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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

I didn’t sleep. Not a tick. How could anybody sleep on a cold, stone floor, surrounded by armed psychopaths and the prevailing smell of death?

Bikral claimed that allowing us to rest would help maintain our energy levels, but it didn’t work for me. All I could do was digest the scraps they left for us and feel a pool of regret sloshing around in my skull. Regret chewed me up and enveloped me, cloaking all my thoughts in an unseen fog. It befuddled my senses but, at the same time, amplified my darker emotions – the fear, anguish and anger that stubbornly clung on. No doubt about it; I was going mad. Not that my captors cared.

Just as the Quartzwall entered resonance, sending yet another high-pitched hum through the air, something metallic and menacing found its way between my vertebrae. “Get up, kid!” screeched its owner. With considerable effort, I obeyed. My limbs ached and my sides were covered in bruises, but if it meant avoiding the blast from a coilgun, I’d much rather be at Xarza’s workbench. Through the glare from the light globes I could make out some of the other engineers I shared this prison with, some of whom were already back at work.

There was Anlin, the biochemical specialist who normally used his elaborate microscope to look at proteins, prions and such things. Nearby stood the geochemist Eupli, already sorting through the tools he’d need for his next unwelcome task. Urata took more prodding to awaken. He was Xarza’s slightly younger brother and had the same ape-like body proportions. I could also see Fayala and Forstro, the real brain-boxes when it came to electronics. They could have been mistaken for twins if not for the constant arguing. Even as slaves, their verbal fights were directed more at each other than with Bikral’s henchpeople.

Father had always hoped to leave behind a dignified legacy, not a band of raggedy old men whose beards threatened to drop off from exhaustion. They shuffled about like they were in chains, eyes stuck open, mindlessly putting together the parts for their ridiculous machine. Despite my best efforts, I’d also learned more about their oppressors.

For instance, the creature pulling me to my feet was called Hyotia. She was Jura’s sister and shared his gift of speaking through a weapon. When she wasn’t jabbing us she could be seen by her brother’s side, muttering and telling crude jokes under her breath. Every time Jura would snort, an unpleasant sound like a valve popping out, and throw a smirk in my direction. Somehow I didn’t think they were discussing the weather.

That was the other thing that got me. These cretins never went outside. All their food was delivered through the tunnel and their water came from the engineers’ reservoir. Under Bikral’s orders, they shared our prison, but we’d never catch them resting or giving their leader an ill look. Jura and Crita in particular seemed to be on their feet at all times, alert and looking for a fight with the engies. In the presence of Bikral, they actually smiled. What a horrific thing to behold.

There were many words I could think of to describe the Order of Silence, but the one that stood out was: devoted. Bikral was their messiah and they’d follow him to Hell and back. This much had become clear to me.

I’d also learned that the Suppressors – those aerial bombing contraptions – had been built from bits of New Auckland’s ore processing machines and various other systems on their mountain. Built to suppress people like me who dared to stand against the Order. My first task of the day was to dismantle an ancient infochip replicator, to provide Xarza with more parts. To the untrained eye, it looked like a rusting cube with some wires poking out. To my eye, it looked much the same, but I briefly wondered if I could make my own weapon out of it. My personal suppressor; an electrical stunner, perhaps.

Alas, the now-familiar noise of a coilgun charging up put that idea out of my head. It took about twenty minutes to separate all the components of the replicator, using a laser and pliers. I arranged them upon the bench so Xarza’s blistered hands could sort through them and pick out what he needed. “Very good, very good… one more of those… no, this one will fit better… a little more of the insulation off, please.” He still didn’t look directly at me. I got the feeling he blamed me for our situation – had I somehow condemned him to this fate when I visited New Auckland?

Suddenly, the withering gearhead raised his hand. “Excuse me? Over there?” My heart leapt as I realised he was addressing Bikral, who watched us from the Guild portal.

I hissed, “What in God’s name are you doing?”

“Please, let me handle it,” Xarza retorted. His hand waved timidly as Bikral approached, his eyebrows locked in a raptor-ish scowl. “I have just finished the last critical piece of the machine. It’s time to move onto the next stage,” he told me.

“Which is..?”

Bikral put an end to our murmurs. His face relaxed as he looked down at the cylindrical gadget Xarza had constructed. It was a mug-sized hodgepodge, but it seemed to satisfy him. “This will do. Are you ready to begin simulations?”

“Yes we are,” replied Xarza. His tone toward Bikral was completely indifferent. No anger or fear in his voice. No hatred toward the man who had kept him hostage for weeks on end? And I thought I was the one going mad.

“How soon can you have the machine operational?”

“It will be a matter of days. We must ensure the essential modules work together in perfect synchronisation and the safety modules-“

“All you had to say was ‘days!’ Go to your duty,” snarled Bikral. “I’m not leaving until Earth is the guaranteed destination.” Then he turned toward me. A wave of revulsion rolled through my body. “Hello again, Kopra. How are you feeling?”

That was unexpected. “How am I… what?”

“Have you had enough yet? Do you want to go back home?” His free hand smacked the top of the workbench. “TOUGH LUCK!”

“What do you want with me?” I asked, unfazed. In truth I didn’t know whether I was unfazed or too tired to care what happened next.

“You know what I want. I want to break you. You must be exhausted with all those negative emotions building up in there.” His index stump pointed to my forehead. “Don’t you want to let it all out? Get some of that emotion out of your head? Is that what you want?”

“You sound like you’re asking for a fight,” I grunted. “Just kill me now and let me be with Father.”

“That’s not the deal we made! You were never part of my plan, but you had to come along and get involved. You had to make it personal. Dropping explosives on the church wasn’t personal! Your father’s death wasn’t personal! He just got in the way.” Bikral’s finger met his chin and he adopted a thoughtful pose. “I guess it made sense to him. Chayon wanted to protect his fellow gearheads from the big, bad bullies. I respect that kind of leadership. You should reference it on his grave if you ever manage to crawl out of here.”

“What makes you think I’ll be crawling?”

“If you would prefer to be dragged, I can arrange it.” His laugh grated my eardrums. “For now, it looks like we have an important update over by the map. Come along.”

The map in question was holographic; a three-dimensional projection of the known Void. It showed each landmass as a pale blue blob, the biggest of which marked New Auckland’s position. As Bikral pushed me closer I could make out New Kuala Lumpur, home of the meerkats, sinking into the cloud layer upon the surface of the map projector. It instantaneously reappeared at the top of the map, where an identical cloud layer caressed the ceiling.

“Renormalising…” Forstro said. He was master of the map and stood at its controls, zooming in on New Honolulu’s location. A moment later the whole hologram disappeared in a flash like static. Then our home mountain popped up, a block of basalt with the form of an inverted pyramid, its peak rising heavenward like a giant thorn. “There we have it,” he announced. “Ready to receive inputs for the first simulation.”

“About time,” grumbled Crita.

“That,” Bikral cut in, “is very good to hear. Who will be performing the simulations?”

“I’d like to volunteer to help,” said Fayala, a particularly short and wrinkled individual.

“You?” Forstro gasped.

“That’s right, me.” Fayala gave him a most unpleasant glare.

“You have never touched this equipment! I won’t have you messing around with it!”

“Don’t be so quick to judge; everybody here knows I am the more competent-“

Their banter was halted early by a chorus of coilguns. Multiple beams lanced through the bodies of both Fayala and Forstro, showering the wall behind with their blood. I wasn’t prepared for the flash, or the sound like a ghastly scream, or the sheer horror of the act. Right in front of me and in front of their friends, two elderly men, good men, were being ripped apart by streams of molten metal.

Part of me was glad Father wasn’t there to witness it.

In a heartbeat, it was over, and my heartbeats were very rapid by this point. There was simply no time to be shocked. Xarza, Anlin, Eupli, Urata and all the other engies stood there, gawking. As for me? I swung a fist right into Bikral’s twisted face.

Tried to, anyway.

That horrible chuckle came again as he blocked me, my fingers smashing into the casing of his sizzling gun. “You are far too predictable,” Bikral sneered. “It’s almost sad.” Then the shiny stock of the coilgun met my temple with the force of a rock crusher. I tumbled across the floor and bowled over an engie – Anlin, I think – then found myself spread-eagled with several boots stamping on my limbs.

“Just as we discussed,” I heard Bikral saying, “Bring her back here.”

“What are you doing?” is what I tried to say, but with my face smooshed into the basalt, I could only manage a sort of unflattering bellow. Somebody gave me a kick in the solar plexus. Somebody else yanked on my hair. There were gasps from the engineers and disturbing snickers from the heathens.

Then I was flipped onto my back so I could stare up at Bikral. An abhorrent amount of red was now smeared across the wall behind him. Perfect backdrop for the Devil I’d come to recognise in him.

“Still trying to be a hero, but all you can be here is our servant. We just lost two more good gearheads, so you will have to work a bit harder. Imagine how much harder it would be if we had to break your legs.” There was a growing pressure around my kneecaps, courtesy of Crita and Hyotia. “Are you going to co-operate now?”

“Tell me,” said I, “Who are you bringing here? My mother?”

“No, youngster. Your mother is more useful where she is – preparing our food! However, it looks like you need some extra motivation for this last part of the project.” Bikral peered closer, right into my eyes. He paused for a minute, then said, “You really are ready to die, aren’t you?”

“Who are you bringing here.” It wasn’t a question. It was a demand.

“Surely you remember that sweet, little Earthling girl you rescued. What was her name, again?”

“CHIARA!” I roared. So that was my extra motivation. If I didn’t help him, Bikral would deliver death to my friends on the outside. Finally I understood the extent of his sadism.

As if on a cue, I heard the golden gate slide open and footsteps echo off the tiles just inside. Jura’s disembodied voice called out, “Got her right here! Apparently she’s been snooping around outside ever since we caught her boyfriend.”

“I am not,” I hissed, “her boyfriend.” Apart from Bikral, nobody paid me any more attention. The surrounding Order of Silence members released me and dispersed, their coilguns still glowing like fire. Once again I raised myself up, groaning with pain. Tears broke out in my eyes, so my view of the small team clustered around Chiara was a blurry one. I could just make out her ribbon of black hair among their green and grey jackets. I wanted to run over to her, embrace her, tell her I how incredibly sorry I was. However, as soon as I found my feet and wiped the tears away, I knew it was too late.

They’d already told me about the massive cage near the plutonium reactor. The one designed to house potentially dangerous animals from Earth, such as tusk-weasels. Poor Chiara was shoved through its aperture like she was a sack of whiskerbeans. Two panels slid into place and a spherigear lock sealed her in. She slumped into a back corner of the cage and hid her face from the onlookers.

“What are you waiting for?” Bikral snapped.

I scowled at him. “What do you mean?”

He emitted a chuckle. “Some boyfriend you are, Kopra!”

Under his gaze, I fairly limped over to the cage. Its bars were X-shaped in cross-section and cut into my hands as I grasped them. Inside, Chiara slowly unfurled herself and turned to face me. “You’re alive,” she muttered. She sounded completely indifferent to the fact.

“Chiara, I am so, so-“

“You should save your breath, Kopra. This isn’t the time to get soppy.”

Her tone was very much in the “I’m not angry, just disgruntled” category that Mother adopted often when I was young. I didn’t blame her, not a bit. I’d let everybody down and now Chiara was being made to pay for it!

“I will get you out of here, okay? I promise.”

“You promised you wouldn’t go sneaking out at night, and you did,” she retorted. “Please, just go back to whatever work you’re doing. Don’t worry about me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes! It’s the only way you can get us out of here. Go and do the right thing. That’s what a real hero would do.”

Behind me, I could hear somebody twisting the dials on the holographic map. “This is the last parameter we must calculate…” It was Xarza. “If we are to successfully open a channel to Earth, the device must be in a state of maximum impedance. It’s rather counter-intuitive, but-“

“Translation?” Jura asked.

“If your plan is going to work, you will need an awful lot of power. Trillions of Joules!”

“That’s the idea. You haven’t lost all my surge protectors, have you?” A clap of the hands, and Bikral addressed the entire Guild. “Back to work!”

 

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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