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By THOMAS STEVENSON

“Right then, what’s this thing do?”

“Before you people made us vandalise it for parts, it was an automatic DNA sequencer.” Tylum, expert biochemist and father of Pyrrhen, the musical man, stared bleakly at the remnants of his device. “I built it myself, using parts salvaged from an ancient research ship that landed in the Void.”

His unwelcome companion was a pestilence named Myros. For one of Bikral’s crew, he wasn’t so badly mannered. Sure, he liked jabbing anybody who moved the wrong way, but he didn’t give us shifty looks or actively cause trouble. He even showed an interest in the engies’ inventions.

However, I regarded him with particular vitriol because of why he’d been brought into the Guild. Myros was there to guard Chiara… and paint the walls with her blood if I tried anything clever.

Poor Chiara. Getting myself stuck underground had been depressing enough. Seeing her trapped in that metal cage, curled up behind the bars, was downright devastating. I’d put her there. It was all my fault. If I hadn’t lost my nerve and tried to be a hero again… I looked at the Earthling over my shoulder. She didn’t move a muscle. If I hadn’t known better, I might have thought she was dead. How could I ever make it up to her, assuming we both got through this alive?

Myros had finished his conversation with Tylum and was quick to notice my stare. He gave me the very familiar coilgun salute and grunted, “Watchin’ you, kid.” Time to get back to work.

On this day I’d been given an extremely important task, but also the only remaining task I was qualified for – tightening screws. After weeks sweating away in the dim cavern, the engineers had almost finished their machine. Dozens of modules were completed and just had to be fastened and wired together, so I was doing the fastening while Xarza’s brother, Urata, did the wiring. As more and more components came together, the machine took on a roughly cubic shape, perhaps two metres in each dimension.

I still had no idea how Bikral planned to power this thing, let alone transport himself to Earth with it. There might have been a clue in its name, for the engies had called it an “electro-gravitational dissipator.” In my near-exhausted state, I didn’t have the willpower to work it out. Even as I kneeled on the stone floor next to Urata, I found my head nodding and my vision blurring. If we finished sooner, would they let us take a nap on the grass outside?

Meanwhile, the rest of the team were running simulations by entering different codes into the holographic map. As well as projecting an image based on real data, it was great at showing variations of the Void, with altered physical parameters. Sometimes I heard Xarza muttering, “Another failure, increase delta-E by zero point one,” or Jura hissing at them to hurry up, or Crita stumbling over a power cable in the background.

One of the steel-encased modules I was fumbling with didn’t fit properly. “Do you have a laser?” I asked Urata, “Need to cut this bit off.”

“‘Ere you go!” He handed me a scratched-up corundum laser. Its pitted case looked much the way I felt.

“Thanks,” I said. “Are we close now?”

“I believe we are. Yes, my boy, we are very nearly at the end of our endeavours. Isn’t that cheery, the thought of being close to freedom again?” His grey moustache curled into a smile.

It was a nice thought. When we finished up, the Order would let us go and disappear to Earth, leaving everybody else to return to their lives. Chiara would be free, along with the engies and all the folks on the surface of New Honolulu. Yes, we were close! A sense of relief kicked me back into action as I switched on the laser and made a swift, smooth cut. Then I took up my screwdriver for the last time.

“SUCCESS!” came a bellow.

The unanticipated roar caused me to drop the driver and jump – a bad idea when you’re kneeling. Urata was similarly surprised. We twisted ourselves around to seek the reason for the commotion. My eyes instinctively jumped to Chiara’s location. Even she had raised her head, so I could see her face was profoundly pale. For a second she looked back at me. Her expression was blank, as it had been when she told me how her parents died. That discussion seemed to have taken place eons before… and I feared it would be many more eons before I had her forgiveness.

It appeared the shout had come from Bikral, for the others’ attention was then focused on him. Xarza spoke up next, but he sounded less than enthusiastic. “Pardon me but, while it may have opened a portal successfully, well… did you not observe what happened?”

“I saw exactly what I needed to see,” Bikral retorted.

“No, no, I will run the simulation again. Could you reset the map please, Anlin?”

As I stood for a better view, I saw a hologram of New Honolulu pop up between the heads of Myros and Hyotia. New Rakiura drifted behind it, falling like a feather. Much smaller bodies around the map borders fell much faster; I recognised one of them as the Giant Sulfur Cluster. It disappeared into Xarza’s head, for he was leaning forward to peer at the controls.

“Renormalising…” His dial-twiddling caused the map to zoom out slightly, so we could also see the hydrogen clouds far above. “There we have it. Is everybody watching?” he asked.

As soon as the simulation began, a blue line shot straight up into the clouds. It came from the base of New Honolulu’s peak, where the entrance to the Guild was located. We watched the line thicken and grow into a steady beam, radiating light that began to saturate the whole map. Everything glowed cyan. It punched a hole in the clouds that rapidly swelled, like an eye opening up. Before long the hole was larger than any of the floating mountains, even bigger than New Auckland. The hologram glowed brighter and brighter and… vanished.

Suddenly, there was nothing at all to see.

“Simulation complete,” Xarza announced. “Did you see? The Void itself disappeared and, before you ask, there are no errors logged in the console. This is far from a success!”

“I disagree, gearhead. I have seen all I needed to.”

“What do you mean?” Xarxa’s tone got less friendly with every syllable. I was many workbenches away, but I could imagine the veins standing out on his massive cranium. He was annoyed. “What we just witnessed was an uncontrolled, catastrophic release of energy through the wormhole. That amount of energy would not only deplete the Void of light but, if directed at Earth in a beam, it would penetrate the planet’s core and trigger its collapse. You would destroy THE ENTIRE EARTH!”

Bikral chuckled. A ghastly noise.

“What is so funny about that?!” Xarza growled. His fellow engies stood in shock, gasping at what they’d just heard.

The leader of the Order of Silence called out to Urata and I. “Are you finished?”

We nodded, but regretted it. I was starting to get an inkling of what this machine was really for, and it made me sick. I wasn’t alone there. Chiara had begun retching in her cage.

“Then step away, please.”

“No chance!” Urata shouted. His wrinkled hand seized a heavy wrench. Given another half-second he would have swung it into the device we’d assembled, bent and smashed it into pieces… but he wasn’t given any time at all. A single shot from a coilgun removed most of his head. The rest of his body fell backward, his hand still gripping the wrench.

“BROTHER!!” cried Xarza.

“Don’t you try anything funny,” Bikral snarled at me. He waved nonchalantly in Chiara’s direction. There was a coilgun pointing at her through the X-shaped bars, even as she crouched on all fours and emptied her stomach into a small crate. Right then, I would have done almost anything for her. Run over, embrace her, tell her I was so, so sorry for being such a monumental idiot.

But I would not get her killed.

After I’d moved away, whispering a prayer for Urata’s passage to Heaven, Jura and Hyotia swooped in on the machine. Several other heathens came over with ropes and began attaching them to its structure. They kicked the corpse aside to make room, as if it were an errant log. All I could hear were the screams of anguish from Xarza and his horrified comrades. So this was Bikral’s great deception. He’d never wanted to simply travel to Earth – that idea was barmy enough. He wanted to blow it up – the only idea even barmier.

Still, they say anything is possible in the Void.

I found a crevice in the wall and sank down into it, making myself as small as possible. The hum of the Quartzwall sent faint beats down my spine. Several members of the Order eyed me from across the cavern. From this angle they looked cold and life-lacking before the blue light globes. The engineers also had the aspect of a ghost, even as they flapped their hands about in panic.

“Don’t be afraid!” Bikral said. “I would like to thank all of you for your contribution to this project. You are free to leave.” His words garnered looks of surprise from several engies. “You heard correctly, you may go! In fact, I insist that you leave. Otherwise we can make your deaths far more painful than they need to be.”

All the way over at the portal, two thugs slid the halves of the Guild gate open, letting in rays of light from outside. Xarza stopped wailing long enough to turn and watch Anlin and Eupli hobble through. Nobody shot at them. Without a word, the rest of the engies took off, scrambling up toward the light. They weren’t free – the machine they’d built would be their doom if it actually worked. At least they’d get to enjoy the wide, open sky before the end.

Bikral pointed in my direction. “Bring him over here.”

The nearest thug – Crita, based on the smell – got me in a headlock and dragged me across the floor. Her strength was astonishing, as she nearly detached my skull. She dropped me at Bikral’s feet and I came to rest with my shoulders against the holographic map projector. Compared to the aching in my joints and the bruises down my body, the more acute pain associated with hitting a metal box was a relief. It told me I could still feel.

Once again, a mutilated hand gestured down at me. “Now we come to the awkward part. What shall we do with the maverick who thinks he can solve all his problems by punching them?”

“Kill me,” I replied.

“I plan to, Kopra. You may live long enough to see what becomes of the Void… but I wouldn’t bet on it!” Again came the ghoulish giggle. Then Bikral said, “There are much worse things than dying, as I have said. That’s why I let the gearheads go. They may tell everybody what we’re planning to do, but they cannot stop it. They will panic and waste their last days suffering until they are finally wiped out.”

He continued, “I want you to suffer too… but to be honest, I don’t want you around any more. You won’t stop getting in the way. So now I have no choice.”

I didn’t know whether to give an angry response or beg for mercy. So I stayed quiet. My head rolled to the left and my eyes strained so I could see Chiara. She was watching back, her hands gripping the bars and her eyes swimming underneath a tangle of black hair. She seemed to be mouthing something at me, but I couldn’t make it out. “Fly away,” perhaps?

A silent order must have been delivered, for Myros suddenly leapt forward and unlocked the cage. “Run and hide, girlie!” he hissed. Chiara crawled out beneath the glare of a coilgun and was directed to the exit. She kept her gaze down at the ground. Since I happened to be on the ground, only I could see the tears in her eyes, the quiver of her lip and the green of her gills.

“Chiara, I-“

“Don’t bother,” Bikral cut in. “You won’t be seeing her again. Not unless both of you make it to Heaven.”

“Please tell me,” I groaned, “How could any God-fearing person be so cruel? You’re completely mad.”

His response was a swift kick to my thorax. Something in there cracked. Then he bent down and grabbed me by the collar of my grimy jacket. “Shall we have a little talk?” he asked. “Yes, I will talk and then you will see who’s really mad. Maybe I can make you understand and you will appreciate the good the Order of Silence is doing. Of course, I will still have to kill you.”

I said nothing. The pain in my sternum made speech difficult.

“Let’s take it outside. Your hour of judgement has come.”

 

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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