P1234567891011121314151617 – 18 – 1920

By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

Several things about the interior of the radio station stood out to me, things I hadn’t really noticed before. For a start, there were no windows, only a hatch that opened out onto the roof. Strips of blue LEDs were the only source of light. The second major thing was that the walls weren’t soundproofed at all, so we could still hear the sounds of fighting and dying off in the distance. Thirdly, those same walls were bare, corrugated metal made from the insides of cargo containers. Half the containers had been a lime-shaded, sickly green, while the other half had the colour of dried blood.

All these unpleasant aspects gave me the feeling that we’d entered our own tomb.

If Chiara felt the same way, she was very good at hiding it. She stood by the doorway we’d come sprinting through, completely motionless, listening for the sound of hunters’ approaching feet. Another entrance was watched by Jovumi, who had produced a knife and clutched it in her free hand. Unlike the Earthling, she couldn’t hide her fear. The hand holding the knife shivered, bluish light dancing across its blade. Us Voidese simply weren’t used to this kind of crisis.

Copper shortage? No biggie. Outbreak of bloodthirsty tusk-weasels? We could handle it. A cult of lunatics hijacking the Guild of Engineers? That one was new.

“Have you repaired the connection yet?” Mother called up the ladder.

From the upstairs level came Xarza’s strained voice. “We are still working on it! How is the transmitter coming along?” We could see only his feet poking out above a bamboo deck; the rest of him was helping Rutalis examine the underside of New Honolulu’s long-range radio receiver.

Gafra and I were bent in interesting ways around the transmitter, a magnificently janky assembly that sat upon the downstairs level of the tower. Its angular exterior was covered in lifeless consoles and wrapped in dirt-encrusted cables. It was welded directly to four beams that reached upward and supported the weight of the receiver module above us; the deck creaked there as Xarza and Rutalis shuffled around. We had tried to reboot the tower already, only to find the cables leading up to the antenna on the roof had been severed.

“Getting there, I think. We’ve only got one disruptor left,” I called out. Gafra and I had been dismantling the devices and using their transformer windings to try and make repairs. “How many do you folks have?”

“Jes’ two, laddie.” Rutalis replied. “We be’er ‘urry!”

“He’s right,” Chiara said, her voice spookily calm. “Two men are coming for us. Close your door, Jovumi.”

Jovumi squeaked with fright, but she obliged and I heard the doors slam shut. There were no locks on them, but I couldn’t think of any lock a coilgun wouldn’t be able to remove. Feet shuffled upon the floor and I poked my head up to see whose they were. Mother had joined Jovumi and they pressed their bodies firmly against the south-facing entrance. Rutalis jumped down to do the same for Chiara. I returned to my work. We didn’t have time for distractions.

“How’s this?” Gafra asked. She was lying on her side, wedged between the machinery and the wall, holding a twisted cable before me. It was a patchy job, to be sure, and we didn’t have any soldering equipment to keep the wires together, but it would have to do.

“Great job! We’re finished here, I reckon. Let’s go help Xarza,” I said.

It was at that moment the two armed men reached the tower. Loud bangs came from both doors simultaneously. Jovumi let out a pained gasp and Mother grunted, but they were otherwise unshaken. We all listened carefully. Gafra and I didn’t dare get up. Xarza’s quickened breathing came from above us.

Another sound came to us and it wasn’t a welcome one. It was the sound that took only three seconds to grow to its full volume, filling with air with an electric hum. I could imagine the intense orange light that developed with it; the light that shone from a coilgun’s heat sink. I heard Chiara yell, “Get down!” and four people flatten themselves against the floor, then all my senses were assaulted at once.

Beams of fire zipped from one wall to the other and were gone in an instant. Sparks and half-molten shards of metal rained upon us. I felt them singe my clothes and strafe my hair. Everything flickered as if in the light of flames. The shots were so frequent that each horrible discharging sound melded with the next and the next to create one long, agonising, ear-fragmenting shriek. Then, as always, it was over so quickly that the abrupt silence was itself deafening.

From underneath the transmitter, I could see my friends, none of whom moved. Their bodies lay right up against the doors, whose surfaces were now riddled with smouldering holes. Nobody moved. Nobody breathed. Were any of them alive?

Suddenly, they all stirred at once. Mother and Jovumi looked around. Rutalis clawed at his smoking hair, which had received many of the errant sparks. Chiara’s head darted from one person to the next, verifying we weren’t dead, then she vaulted across the room and snatched the knife from Jovumi’s grip.

“Get away from the door,” she whispered.

“But-“

“Now!” Chiara the hunter had a plan… I hoped.

No sooner had they scuttled away from the entrance than it burst open and a hooded figure barged inside. His weapon was powered down. Immediately I understood – he’d fired all eight projectiles at once. He couldn’t shoot again until he recharged. Unfortunately for him, Chiara was quicker than that. In one stroke she slashed through the charging cable and kept going, planting the knife between his ribs.

We couldn’t see his face under the hood, but I imagined his eyes bulging in surprise at the woman who had so swiftly disabled him. He just stood there for a moment, still pointing his useless gun at us. Then he bellowed and roared like a wounded beast which, in fairness, he was. His companion thundered into view and a second coilgun was aimed at Chiara. This one looked to be fully charged, but our friend wasn’t stirred one bit.

How could she be so brave in the face of such peril, yet so scared in the absence of danger? I would later learn what had happened to alter Chiara’s mind like this, and it’s a tale of exceptional excitement, but this is not the place or time to share it.

As everyone else lay there stunned – or in my case, entangled in the wiring of the transmitter – Chiara took one step forward and brought her rear leg up into his groin. She yanked the coilgun upward as it discharged. Glass shattering. Lights dying. More sparks. More shouts.

I couldn’t quite accept how she’d done it, but Chiara had brought down two thugs by herself. She wasn’t even sweating. She just kicked the second man to the floor, where a puddle of his comrade’s blood was forming, then looked at Mother and said, “They will send more.”

“How… how did you do that?!” Jovumi called out. I couldn’t tell if it a call of admiration or fear. Probably both, for that’s the mixture I felt. I shall call it admear.

“Ye be a fine figh’er, lassie. Fit an’ fresh from ‘arth, tha’s what we need!”

“Is it safe to come out now?” That was Xarza’s voice. I suspected he hadn’t seen much through the bamboo floor.

We asked if the engie was okay, and he said he was, but there was still work to do. The link between the receiver module and the antenna wasn’t yet restored. By now the Order of Silence must have known what we were up to, so we wasted no time. Xarza gave Rutalis, Gafra and I orders and we all clambered upstairs to help him.

Mother, Chiara and Jovumi stayed below to watch for more intruders. They were careful to drag the two men into the shadows, gagging the one who was still alive, for the one Chiara had stabbed died as we talked. She had actually killed him. Myros, Jura and Hyotia had all been left alive on the grass, but this soul was gone from our world. I prayed God would understand the circumstances and not punish Chiara for protecting us all from death.

She hadn’t said much since entering the tower, looking rather put off by the colour scheme and other factors, but Gafra spoke up very abruptly and caused Xarza to drop his hex screwdriver in fright. “You know what I just thought of, guys?”

“What?” asked the engie as he fumbled for the screwdriver.

“If they really didn’t want us to use the radio ever again, they would have blown it up by now,” Gafra said. Her eyes drifted up to the high ceiling. “Like they did with the church, you know?”

“Aye,” said Rutalis, whose own eye was focused on the disruptor he was dismembering.

“It stands to reason,” I added. “Wait… you mean with a Suppressor?”

“Yeah.”

“Like the one you stole from Crita?”

“Yeah.”

“The one we saw her running back to fetch?”

“Yeah. So… maybe we should get out?” Gafra looked at me and she looked very afraid. “It might be our last chance.”

“Then it is our last chance to make contact with the other Voidese,” said Xarza. “We cannot be distracted. Alika!” He called down to Mother. “Watch the sky as well! There may be a Suppressor inbound!”

Something unpublishable was uttered in response, but that was the end of it. The four of us huddled around the radio receiver worked as quickly as we could, stripping the insulation from severed cables, twisting wires together, checking components. Those downstairs peeped out from the dark corners of the chamber, even as pieces of the shot LEDs continued to fall into their hair. Five more minutes were what we needed.

Conveniently (or perhaps not), five minutes were all we got. The flying monstrosity appeared from behind the mountain and there was another one hovering behind it, watching the tower. Jovumi relayed this with a great deal of worry in her tone. Poor girl. I was about to suggest she could shelter at the back of the station, then remembered there was a dead body there and thought it wouldn’t help her nerves.

“Let’s reboot the modules, while we still have time.” That was Xarza again. “Alika, the power needs to be turned on from the transmitter. Can you see the controls?”

“Here they are,” I heard Chiara say.

“Thank you, dear. I’m activating it… nothing. Is there anything happening up there?”

“‘Fraid not,” said Gafra. “Did we miss something?”

Between us we could have spent all day discussing theories for why we weren’t getting power, but we’d be lucky to get one more minute. I happened to know a thing or two about power. Like every other building on New Honolulu, the radio was powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Our disruptors were essentially modified fuel cells, so I took one of the last remaining ones and leaped off the deck with it. The fall to the lower level brought a hard landing – nobody had been bothered much by the bare iron before. Out of breath, I crawled back under the transmitter and sought out the connection to the power supply.

“What are you doing?” somebody asked. I think it was Chiara, but a weird vibration made it difficult to hear.

Somebody else responded and I think they were saying kind words about me. That was nice – still being kind before we exploded. I found the right leads. Plugged in the fuel cell. Gestured to Mother. She flipped a lever. Green lights came on – we had power. Thank God!

That was when the first bomb went off. Stuck underneath the module, I saw nothing, but felt the tremor and heard the sound of buckling metal and shattering glass. Everyone screamed. An acrid smell pounded my nose, smoky but somehow earthy as well. Were we being buried alive?

Static electricity shocked my hand and I let go of the fuel cell. It was still working. I forced myself along and up, emerging into open space once again. To my surprise, there was still a building around me. There was a colossal dent in the ceiling, which had dislodged many of the LED strips, but I saw no hole. We were all okay. Ears ringing and hearts thundering, but still alive.

“I’m calling New Rakiura,” Mother mouthed to me. I slipped aside so she could mash at the controls and send a distress signal out into the Void. The ringing sound in my ears turned to radio static. We’d got through!

I made out a new voice, but it was faint and distorted. It said, “This is Operator Wallish of New Rakiura. Who is calling?”

“Alika, New Honolulu. I must make this quick. We are under attack and need urgent assistance.”

“You are under attack?” Wallish replied. There was barely any lag.

“Correct. A group from New Auckland have taken control and are killing local people. They identify as the Order of Silence – they are very dangerous and armed with weapons stolen from the Guild of Engineers. Please send help, we cannot fight them for much longer!”

“The whole mountain is under attack?” Wallish was shocked, but he was also smart. He knew exactly what we needed. “I will inform the breloom keepers. They’re the best help we can give you. May-“

A second explosion cut him off. It was much louder than the first and sent more electronic debris tumbling from the ceiling. All of us covered our heads with our arms. I felt little shards slice into my skin and the heat of flames from above us. An old man let out his death scream. It was Xarza. His scream ended and we heard only the splintering of bamboo as a heavy object sank into the deck.

As soon as we could see again, we looked first at Xarza, whose corpse was crushed under a section of the roof. Real light spilled in through the gap and fell on his lifeless, bleeding arm. For a moment we all stood there, tears in our eyes and soot on our faces. Then we tore our collective gaze from this ghastly sight and looked down at the transmitter. Only a few lights remained and all they told us was that the signal had been lost.

“It’s my fault… it’s all my fault!” Jovumi wailed. “I’M SO SORRY!! I should have taken the bombs out of that thing when I had it. I should have done something! I-“

“Calm yourself,” Mother cut in. “If you had done that, Crita would only have obtained more bombs. Besides, we have done what we set out to do.”

“But Xarza’s DEAD because of me!” She couldn’t hold it in. Jovumi cried with such intensity that her tears splashed on her boots. All she could do was stand there, frozen by the same lethal emotions I’d felt when Father died. I went to embrace her, and the other survivors joined me. We were all hugging and crying together when the third blast came.

This time it detonated inside the tower and knocked us all to our feet. The pressure wave seemed to rip my ears from my head, for I could suddenly hear nothing. Black smoke filled my vision and my mouth. Pieces of bamboo, iron and copper pummelled our bodies. The onslaught seemed unending, but end it did. It left us a pile of bloodied, blinded, battered folks half-buried in debris.

But we were still alive.

The deck had protected us, but it was gone now. Xarza’s body had disappeared with it. There was very little structure left besides the walls and an increasingly patchy ceiling. I could actually see the crimson lights of the Suppressor’s underbelly shining through. It was flying low, perhaps scanning us, no more than ten metres above.

Ten metres. What was significant about that? My brain always picked up on numbers, even at times like these, especially numbers I’d heard recently. How recently? Earlier that day, I reasoned. It had been back in the water storage shed. Xarza had been there explaining things, the way engies always liked to explain their inventions. What had he invented?

It hit me like a light globe, but those weren’t used in the radio tower, and I was grateful it was a much lighter LED bulb that struck my cranium. Xarza had been talking about the disruptors. They had a limited range. Ten metres. Ten damn metres. Rutalis carried the last disruptor in our arsenal. It was still in his good hand as I twisted to face him. He looked back at me through his cold, grey eye that poked out from a blackened face.

“The big, red button,” I said. “Hit it.”

His hooks met the button and the response was immediate. The Suppressor’s lights blinked off. Above our startled faces, the craft itself sank toward us, its engines overloaded. Its underside struck the corner of the tower and sent more shards of metal our way. Then it lurched sideways and disappeared from our view, crashing into the ground outside. A final tremor rocked us. Then everything was quiet.

And we were still alive.

 

Want more? You can follow Thomas on Facebook (@tomthecatsnake) to catch all his latest work, including behind the scenes looks at Downfall. Be sure to look out for the next chapter – there’s a new one every fortnight!

P1234567891011121314151617 – 18 – 1920

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