across and now suffered a harsh blow to her shoulder, but still faced Steill with sorrowful and tortured eyes. ‘Wuz Na-ta-sha?’
Steill gaped. ‘I don’t know...?’
‘I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know,’ yammered the first thing across the space, bouncing up and down on his heels, the dead arm flapping madly.
Steill caught hold of an idea. ‘What is your name?’
The bouncing stopped, and they all turned, as though the phrase suddenly cut through layers of dust and horror in the minds.
‘Neeeeeeeema. I am Neema.’ The thing by her foot seemed pleased yet baffled by this string of sounds.
‘I am, I am, I am Adams, Adadams,’ said the first thing. It considered this, and then looked happy, nodding. There was a snarl of anger from the thing lying down, which got up and smacked him. ‘No not! You Hishman, I’m Adams, I’m Adams!’ The thing, having no arm to balance with, fell to the floor painfully. Steill looked away, wincing.
‘You Adams... you am Adams...’
It was shocking. Steill felt her self numbed and ripped apart. This was degradation, pure, unadulterated, with only shreds of humanity remaining. Or maybe... maybe this was humanity.
‘Na-ta-sha,’ wailed the woman-thing.
She tried to bring herself in, back into her own thoughts and away from the shocking horrors around her. Rotten air sucked through her teeth as she peeled the mangled end of her foot away from the boot... it was healing, and doing well without nourishment, but the new flesh was tempted to fuse with anything. She tried to think how she was here. The monstrous things keeping them all here — she couldn’t block them out forever. But she struggled to remember how they’d got her here, and extracting information from these wretches was probably impossible. It was horrifying to recall traces of those beasts (in comparison the soulless things in front of her were warm, so comfortably human), but there was nothing else. It was all blurred. Hadn’t she been in a big gun? And D-polics? Marcus. Wreckage. A hot piece of wreckage under her foot, definitely; loose, loose and giving way.
Planet checks?! Surely the Democracy gave planet checks on life forms? Maybe, maybe everything was still a Democracy experiment and the things she’d seen had been constructs. Maybe not. She tried to recall the literature in the Constitution about the Empire’s stance on alien life forms, then failed because she’d never read it. Everyone knew it... but, but, no-one had actually read it. There would probably be a copy on the System somewhere, or maybe even a paper copy in the colony’s Library. But thinking now, she wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t.
The thing known as “Hishman” started to defecate horribly without noticing, looking at her excitedly. She looked away.
There hadn’t been any recorded contact with other life; at least, not intelligent life. Amusing types of fish had been found some hundred and fifty years ago, but that was on an S3 planet with standard vegetation. Then again it was impossible to say what was happening at the other end of the Empire. There could be monstrous wars being fought against unthinkable creatures at this very moment in t— well, what was time anyway. All the stars she’d ever seen were dead.
Wars. There was something in her mind, surfacing.
Oh no. Oh no no no.
She turned down to the woman-thing, “Neema” she might have been called. ‘Crimson Republic,’ she said flatly.
This didn’t bring the expected response. Instead, Neema simply stared with her jaw hanging open, while Hishman put a quizzical look on his dirty bearded features, as his arm hung morbidly, swaying, looking at Steill. “Adams” had sat upright and was looking around at the dark, stained walls hungrily, sniffing at the wretched air.
But it made sense though, didn’t it? There was a craft, yes, yes, the pod, but — but that could have been anything. The polic had admitted so himself. This was it. A number of alien things — hell, any number, it could be five or five billion — who were waiting, who had access, somehow (with whatever technology humans couldn’t understand), to the mainframe, or to the batteries, who’d sent threats, threats they’d made these poor humans recite, and were waiting...
Threats from these captured humans.
With a shiver of fright, she knew who these people were. Or had been.
An eye the size of her head appeared at the transparent panel.
Garner scrambled about on the floor, keeping himself low. He glanced upwards and saw the batteries still towering ominously above. He’d never seen these vast monoliths which (never before that day, anyway), but he’d always held reverential thoughts towards them. Motherlike thoughts they’d been. And now they stood for everything he didn’t understand, every mysterious authority, every baffling dictation. The Governor, either useless or evil; the D-polics, either useless or evil. It — it was quite possible he couldn’t actually see them any more, since he’d left behind that ignorant bastard Djalo many corners ago. But the image was there from before, that green glow seeping up the impassable sides of these wombs that held life — that were now holding life away from him. He wasn’t worried of getting lost. He’d been here before, he knew how many turns he’d taken, and he could tell which battery he’d reached by feeling the plaques with his fingertips.
That idiot. He’s grappling with the non-Governor right now, through the wires, to wherever the non-Governor is hiding, up above, or maybe further down below. Has anyone seen him? You haven’t. Well of course you’ve seen him... but suddenly videos aren’t enough. I mean... I mean, obviously, with the mainframe, the Governor is — well, was able to contact anyone, at any time, not just those semi-scientists by radio power to their brains, but to the devices in everyone’s pockets, the chips in their heads. But yes, that fool, what does he think he knows, his stupid ideas about accidents and left hands not knowing things. It’s the future! Was the future, at least. Nations and translations, varying information — and therefore easily attainable truth. Truth! What’s “truth” when the Democracy holds all the keys, and says what’s behind the doors? It’s just, just right. Different people. Not these same, blank faces, these same bland hyenas taking their laughing drugs, plugged into the same system. The System. That had been the future once. Well... you’ll show them. Why the Democracy’s shut everything down who can tell, it’s, it’s madness. How can the pretend-Governor still pretend to be a Governor without a colony left to govern? You’ll show them. You’ve still got some of the keys. And you can learn. You’ve got decades left to learn, to change the codes, to configure the applications to another colony. That’s right. But not the next colony, or the one after that, somewhere really far away. You’ll be on that supply ship, and away, away from this death. Away from the things down here. You know what the future is.
Something touched his foot. He yelped in surprise, and rolled forward instinctively, breathing sharp and shallow. Moving back and pushing the darkness with his hands, he only touched the flat planes of rock and metal.
Close now. Definitely. He trailed along the side of a battery for minutes, hours, waiting for the sharp edge of the plate.
Things. You’ve never had nightmares really, not much, not more than anyone else. The medi-unit by your bed always picked them up and ended them quickly. But... but this last year... there’s been things, every time, and every time the blackness can never come quickly enough. There are no things to worry about. Not above, anyway. (His hand nudged something. Had it? He drew back in the nothingness.) You’d — you’d be able to hear them, surely? If they were here, waiting, waiting for you. For you? Maybe. You’re the only one who knows about them. Now, anyway. After that other thing did things to Traiser. It hadn’t looked like them! It could change shape. It could be anything.
His mind tumbled and somersaulted — as though the Crash hadn’t been enough, now truly everything certain was dripping away, cracking, collapsing.
He sniffed. They’d smell of something, surely?
He found it. His fingertips read the front. The characters read, “Battery Ø47”.
He spun round. The darkness was absolute, but his mind’s eye conjured up the tunnel, the violated rock face opposite the battery in front of him. He moved forward with slow, ginger steps. He didn’t know what he expected to find. Maybe it had all been a dream, a simulation. Had it? Maybe this was a simulation right now.
He touched the rock and ran his hands over its gashed and blasted skin.
But if it was a simulation, was there any way out?
Ahead of him, from down the tunnel, he heard sounds.