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By THOMAS STEVENSON

No doubt you thought this would be one of those cheerful stories where everybody gets along with each other. Where folks sing hymns and fly around these rocks all day. That’s how it was, for most of my life. Yeah, accidents happened, but it was peaceful. Simple. Happy.

Well, not any more. This is where the story gets ugly.

There we all were, huddled in the darkness, too scared to move or emit the slightest sound. Crimson lights passed over us in wide circles like the eyes of a raptor scanning for prey. What really stole our focus were the fully charged coilguns being pointed at us. They glowed like fire in the hands of the invaders. Only one thing left to do – wait for the end.

Or so I thought, but one of them broke the silence. “I am Jura,” he proclaimed. “I think you all know the name of our organisation.”

Any other time, I’m sure I would have thought of many colourful names for their organisation. Right then, staring into the barrels of death, I couldn’t think at all. My mind was numb with dread. Pure, primal fear blurred my senses until I could barely distinguish Jura’s words from the sound of my own thundering heartbeat.

With little humour, he spelled out the situation. “As you can see, we bring the weapons that were stolen from you. Every single one of them is loaded and fully charged and if any of you try to run, talk back or even breathe in a way we don’t like, you will die. Painfully.” Jura’s gun was supported by a sling, so he could hold it with one hand. His other hand was free to point at us, following his gaze as he scanned the field of prey before him.

“Luckily for you,” the brute continued, “nobody needs to die. In fact, we’d be more than happy for you to keep living your lives, doing your jobs… as long as none of you try to leave the mountain. You’re now in Lockdown mode, so keep your jets off your backs!” This time he indicated his own jetpack, sitting a few metres away among those of his allies. Some of them had also thrown their flying headsets and other pieces of gear into a small pile. If I’d been capable of thought at the time, I would have said they planned on staying for a while.

There was more. “The alarm that brought you here was set off deliberately and destroyed just moments ago. I would have thought the Guild of Engineers would be more challenging to hack! Nevertheless, we’re all here because we want the engineers. Just engineers. You’re going to help us.” Somebody behind Jura nudged him and nodded in my direction. They both looked straight at me… no, over my shoulder. To where Father was standing. “Chayon! Would you kindly come forward?”

Father was much less frozen than the rest of us. Straight away he staggered past, as if he’d been expecting the call. That was enough to bring me around. This was insane. They held us at their mercy, yet Father approached them without a care in the world!

A small amount of strength seeped back into my arm and I reached out, clutching his robe. “Don’t go,” I whispered. “Please!”

“I have to go with them or they’ll kill everyone. Don’t fear, I know what I’m doing.” That was the weirdest part of all this. Father appeared calm, perhaps even detached. His voice didn’t waver and he wasn’t hyperventilating like almost everybody around us. I could hear their anguish with every breath, but the man before me shared none of it.

“What is going on?” I pleaded.

Another hand grabbed hold of his shoulder. It was Mother. She opened her mouth to speak, but it was Jura we heard next. “This is your family, Chayon? I’ve been told your boy is nearly an engineer already. Better bring them along then, but no fuss! Come up here, quickly.”

“Let’s go,” Father muttered. For a second, none of us moved. Then I glanced at the row of coilguns again and realised we had no alternative. My legs were little more than jelly by this point, but together we managed to plod forward, dragging our feet in the grass.

Jura didn’t seem to mind our glacial speed. As we got closer, he just kept talking. “Thank you for your co-operation, Chayon. Now then, do we have the other sixteen engineers present? Come and join us if you’re one of them. Come on, now! I don’t see sixteen people moving…” I didn’t dare look around, but I could hear other folks start to mobilise in the crowd.

I’m a curious individual, as you may have noticed, and even then some of that curiosity trickled into my mind. Two questions forced their way through the numbing terror. First of all, why were my undergarments wet? The second question, probably more critical: What did these horrible EMPL-slingers want with the Guild of Engineers? Only dark possibilities came to me, so I closed my eyes to try and shut them out. Somehow I could still see cracks of red light from the vehicles hovering above.

“Good, good,” grunted Jura. “Everybody else can go. Back to your homes, right away! If you behave you won’t hear from us again until the morning. Is that understood?” He didn’t bother to wait for an answer. “Okay gearheads, let’s get to work!” That seemed to be directed at the engineers, although I’d never heard them called ‘gearheads’ before.

When I next opened my eyes, a coilgun was pointing right between them. Anything else would have been more pleasant to look at, so I directed my gaze up at the woman aiming the thing. I recognised her as Crita, the lady I’d served in the shop before she got a bollocking from Bikral. She glared at me and gritted her teeth. I looked elsewhere.

Other members of the Order of Silence closed in, jabbing and growling at the engies like they were livestock being herded. Mother and I still clung to Father, sticking to his sides like we were nailed together. Our destination was clear. Cyan blue lights flicked on in the stone tunnel before us, showing the way into the Guild. Nobody my age had ever seen the inside of it. This would have been a historic moment if it weren’t for the overwhelming scent of impending doom and my untimely excrescence.

As he led us forward, Jura said, “It’s a lot of work, but you could have made the bloody ceiling higher.” His contemptuous tone grated my eardrums, but he had a point. The tunnel was wide enough for three or even four people to walk side by side. However, its ceiling was barely higher than my scalp and punctuated by jagged blocks of basalt. Occasionally one of the invaders’ heads would scrape against the rock, inducing much cursing, stumbling and fumbling with weaponry.

Father uttered a few more words as we descended into the blue-lit abyss of New Honolulu. “You shouldn’t have tried to stop me,” he breathed into my ear. “Trust me, you don’t want to see this.”

“What do you mean?” I breathed back, my voice somewhat more panicky than normal.

“I know how this is going to end. Alika dear,” he turned to Mother, “stay strong, won’t you? Things are going to be very difficult, especially for-“

Mother cut in with, “What are you talking about? You sound like you’re on your deathbed.”

I’d said exactly the same thing earlier that night. What was wrong with Father? How did he seemingly know what was going to happen? More questions and very few answers. My innate curiosity was taking over. Better than being scared witless, but that wasn’t far away, as Crita and her metal friend were quick to remind me.

“No more talking! Not a whisper, or I’ll blow your skulls off and use them as mudschorls,” she barked. At least this woman was clear. I didn’t dare ask what a mudschorl was.

Clanging of metal against metal rang out from ahead of us. Jura was there, along with another chap in a hood, his face completely lost in shadow. They had stopped before a huge, gold-coloured portal. It consisted of a perfectly circular ring set into the patchy brown rock, around two metres in diameter. Inside the ring were two doors with interlocking teeth, wrenched apart by the iron rods Jura and his friend were now striking the outer ring with. They threw up yellow sparks that helped the cyan light globes to illuminate the words: ‘HOLY VOIDESE GUILD OF ENGINEERS.’

In a moment of quiet, I was able to think about those we’d left behind. Where were Gafra and Chiara? In my head, I prayed they would be fine. How about Jovumi and the others in the infirmary? Poor girl was so close to being released… did she know what was happening to our home? Would the invaders leave her alone?

Sparks very close to my feet brought me back to the present. Jura had thrown down the rod and was squeezing through the portal. His allies had managed to force it open, but not all the way. Powerful hands pushed Father through the gap first, then Mother. Such malhandling would usually be met with a threat, but this time there was nothing she could do or say. We no longer had any dignity worth protecting, only our lives.

“Get in there, kiddo.” It was Crita who shoved me sideways through the aperture, treating me with as much care as a bag of soiled whiskerbeans. My foot snagged on something – an electrical cable, I think – and my belly was introduced to the frigid tile floor. It was marble white and decorated with the stains of chemical experiments.

One of the engineers fell upon me with an “Ooof!” He smelled like Xarza, the quantum theorist and resident soil scientist. We were promptly set back on our feet so we could continue admiring the hideous guns. Their bearers had formed a ring encircling the terrified engineers, the Guild portal and a number of cluttered workbenches.

While the last few made their unglamorous entrances, I took in as much of the view as I could. We were in a massive cavern, and I mean massive. It stretched so far before us that the floor had its own topography, rising and falling in rough a reflection of the hills and fields above us. Everything the Voidese depended on for food, fuel and flight had come from the stations nestled in the deeper nooks of this space. Blue cables and steel pipes snaked all across the walls to power the engies’ devices. As for the devices themselves… well, I didn’t get to look that far. Snapping from Jura’s fingers stole back my attention.

“We’re all here! Now I’m not going to lie, the next little while won’t be pleasant for any of you. While you’re working on this project for us, we can’t let you back outside. Nothing personal. We just have things to do.” Both of his filthy hands rested on one of the workbenches and his weapon hung at hip level. It swung lazily from side to side, casting its fire upon the tiles. “Here’s the deal-“

“We won’t make deals with you,” Father interrupted.

Mother and I cried out as every coilgun in range swung in his direction. Except for Jura’s. He smirked at the sight of the other engineers recoiling in horror. His fingers tapped on the bench as he said, “Let him talk. We may be the Order of Silence, but we don’t have to rub it in. Chayon is their leader, after all. You were saying… gearhead?”

His expression unchanged, Father cleared his throat and stroked his beard. There was no hint of concern in his leisurely movements. He must have gone mad, I decided. “You are correct,” he began, “I’m a leader. You are not.”

“Not what?”

“Not a leader. I didn’t get to this position by chance, Jura. It took perseverance, hard work… and knowing real leadership when one sees it. Whatever mask you try to wear, I can see through it. I’ve seen how your friends-“ he glanced at Crita, who was holding her gun so tightly it shook “-look not up at you, but through you. To the real mastermind of this takeover.” This time he looked at the man skulking behind Jura, the one we’d just seen bashing the outside of the portal with a rod. “Bikral.”

Impossible. Father really mad gone insane… or perhaps not. This shadowed man raised his hood and, indeed, there was the same Bikral I’d met in New Auckland. No doubt about it. Suddenly I was ablaze with questions, so many they pounded against my skull, and I wished I could go back to just being scared and numb again.

“Very clever,” he declared. “Are you surprised to see me?”

“Shocked, like everybody here. But hardly surprised.” Still Father ignored the shooters surrounding him, staying entirely focused on Bikral.

I noticed Jura sidestepping to allow the true leader to stand beside him. Bikral also carried a coilgun. Its barrel had a black cloth tied around it and a white cross crudely painted on the plastic grip. “I tested this one back at home,” he told Father. “It works magnificently. You really should have melted it down before we had a chance to take it. Why didn’t you?”

“I’ll admit I regret that decision now. But we voted as a team and the decision was made. How were we to know a bunch of psychotic rockheads would use bombs to get to them?”

“Psychotic? That we might be…” We gasped as Bikral leaped forward and shoved his weapon into Father’s chest. “A very good reason not to annoy me, don’t you think? But you don’t seem very shaken. That’s funny. Could it be you who is the psycho, Chayon?”

“If only we had time to find out,” Father mumbled.

“We don’t have time. I need to explain our pressing need to you all.” He withdrew the coilgun from Father’s sternum. God willing, it wouldn’t go near him again. “It’s very simple. We are going back. Back to Earth!”

Xarza and his grey-haired colleagues displayed a whole new level of disturbance. Mother covered her mouth with a hand. Father stood there like a stunned meerkat, only a little different from his normal self. As for me, I could hardly take any more. Back to Earth? Was that even possible?

You know what they say in the Void. ‘Impossible’ has no meaning here.

“Our ancestors passed down knowledge of a device kept right here, in this cave. They said that when the first generation of engineers was established in the Void, apart from keeping everybody else alive, their main priority was finding a way back to their home world. To do it they designed a device that could reverse the polarity of the wormhole we live in and send us all Earthward. You all know the device I mean, don’t you?” Once again, we were asked a question but no time was given to provide an answer. These creeps weren’t big on being talked back to.

Bikral continued, “Nobody ever completed that project. They thought the Void was somehow perfect, some kind of utopia they would never have to leave. So they gave up. No, it wasn’t so much giving up as… forgetting. You people forgot where you belong. Void life cannot last forever. It’s our destiny to return to Earth. You men are going to make it happen.” His mangled fingers pointed at the engies, some of whom had raised their hands in surrender.

“There’s a problem with that.” I was shocked, but not at all surprised, to hear Father’s rebuttal. Once again he found himself the focal point of a parabola of humming, gleaming killing machines.

“Do you ever stay quiet?” asked Bikral in a somewhat more menacing tone. “Shut it, you old-“ His next word made Xarza faint. It was the kind of curse I thought only the deranged Devil’s mouth was dirty enough to utter.

Yet Father kept talking, or tried to. “The problem is-“

“CHAYON! You infuriate me. Do you realise how close you are to dying?” Up until this point he had been quite calm, but the tantrumesque side of Bikral was beginning to show. All three of the digits on his right hand twitched dangerously close to the trigger.

“Yes indeed.”

“Then why don’t you show the other gearheads a good example?”

“Because,” he retorted, “I already know how this is going to end. There’s just one thing I’d like to say.” Before Jura, Crita and all the others ready to kick him into Heaven, he leaned forward and stared right into Bikral’s eyes. “The people of New Honolulu will not be intimidated by you.”

“You’re wrong!” Snarl of a savage. Click of a trigger. It was over.

All my senses were pummelled at the same time. A furious orange flare blinded me. It blocked out all other light, burning deep. There was a flash of heat upon my face. The acrid smell of molten metal. Then there was the noise it made, a sound so ghastly and all-consuming it felt as if the air itself were screaming. All this lasted for a sliver of a second, but it seemed like days. Suddenly, it was over.

And Father was gone.

The killer inhaled deeply and paused for a moment, staring at the body below him. Then his scowling face snapped around to where Mother and I were standing. “Did I not say we only wanted the engineers?!” he roared at Jura. “Get those two out of here!”

 

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!

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