By THOMAS STEVENSON
“Our luck has turned,” I coughed at the sight of Anlin approaching, a used disruptor in his hand and another crashed Suppressor in his wake. His face and clothes were just as raggedy as ours. “Perfect timing! How are you, engie?”
“Been better, been better… where is Xarza?”
“Dead,” I whimpered.
“Then may his soul find peace among the stars.” Anlin looked at each of our faces in turn, taking in the soot on our skin, the shards in our hair and the unsightly gashes most of us bore. We should have been checked into the infirmary, but I suspected it had been burned down. “Did any good come of your endeavours?”
Gafra gave a shaky thumbs up. Mother elaborated: “We made contact with New Rakiura. They are sending help as we speak. We have also disabled Crita.” That translated to: Crita had been buried alive inside her machine.
“I don’t understand,” Chiara cut in. “How can a bunch of… foresters help us?”
Mother said hurriedly, “The breloom keepers contend with a variety of parasites that try to feed on their fruits. To ward them off, the keepers use electrical stunners. They are not lethal, but they are the most effective counter-attack we will have.”
“More o’ them disruptors‘d be ‘elpful, too. Cou’ we make summore?” Rutalis’ grimy face and hand were bleeding and tiny triangles of glass sparkled in his hair. Even his eyepatch looked traumatised.
Jovumi especially was in bad shape. She sank to her knees in the grass on the eastern side of the mountain, her body trembling, her eyes swimming. She couldn’t speak and her lungs struggled for breath. All of us had scratches on the surface, but underneath something much worse had happened to Jovumi. She appeared exactly as Chiara had when she first plunged into our world. I walked over and placed a hand on her back. Anlin gave a concerned look, but another question pulled his attention away.
Chiara asked, “What do we do now?”
Everyone stopped and thought for a second. We experienced a moment of relative silence. Coilgun discharges occasionally pierced the air, but they were far less frequent than before. Even the desperate banging from inside the first downed Suppressor had ceased. Then Rutalis growled, “We gotta fin’ Bikral!”
“I agree,” said Anlin. “When I last met an engineer, he suggested that Bikral had returned to the Guild. Some of us should go there.”
“Where else can we look?” I asked.
“I can tell you where not to go; the wider field of battle. His followers-“ That last word came out very slowly as if the engie were fighting back much less kind nouns. “-are constantly moving and watching for anybody they can shoot. We are watching them also, but Bikral does not seem to be among them.”
“Any sign of that machine?” Gafra chipped in.
“No. It is most disconcerting,” Anlin grumbled. “If that device should actually work… God help us…”
I realised I still had no idea how the thing was supposed to work, despite many laborious days of screw-tightening. Assuming it could be powered, how could it possibly destroy the Earth? Or the Void? I started to communicate my query, but Gafra beat me to it.
“If it works, how will we die?”
Anlin’s face engloomed even more. “It’s all about energy conversions. I assume you were taught this in church – that one type of energy can be transformed into another through a transduction process. In the Void, the mountains and other bodies have gravitational energy that causes them to fall through space-time. Some of that energy, a small fraction, is naturally converted to light, heat and electricity in the hydrogen clouds.”
“What we built is an electrogravitational dissipator. All it does is accelerate that process, transforming more gravitational energy into electrical energy. It’s all extremely technical – the system relies on a Fractal Matrix, space-time manifolds, and such things – but once it starts, the reaction is self-sustaining.”
“I don’ geddit,” Rutalis admitted.
“The implication,” Anlin continued, “is that if Bikral succeeds and activates this machine, it will drain energy from the Void at an exponential rate and focus it into space… and into Earth’s core! There is enough energy in this wormhole to destroy the planet, to say nothing of living things. What a dreadful thing we have created!”
“But it’s not too late,” I insisted.
“Yeah,” said Gafra. “How much time will we have if it’s switched on?”
“About twenty minutes, possibly twenty-five. That is how long it will take to drain all the Void’s gravitational energy and plunge it into darkness.” I wasn’t convinced. I’d seen the simulation in the Guild of Engineers, in which we hadn’t even lasted twenty seconds. The engie seemed to read my doubts on my face. “That simulation you saw ran at an accelerated time scale,” he assured me. “Now, we should move before we are discovered.”
“You guys go ahead. I just need a moment.” That was Jovumi. Her voice was little more than a pained squeak.
“I’ll stay with you, my dear,” Mother told her. “We would never abandon you.”
“But we should…” Anlin stopped when he realised Jovumi was having a panic attack. It would be too much to ask her to move, not when we had this short interval of safety.
Some of us would have to press on, however. Wherever Bikral was, he wouldn’t be standing still. If they were quick, the breloom keepers would be with us in half an hour… would that be quick enough to catch him? Probably not; it was up to us.
Clearly, Chiara was thinking the same way. “Kopra,” she said, “will you come with me?”
I nodded. Part of me cried out that I wasn’t ready to go back into action. The part that wanted to stay in the shadow of the mountain, away from the fight, where I could heal from the cuts, the bruises and the relentless ache in my ribs. Stronger emotions soon drowned out those ideas. I didn’t want to rest. I wanted revenge for the fallen.
So Chiara and I said our farewells to the rest of the party. None of them tried to stop us. We were much too tired to argue with each other. They let the two of us slink away to the north, through basaltic crevices and between piles of charred rubble, sneaking through the tortured remnants of our home.
Nothing I’d ever seen in a book matched what we saw of the Battle of New Honolulu. You may have read some of the same books. They are epic wartime tales of brave soldiers who crawled through mud and the blood of their comrades, pinned down by constant armsfire, between two ancient armies of equal size and power. What Chiara and I entered was a very different kind of war.
First of all, we were outnumbered and had no real weapons. We also had little idea of where the enemies were. The few fighters we could see from a distance were skulking around the dark spaces of the mountain, edging between sheltered crags and the remains of burned homes. It was more like a cat-and-rat game than anything else. That’s what I’d thought all along; the Order of Silence weren’t an army and they sure weren’t saving a universe. They were sneaking, creeping hunters.
Our strategy was to sneak and creep as well. So far, no trouble had come our way. There were three Suppressors hovering around the fields to the west, but we were out of their range. I was anxious to get some more disruptors so we could do some kind of damage. Chiara scanned the surroundings for friendlies, elbowing me sharply when she spotted one. A lone figure, tramping behind the crumbling church on the slope below us. He was extraordinarily thin, even by Voidese standards, and he carried a bulky, boxy contraption on his back. He was Pyrrhen, the music man.
I was curious as to how Pyrrhen had stayed alive and what the thing on his back was. An enlarged disruptor, perhaps? We crept into the open and headed in his direction. Chiara pressed her hand on my back, forcing me to walk like a hunchback, and at first, I didn’t realise why. When the first orange beam lanced through the air just a metre ahead, I understood.
We threw ourselves down as a second shot went off. It was marginally quieter than the first – a larger miss. I twisted my head to the side and searched for the shooter, but found none. Our attacker must have been far away and using a magnifier, but didn’t seem to be particularly adept at it.
“Now what?!” I cried. Being pinned down like this wasn’t exactly cosy.
“Our friend is in a safe spot. Pyrrhen’s his name, right? We should get down to him,” she replied. “Are you okay?”
“No. Are you?”
“Times like this, I try not to think about how I’m feeling. Let’s go!” With that, she began crawling on her stomach, edging her way through the grass like a serpent.
My movements were much less graceful and it took an agonising effort to crawl down the hill. Pyrrhen was momentarily alarmed by our appearance. Upon seeing Chiara he jumped and aimed a long, plastic device at her. However, he calmed down upon recognising me in the background. We eventually congregated in the ivy-infested space behind the Church of the Infinite Cloud. Marble chips and bloodstains were all around us.
“Yip, yip!” Pyrrhen chirped. “How may I be of service?”
“New Rakiura is on the way, but we’re trying to find Bikral in case they get here too late. We need tools. Do you have any disruptors? EMPs?” Chiara asked him.
“I’m afraid not, I was never given any. I’ve been working on my own defense mechanism!” He patted the plastic thing and I noticed a cable connecting it to the box on his back, as well as several tight strings that ran along its length. It was one of his archaic musical instruments. Some defense!
“I see you’re not convinced,” said the music man. “Appearances can be deceiving, mind you! What I have constructed is an acoustic blaster.”
I still wasn’t convinced, but then again, what did I know about acoustics? Perhaps this contraption would do the trick and keep us alive until the cavalry came. We didn’t have to wait long for a demonstration.
One of the hunters stalked around the other side of the church, his face bloodied and his boots crunching on gravel. His coilgun was already charged up, but it took him a few seconds to locate us. Those seconds were all Pyrrhen needed to turn his back on the fiend, give us a wink and play a long, low note on his instrument.
Unseen circuitry amplified that note and turned it into a seismic roar. He could have warned us to cover our ears! The unholy noise shook the ground and set my teeth chattering. Our enemy fared much worse. Pyrrhen’s fancy box was actually a giant loudspeaker and it was aimed squarely at him. What was a nuisance for us three would surely blow out the intruder’s eardrums!
Another strum on the strings produced another tremor and a high-pitched whine that rattled my cranium. Chiara and I watched the hunter drop his coilgun, crash onto his knees and clap his hands over his ears. He appeared to be screaming, but couldn’t be heard over the incredible sound. Even after Pyrrhen had finished ‘playing’ his instrument, the notes rang in my head like an aftershock.
I think Chiara said something before she dove forward, seizing the fallen coilgun. Its owner didn’t even notice. He jerked and spasmed on the ground, suddenly as helpless as a squashed insect.
“Do you know how to use that thing?” I asked Chiara.
“Doesn’t look hard,” is how I read her lips. “These are military-grade, right? So even people without brains can use them.”
Meanwhile, Pyrrhen had lowered his plastic stick of doom and turned to inspect his handiwork. “Most effective – what a show! Yip, yip!” His tone was more that of a satisfied child than an ashen-faced warrior. “Now then, where exactly were you headed?”
“The Guild of Engineers,” said Chiara.
Our friend scratched his chin. “Difficult… When last I checked, the entrance to the Guild was under guard. That Jura and his sister were blocking the tunnel.”
“They’re out of the equation now. We met those two earlier today,” I said. “Myros and Crita, too.”
“Splendid! We may have an opening then, but stay sharp!” He peered a little closer at me. “That Myros is a slippery one, though. How did you disable him?”
“Let’s just say he won’t be having any more children.”
Plenty of shouting was heard as we circled back the way we came, climbing the hill behind the church. Everybody in New Honolulu must have heard the introductions of the acoustic blaster. No doubt the Order of Silence would be on our tail in no time. We puffed and panted up the slope, finally reaching a suitable vantage point near my parents’ shop. There had once been many buildings in this area. Now there were only smouldering piles of charcoal and iron. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I wasn’t afraid to admit they weren’t just being stung by the smoke.
“Stay down!” Chiara ordered. “They’re right below us.”
They were indeed. Our bodies were pressed right into the earth as we looked down upon three, no, four of our enemies. Long grass made them hard to pick out and I prayed we were well enough hidden from their view. They were coming from the direction of the church. We didn’t have long.
“There are too many of them,” I whispered.
“I disagree,” said Chiara. “Excuse me piano man, do you think you could carry that speaker on your front, not your back?”
“Of course, but I don’t see what advantage is to be gained.”
“Just don’t want you falling backward down the hill,” she replied. “I’ll hold the guitar.”
“The what?” I asked.
No response. Behind me, Pyrrhen grunted and heaved the loudspeaker off his skeletal frame, then re-mounted it so the business end faced forward. Chiara crouched beside him, checking the length of the cable holding them together. Pleased, she beckoned me closer.
“How close are they now?”
“Hovering around the bottom of the hill. All their guns are charged up.”
“We’ll have to be quick then. Here’s the plan. Pyrrhen and I will start walking downhill, popping the eardrums of anybody dumb enough to get in the way. If this works, we’ll be able to clear a path right to the Guild, but we’ll need cover. Take this…” She pressed the coilgun into my unwanting hands. It felt dense and clunky, like every other lump of slag I’d handled. “Shoot over our heads and don’t forget to recharge when you have to. Can you do that?”
“I… um…” Shoot a coilgun? The thing that killed Father and so many other innocent people? It was inconceivable… but then again, this was a battle. The rules had changed. It was my duty to-
“We can switch places if that would suit you better. I understand,” Chiara said.
“Okay then, you shoot!” I gratefully returned the weapon to her and received the ‘guitar’ in return. It was much lighter and more pleasant to hold, although avoiding touching the strings was a challenge.
“Are you ready, guys?”
Pyrrhen gave another “Yip” and I nodded quietly. This was ridiculous… just like everything else in the Void. I took in a deep breath. Gave Pyrrhen’s arm a nudge. Then we began our sonic onslaught.
Our boots crunched in the grass and the four – no, five now – hooded figures below snapped to attention. Before any of them could fire, I ran my fingers across the tight, steely strings. Pyrrhen’s whole body vibrated as a brain-shredding mixture of beats shook the hillside. Immediately the target audience were reduced to unresponsive wrecks. I didn’t blame them. The music I was creating sounded like a hundred tusk-weasels regurgitating into a sulfur grinder. And I thought the coilguns sounded terrible.
Chiara aimed over our heads as we descended the slope, heading for the black tunnel entrance. I winced and ducked my head every time a shot went off and made a flash of orange. Someone was returning fire, I was sure, but I couldn’t see anyone beyond the paralysed heathens beneath us. Pyrrhen just kept striding forward in a somewhat robotic fashion. His eyes were like slits as if he were trying to block out the distraction of impending death to focus solely on balancing the huge speaker upon his torso.
Several blasts came uncomfortably close and set us dancing crazily. Chiara leaped forward and emptied her capacitors, flicking the switch for a swift recharge. I stopped strumming and noticed a developing throb in my head, as painful as a migraine. One of Chiara’s shots must have met its mark, for the wider world was abruptly silent. “I don’t see anybody in the tunnel, do you?” she asked.
“I see nothing,” Pyrrhen agreed. “Run on ahead, you two! I will catch up. Thank you, Kopra.” I handed him the guitar and he scanned the field around us, watching for signs of an approaching hunter. Chiara and I made a break for the tunnel. If Bikral was indeed inside, hijacking the plutonium reactor for his nefarious plan, our day was about to get much messier.
There were people inside, but not who we expected. Two small boys cowered in the fractured, ruined portal leading into the engineers’ workshop. They gasped as Chiara appeared, a coilgun in her hands, and I jumped in fright. Luckily, we were quick to reach mutual comprehension. I’d seen these youngsters often in church and playing in Gafra’s farm. They were no older than ten years.
“Sir,” the taller of the two squeaked. “What is ‘appening? Are we safe yet?”
“Almost. The breloom harvesters are on their way,” I replied. “We’re looking for Bikral. Talkative, scary-looking chap with missing fingers. Has he been here?”
They both shook their sooty heads. “No sir.”
“How long have you been here?”
“All day sir, but we ‘aven’t seen ‘im. Some other kids came in ‘ere but they left. They said their parents ‘ad been murdered.” The shorter boy was speaking now. “Our parents are dead. We’ll be all alone if we live.”
“You will live and you don’t have to be alone,” said Chiara. “But we have other problems right now. We need to find Bikral… are you sure you haven’t heard anything about where he might be?”
The taller one picked a chip of basalt up off the floor and began fidgeting with it. “The other kids said they ‘adn’t seen ‘im. But they did notice some balloons ‘ad gone missing.”
“The hydrogen harvesters,” I elaborated. “But I don’t… WAIT A MINUTE!”
“Kopra, somebody will hear you!”
I didn’t care. Missing hydrogen harvesters? An electrogravitational dissipator that needed power? Surge protectors? It seemed so obvious all of a sudden, but I’d been too angry and tired and stupid to put the pieces together. There was only one place Bikral could possibly be.
“Lightning,” I said. “That’s how he’s getting power. He is sitting on a harvester in the clouds, building up the energy he needs from lightning!”
“You’re smart, sir. But ‘ow will you find ’em without a jetpack?” asked the shorter boy.
“I’ll have to use another balloon. They’re just giant parachutes, really. Will you stay here and watch over these youngsters, Chiara?”
“No way. You can’t beat this creep on your own! You’re going to need a gun,” she protested. “Pyrrhen can watch this place.”
“But… you know how these harvesters work, don’t you? They’re dropped into the clouds. We would be in freefall for over ten minutes and even when we’ve stopped falling, we’ll have to find Bikral and, I don’t know, rope over to him.” As I spoke, her expression didn’t change. It was adamant, set as if in stone. “Are you sure you can do this?”
“Why do we fall, Kopra?”
Not the reply I’d anticipated. For a moment I stared at her, letting the cogs in my head tick in time to the faint Quartzwall, feeling my headache grow more intense. I sensed the small boys watching us in fascination, recognising heroism. From somewhere outside, a girl yelled, “The breloom keepers are here!” There was a cheer, followed by another furious coilgun blast. It was no longer our fight.
“So we can learn how to rise up again. Your people have suffered too much,” she said. “Together we can end it. Then you can rise again, and rebuild.”
“But the falling…”
“I’ll be fine. Let’s not think too much, just do it. We’re running out of time!”
That we were. As we stumbled out of the cavern, leaving two astounded boys and a newly arrived Pyrrhen, we smelled a strange electricity in the air. It grew more potent as we ran out into the open. There could be seen, above the landing party from New Rakiura and the black, volcanic peak, a flurry of sparks shooting across the sky. They appeared to be focused around a dark speck that, as we watched, slowly grew in size.
“It’s begun,” I growled. “He’s opening a portal to Earth. This is the first stage… we still have time.”
“About twenty minutes,” said Chiara. “So let’s go!”
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!SHARE THIS POST...