DEVOLUTION by Jez Kemp DEVOLUTION by Jez Kemp



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Space.

His last exquisite, inhuman cries echoed away from him.

He was in space.

Djalo woke slowly. It was wide, dark, cold, and he could feel all of it — his arms stretched all the way to its edges, so he could feel every atom of its emptiness, every molecule that wasn’t there. He was small. The space was big. But it didn’t scare him. It... it was beautiful. It was death. Clearly. Comfort in the cold, in the emptiness, in the absence. Mmmm. In the absence.

Djalo woke slowly. The shattered fragments of his mind surrounded him, all the torn, wasted debris lining the blankness. He picked bits up indifferently, poring over twisted shards and recent emotions calmly, unfussed. He was here, clearly. But there was something special, something final about this space, this absence. Death, the final space, after all the lights and the distractions. Calm.

He opened his eyes.

He still wasn’t sure he had his eyes open. But it was cold now, the air was sharp and chilling on his dirt-coated cheek; feeling around, the bulk of the doorframe was still there, even if the torch was clearly not. He felt the woman behind him and with slow movements found she was alive still, much to his frustration, since she was still a weight to be carried. Further movements found the door was open. Garner had gone. The case had gone.

There was no sound of the things.

He pushed himself to his feet and shook her, getting simply a sigh in response, and so hauled her up over one shoulder. He felt out blindly for the doorframe, and stepped forwards slowly but certainly. A tiny, icy breeze played over his skin. Doorways passed — all silent, and held open, like prison gates or uncovered tombs. Dusty, ghostly twilight washed over them as he felt his way slowly, step by step around each corridor and through each open door; his gaping pupils saw outlines appear that he’d never have been able to see before. The air grew colder, and colder, with a touch of yellow glow... it was the same darkened netherworld unfolding in front of him, cold and devoid, but somehow different.

There was a room. Another room. Empty desks, dead computer equipment. Djalo saw it all with an air of serene finality; everything here was broken, but becalmed. It had forgotten what Electric was; it had given up. Specks of blood on the floor. People in the third room. They turned at him on hearing his heavy, irregular steps; he looked back at them, opening his mouth and finding nothing to say. They pushed back into the corners, shivering in their thin clothing, huddling in dark shapes for warmth.

In a dreamlike state, Djalo and his weight stepped outside.

Now it was something different. Djalo was coming from pitch nothingness and saw everything spread out like the stars over a storm, every surface glittering and dark under the soothing light of the streetlamps. Empty avenues stretched away from him, lined with bodies, alive but still, breathing but dead behind glazed eyes that stared. He knew where he was, and he knew where he was going. The supply ship was coming, and he would be there first.

The surroundings sulked around him, as Djalo staggered weakly but purposefully along the naked streets. It was all so familiar, every concrete shape and metal outline stained in his mind. But even without the light, even in this dank, twisted afterlife without Electric, it was something else. He didn’t understand it any more — just like the minds of these people here, who might or might not be saved, it was gone; the stones, all fake, and the lights, alive or dead, and the cold wires beneath his feet and the dark spires above his head, all of it, all of it... all of it was something else. Maybe with Electric it would be exactly the same as it was before. Maybe he’d changed. Whatever. The streets were something ugly now, and everything around him was stained with some alien stench. It was disjointed. It didn’t mean anything.

Approaching the Square, he heard the crackling of speakers all around, and for a heart-stopping moment where he froze still, fearing Argent’s monstrous voice again. But continuing forwards, he heard that familiar voice, stuttering on its seemingly age-old demands.

‘...Rhegardé. The authorities of the cruel Democracy have failed to respond to or even acknowledge... no option... Fortium Rhegardé is under control...’

It rambled on, defunct, as the Square opened up in front of him. And Djalo had to stop here, and look.

It was a different place to the one he’d fled, the snot and drivel pouring down his face. No crowds, no D-polics, no panicked shouting cries; just the same bodies littering the ground as the streets behind him. Some shivered, wisps of condensation in the unthinkably cold air. Some sat still. Some lay still. The splashing of some child-like figures in the fountain called across the empty space. There were still the broken armour shells of D-polics lying about. It was similar, but somehow, somehow...

Looking around now as he walked, drawn to the gaping hole in the centre, he saw them all, all the dark glistening trails of cloying blood on the flagstones. The random, brutally ravaged bodies, some with hunched figures still pulling at their insides and gulping them down and being sick. He passed them, unable to not look, and they looked back with broken, defeated eyes. Off to his right two bodies lay scratching and grappling, the one underneath crying, spitting, moaning quietly as the other beat its pelvis against the ground again and again and again. He was frightened now, he nearly screamed as something leapt on his shoulders and brought him and the woman crashing to the ground, and when he turned over something was on top of him scratching at his face violently and grunting. He struggled beneath it, eyes flashing open and shut against the slashes of trimmed fingernails, seeing terrifying glimpses of others hurrying towards him from all sides. He saw the woman finally come to life behind this creature, this nasty hideous gremlin with wavy hair and blue eyes and a straight nose that had once been human, but her efforts were small, and even bashing a pistol against its head seemed to do nothing to stop its onslaught. He was weak, and struggling, and saliva built up in his mouth and began choking him, and he could do nothing, except pull out his own gun and shoot it through the head.

Covered in its blood and spitting out his own phlegm and traces of sick, he threw the body off and sat up and stood up and screamed at all the stooped and crouching figures waiting to pounce on him and her, screamed and pointed the gun viciously and repeatedly. One of them growled with narrowed eyes and leapt forwards at the woman from behind her, so he shot it in the head as well, and squeals arose from all of them as he continued to rant and threaten them all. He took the woman by the hand, who looked at him blearily. She swayed slightly on standing up, and he led her away from the creatures both alive and dead, towards that square, open hole.

‘What’s your name?’ he said, recalling mundane language from distant memory.

‘Scharla Kim,’ she whispered. He stopped dead.

‘What?’

‘Scharla Kim.’ She held out her right wrist, trying to focus on him. He flashed angry snarls to skulking creatures around them, and frowned at her.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Scharla Kim.’ She pulled her wrist back and tried to pull the glove off with her teeth, and failed. He understood though, and helped her arm out of the suit. With trembling hands from the cold he extracted the small plug and connected it to his right wrist. In his dazed state he found it difficult, keeping a wary eye around them while feeling her signals enter his head. It was data... mere thousands of glittering, tiny green digits. He looked at her, puzzled, as she piled them up in the back of his skull wearily.

What’s this?

She wavered. Data.

Data?

Scharla Kim. System Data. Only system data for Scharla Kim. Biolab… Biolab still running. Pod crashed.

It was nothing. His grasp of anything was failing steadily, never mind Democracy coding — but there was no pattern to it, no structure. It was just a lump. He unplugged her, and helped them both stumble onwards. He glanced around at this dirty, frightening place, and knew there was something fundamentally wrong with it. He’d never really known what evil was before. But he could see it stained here, here in every blank, latent stare of things that looked human.

The hole was square. It was clearly deliberate. There were wide — and despite all the horrors he’d seen so far, he gasped — steps leading down into it, coming to a passageway several metres down. Djalo knew they’d never been here before and didn’t ask himself why; the answers would be down there. A single beam of light shone out, much like the torch Garner had been holding back beneath the surface. He waited at the top here, hairs standing on end in the chill air, waiting for the strength of mind to descend into them. He nearly brought himself to it, before he heard something, something slight underneath the announcement speakers and the grunts of raping and the distant splashing of the cold fountains that had nearly been drunk dry. He looked around, focused glances this way and that, and saw something else out of place.

A buggy.

The streetlights ran away, across the last open space before the dome struck the ground, and where the Square met the vast landing pad outside. There, near the ground that sloped downwards, into the airlock and then up to the outside — there, a buggy lay open, quiet and unassuming. The woman swayed with her eyes closed. She was clearly delirious, and probably weaker than he was; he couldn’t leave her, not here, not even for a moment, so carried half her weight as she hobbled over with him. There were bodies gathered around and inside it when they arrived, and Djalo shouted to get them away, waving the gun again, ejecting the ones sheltering inside without ceremony.

Both doors had been left open. Strictly speaking it was a Democracy vehicle, Djalo knew, for personnel only... whatever the case, there was no sign of the driver. The woman’s eyes flickered open and her face creased when she saw it; she tried to speak but simply murmured something unintelligible, and slumped against the side, dragging dust with her as she slid to the ground, crying. Both doors had been left open and on the front right seat was some burnt, heavy black lump. The whole thing was covered in grit and scratch marks, and the wheels were grazed and worn, which could only mean it had been driven outside in the silt storm, without much care. He gently fingered a suspicious bolt protruding from a rear panel. He could hear the noise clearly now. It was a video, playing on the screen in the centre of the buggy’s console. It was a video showing different people, speaking different words. One of which was Scharla Kim.

 

 

The man ran through the streets. He knew where he was. He knew where he was going.

The sleeping forms around him were terrifying. Lying everywhere, asleep, awake, dead, alive, but mostly asleep and dead, dead, dead. In a void, here in this horrible void with nothing. He’d always thought the glow of the Electric was something inside, that it brought to life something from within; but clearly, without the sparkle and superficial glow of the Electric, they were nothing. The man screamed inwardly at the horrible tombs that loomed above him as he fled the darkness that sneered at him from all around. What was he thinking? He’d been brought up this way. His surface had been torn from him just to find there was nothing underneath. But the hate still burned inside him, that same unpitying hate and resentment, and he still snarled at the dead bodies as he fled them. Especially the ones that moved.

The dark, morbid hospital loomed further down the street, and the man was glad when he staggered round a corner. A dying streetlight flickered and buzzed to his right. Further down the other street he came gasping to his destination. Despite his hurry he calmed himself, tried to regain control of his breathing and straighten his bent, panicked back — this caused him some pain, and was still gritting his teeth when a rasping woman grabbed his leg, so he kicked her head. He fumbled with the metallic object he carried. He hurriedly grasped inside his skull for the right codes to open the door; it whirred and glowed, and he despised the glow; as he stepped inside and turned to close the door he saw bodies outside moan and stand up and reach out to the haven it offered. He closed the door speedily, and was suddenly attacked by bodies that sought desperate escape to the outside. He shrieked and spun round and threw fists randomly in the darkness at the sad whimpering that kept saying “please” and when he found the head he smacked it against the floor in desperate fury until it stopped. He knew there were others here, other dead bodies that looked like people and sounded like people and could arrange sentences but were just bodies. He might have been brought up the same way as these fake people, but he had something, he had something inside. Anxious, he found his way through the blackness, through this door, down that corridor, into this lift, down that corridor. Practised perfection. The codes here were nothing, nothing he couldn’t overcome or didn’t know anyway, nothing like the fortress blockades far down below him.

He found the right door. Even with his gorge-like pupils empty of light, he knew it was the right door. He calmed again, and straightened his back. He tried to stamp an air of reverence over the rampant panic in his brain. The door opened and he closed it behind him, but before moving on he keyed in figures and numbers on the case and searched through the codes to find a link, the link between the library’s files and the pod he knew that lay behind him. Tense seconds passed, alone, in this small room below ground. Finally, there was a hummm; the room basked in its low illumination again. Nearly dropping the case from his hands, he turned, and there was the pod, open, waiting for him. He stepped over to it. Gingerly lowered himself in. Applied the pads. Plugged his wrists in. Sent a mental signal. Watched the lid close above him.

Sunlight beckoned through his sleepiness. Waves of loving, bright light washed through the darkness behind his eyes, and he swam in bright blue colour; the sky plunged beautifully upwards above him. He was warm again, suddenly warm again. There were mountains off in the distance. He writhed slowly in the long grass like a comfortable bed.

‘Where have you been?’

He turned and sat up. A familiar, long-lost and anxious face looked at him. She was sitting down, and she was still the same: young, bright, smooth, perfect, beautiful. Her brown skin was still just as deep and mysterious. He loved her brown skin, and her rough hair, and the blue flecks in her eyes. Her happy, joyful face was sad now, but beautifully sad. ‘You’ve been gone so long.’

‘I know.’

‘Where have you been? You went, you never said goodbye. You’ve been gone so long.’

She was timeless. It shouldn’t have mattered to her. But it did, and he was glad.

‘It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.’

He looked up, and in the gorgeous open sky, there was a cloud. A huge, single dark cloud. It loomed and would soon block out the sun. He turned back, and moved to her, and hugged her.

‘Please hold me.’

‘Even though you know I’m not real?’

He glowed in the warmth of her body, in the last minutes of sunshine.

‘I don’t care.’

 

 

‘This is the Crimson Republic. We are demanding surrender from the Governor, and total physical transfer of colony controls...’

The dark steps gaped ready to devoured Djalo whole. But there was no choice. There were no other answers. He carefully padded down each step, holding the woman across his aching shoulders. She seemed to have fallen unconscious again. The sharp beam of light coming from the open corridor below (which made the surroundings that much darker) glinted off her protruding hip bone. He flashed his eyes around the smooth, perfect steps and the slight cracks in the walls where the ground had slid back. The colony had been built this way.

Probably every colony had been built this way.

The steps came to an end, and he saw the room they led to.

It was long. The total silence that swamped the colony above, underneath that self-repeating quotation, was nothing to this. It was long, silent, completely still and dark, except for the torch that lay on the floor and two video screens further down on the left. A long table stretched down the centre of the room. Some sort of chair, cloaked in darkness and built into the wall — a throne — faced him at the far end. Djalo moved a foot forward, and before bringing it down saw the layer of thin, ancient dust that coated the floor. Djalo had never seen dust before. It was broken only by a chaotic jumble of footprints that led to the video screens; looking closer, he could see it was two sets, one calm and careful, the other frantic and running.

The torch had been dropped. It lay there at a crazy angle. It clearly looked like the one Garner had been holding; whether it was the same one, who knew. But its light glinted off the walls, which he saw now were simply row after row of video screens, all of them dead. He picked up the torch. Chairs lined long desks beneath them, empty. Dusty. He carefully padded down in the trail of those footsteps, and saw now what the central table was: a vast, long hologram of the colony, composed entirely of light — yet, ironically, dark and defeated. Buildings were picked out in minute detail, windows, doors, the twisted trees of the park... he waved an arm through it all, as though it were nothing.

He lay the woman down on the floor wearily, still eyeing the blank, silent walls with mistrust. The two screens playing their silent visuals awaited him, but as he swung the torch round, something caught his eye. He turned to the throne, several steps away from him. It was mostly a simple chair on a raised platform, black, padded, some kind of moulded plas-steel. It watched him, and he watched it. Lain in its head was the Democracy seal, stark against the plain simplicity, a tiny mosaic of glinting stones and chrome. The right arm flattened out into some kind of hologram display, a personal version of the long table before him. All watching him, from a layer of dust. Looking down now, he saw something else in the dust on the floor: another set of footprints, small, light; the pads of bare toes were just visible. A child’s steps. They led up to the throne, to the corner of the platform below the right arm. Where a disk lay.

He stepped nervously over to it. It was square, and something like dark blue. Looking at the arm of the throne, he saw a port the same width as the disk itself. He looked back, and picked it up in his hands.

It read: Governor.

He froze, alone in a timeless frame for a few seconds. Just for a second he felt the temptation, and his hands moved towards the arm of the throne, and he slotted it in the drive — before pulling back and throwing it on the floor and stamping on it until it broke. Until it broke into little pieces, which he threw into different corners of the room. He stood up straight, and turned to the monitors.

The first showed a man, shoulders up. Blindfolded. At gunpoint. His hair was scraggy, dirty and ruffled; a rough beard had been growing around his mouth. His lips moved, appearing to make sounds Djalo recognised — and suddenly it was there, his lips matching up with the defunct, repeating quotation on the announcement system outside. The gun didn’t waver. The blindfold never moved. And the man continued talking. It could have been anyone, sent from anywhere. Djalo gaped.

The second was darker. It showed the inside of rooms, corridors, bays, passages... all empty. Djalo found the layout of the rooms familiar. But there was something grey about it, hazy, misty. He frowned slightly. More rooms, control desks, gun turrets, cargo holds, all empty. And then there it was, an outside view — the monumental behemoth of the supply ship, against the starlit emptiness. Huge. Bigger than Fortium Rhegardé. Djalo’s heart fell out beneath him, and the image switched back to the interior: rooms, corridors, cargo holds, all empty. Why was it empty? There should have been people, rushing about, talking, commanding, studying, exercising, fucking. All empty. No people, no objects, bare. Why was it empty? All empty. No people. But — wait — some objects there, floating, hanging in the air...?

Empty.

Not empty.

Water.

...

Djalo is suddenly very small, under a cascading weight. His eyes are open, his mouth is open, and as the view switches back to the exterior again, Djalo can see the faraway shot taking in the planet as well. Somewhere below the massive tumour of the silt storm is the colony. And the ship is rushing on towards it. Rushing. Hurtling. Djalo can see it has gone too far to stop.

He drifts in another timeless space of mere seconds. Everything is in his head, somewhere or other. It’s starting to collide together, irreversibly; he can’t stop it now.

He snaps and runs, scattering dust particles in this untouched room, hauling up the unconscious woman and dragging her up the steps. His mouth is now shut, and the panic is not visible in his eyes but in the frantic tugging of her loose, flailing body up into the cold outside. Her heels scrape over the fake flagstones and he’s heading straight for the buggy. Some creatures have crawled back inside so he scatters them, outwardly calm and not yelling or barking much. He tugs the blackened lump out onto the ground and lies the woman down in the passenger seat, and lashes out when some thing behind him leaps on his back and tries to grab his gun and bite his neck at the same time. Eventually the thing is on the floor and he kicks it as hard as he can and stamps on its head. But there are more things, more desperate crawling creatures coming back, and he has to clamber over the top of the vehicle to get in. He is in, and the video is still playing, still playing its images of strange people and sounds of strange languages on the planet of Scharla Kim. Strange people and strange language that are somehow part of the Democracy. Arms are grabbing his arms now, legs, these poor refugees confused between desperation for food and solace, and he can’t get the doors shut, so he looks at the one nearest to him, which is a crying little girl, and shoots her straight in the face. The ones on the other side grasping at the defenceless woman are just backing away when he uses the last bolt to clear the other door. The buggy is on, and he plugs himself in and pushes buttons, switches, pads almost randomly, but it moves. The wheels screech as it turns and heads out for the airlock.

Scharla Kim had been another world; another Democracy outpost, far far far away. So far, far, far, it was centuries and light years since they’d splintered off from anyone related to Djalo, or the people in Fortium Rhegardé. Of course they looked different. Of course they spoke differently. And the last item of data left... no other data in the entire System. It’s been wiped away, thrown away, disappeared.

The machine shakes slightly around Djalo as the ground slopes downwards; clearly something has been damaged. He hopes it will hold. The darkness deepens as he falls below the bulkhead under the vast thickness of the dome. Up ahead, one of the airlocks is still online, purple lights caressing the heavy metal portal. Djalo doesn’t ask questions. He’s not very much surprised. A signal appears in the back of his head through the wire in his wrist, asking for confirmation to exit. He throws up the few clearance codes he knows. The first door begins to rumble open.

The pod had escaped. It was a warning. Fortium Rhegardé hadn’t been built by the time it had left, but there were probability matrices and stellar maps, it could easily have been predicted. Fortium Rhegardé, here, on the edge of the Empire. On the edge of nowhere.

The buggy sits between the two doors as the one behind closes. Two spotlights are the only illumination that enter through the glas-steel windows, as the video continues its unknown message. There is a loud hum; the door ahead scrapes open on ancient wheels. Grit floods in and assails the scratches on the buggy again, but the wind’s roar remains outside. The engine buzzes again and he shoots off, into the blizzard, up out onto the massive cloaked plain of the landing pad.

There are other issues, points that don’t fit — whatever things lie down below, demons, beasts, technological nightmares gone wrong, gone right. Whatever they are. Maybe they are part of it all, on this planet they’d thought was theirs. Maybe not. But the supply ship isn’t far now, the supply ship is coming... and no-one is getting on it. No-one is getting out alive. No-one is getting out alive except him. Is that the point? It’s hard to tell. Because there is water coming, water, water to cover a planet already being warmed by a young growing sun. The biomachines are studying, changing, making. They’re getting ready to build a new world.

No-one is getting out alive except him, and her. He throws a brief glance to the limp body beside him, and then looks longer, knowing there is nothing ahead but the perfect solar fields beyond the landing pad. She is pale, dirty, grazed, torn, discarded, useless. Hopefully she will live. Hopefully she will be able to have children at some time. Hopefully she hasn’t been too damaged for that.

The buggy streams through the void, and Djalo pushes it further, further, fast; noble, desperate, straight. It careers off the solar fields onto the bare rocky plains, and still outwards, outwards, away. It breaks the limit of the storm, and the clouds of dust and silt thin and clear into the open space of rocky, starlit wilderness. On and on and on until his eyes are heavy and his limbs stiff. The buggy slows to a stop, turns, so he can see the incoming apocalypse.

It doesn’t matter if he can have children or not. He stares at the ship, a large bright dot sparkling with intent. He stares at the stars, and wonders if whoever is out there — if whatever is out there, doing this, orchestrating it — has any desire for him to survive. If they even understand pity. Probably not. Even if he survives, and they reproduce, and humans grow on this new world, it will all... it will all fall apart. Each generation will painstakingly tell the next exactly how things were before, but it will always be imperfect, and with no object or program surviving, each successive generation will degenerate into myth and ignorance. Humans will degenerate, and devolve. But only to the point where they regain control again — and then they will progress, and evolve. But what then? A civilisation already starkly different from parts of its own will grow differently, with a different environment and different predators, different aims and different words. And so new life will rise, different in mind and physical form, and be a different part of existence.

And life will have a better chance of surviving.

He wonders if something out there is expecting a deluge. But life always is. He brings his eyes down to the incoming star, and awaits his own.




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