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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

Never before had I considered drinking and breathing as challenging activities. They were the most basic, core functions of the human body, like thinking and farting. Yet there I was, my back to the wall of the shed I’d been practically dragged inside, floundering while Mother tried to direct water into my system. At each attempt, I could only splutter. My throat was arid and my coughs sounded drier than vitamin crackers. Eventually, some moisture returned and it felt glorious, but only after hours of this torture.

All the while I was beset by unexpected after-effects. I’d been falling for two days and the experience had seriously strained my senses. My eyesight was wonky and it seemed my eyeballs had dehydrated with the rest of me. My hearing took even longer to recover; try to imagine a tornado inside your head and you’ll have an idea of the limits of my perception. Until that sensation died down, I had very little idea of where I was or who else was around. Then their voices came back to me in a disjointed dialogue.

“…Poor laddie. I expect ‘e’ll be riled an’ then some when ‘e ‘ears what ‘appened.”

“That’s the last cell we have, if you want me to make any more of these, we’ll have to go out there again.”

“Please don’t wave that thing around, Gafra… Dear God, look out!”

“Urrrgh…” I groaned. Given the circumstances, that wasn’t a bad start to regaining speech capability.

There came a scurrying and a mass of faces appeared before me. My eyes refused to uncross, but I could still identify them based on blurred features. There was the distinctive red curtain of hair worn by Gafra. Jovumi’s rounded face and sling-wrapped arm floated beside it. Mother was there, as was Rutalis, his eyepatch a great blot upon his face. A white beard betrayed the presence of an engineer; Xarza, if my nose could still be trusted. Finally there was another woman with a long ribbon of jet-coloured hair: Chiara.

She asked, “How are you feeling?”

When I tried to reply, a sort of gurgle escaped. I resorted to using hand gestures. The normally dark skin on my forearm had adopted a purplish colour, like my entire epidermis was a giant bruise. Nevertheless, I did my best to signal my discomfort, but also the fact I was so very glad to be alive.

“We’re sorry, Kopra.”

Sorry for what? I conveyed this by raising an eyebrow.

“You were right,” Mother picked up. “We should have taken action when we had a chance. Fought back against the Order.” She sniffed a sorry sniffle. “We should have stood up to them alongside your father.”

My eyebrow returned to its rest state. It didn’t seem like the time for ‘should haves’, but I didn’t know how to say that without using words. As far as I was concerned, my actions had been driven by my anger and entirely without reasonable thought. Or any thought, really. All I’d achieved was getting myself and Chiara imprisoned.

However, I now knew Bikral’s true objective. His deception had been exposed and the engies had surely warned folks of his terrible scheme. Even if said scheme didn’t work, it was obvious that the Order of Silence was hell-bent and completely loyal to his ridiculous cause. They would kill every one of us if they got the chance. Therefore, we’d have to fight to survive… so what were we doing, sitting in a shed?

The others seemed to know what I was thinking. “Will ye fill ‘im in?” Rutalis asked somebody.

Somebody used Mother’s voice. “There is a battle taking place in the hills and fields. Many have died, sweetheart, but we are away from danger. We have been smuggling supplies to this building and developing ways to strike back. You are safe for the moment.”

My vision deblurred gradually and I began taking in my surroundings. We were in one of those small bamboo buildings near the flax fields at the southern edge of New Honolulu. A rippling plastic tank with a large fuel cell adorned the ceiling, which told me this place was primarily for water storage. That was lucky; my throat seemed to be evaporating again. I pointed to the problem area and a cup was thrust in my direction.

“Here ya go,” said Gafra.

I took in the water, feeling much of it run down my neck, then returned the cup and managed not to cough up a storm. My voice was little more than a pathetic croak when it crept out of me. “Thanks… please, tell me… everything.”

There was a pause, then several of them started talking at once. Mother broke off the noise. “Sorry Jovumi, after you…” she said.

Jovumi mumbled her gratitude, then started again. “Well, um, after that bastard pushed you into the Void, he… erm…”

“The shop?” I whispered. The image of it burning had been engraved on my retinas.

“Did you see it?”

I nodded.

“I’m sorry… Jura torched the shop and it looks like your home has been destroyed, too.”

“Everything we had up in smoke!” Mother cried.

“Then they made a barricade around the Guild of Engineers,” Jovumi continued. “Xarza and his men were sneaking around, telling everybody what was going on, that there was some machine inside the Guild. By the time everybody knew, the machine had been lifted out. Nobody seems to know where they took it. It’s been two days and none of us have seen the thing, or Bikral. They must have a hidden base of operations on this mountain, since nobody has been seen flying either.”

Again I nodded, but slowly. It was illogical, to say the least. The electro-gravitational dissipator had no in-built power source, but all its components were electrical. If Bikral needed a power source, why wouldn’t he use the reactor already inside the Guild? Then I thought about the energy requirements Xarza had stated. Not even a plutonium reactor would be enough. Bikral was asking the impossible… but that made me nervous. ‘Impossible’ is almost a curse word here.

By this time, my eyesight had cleared enough for me to discern facial expressions. Those I could make out on my friends were tired, anxious and gaunt. Some of them bore cuts, bruises and gashes. No doubt they had witnessed horrific deaths at the hands of Bikral’s gang during my absence. Only Chiara looked unchanged. She knelt beside me, still and silent, her face blank but her eyes alert. As a scavenger on Earth, I reasoned, she must have seen this kind of conflict before and perhaps profited from it. It seemed that when real danger swooped in, the troubled Chiara I knew vanished and allowed a stone-hearted hunter to take charge. Had she killed people, back on Earth? I was afraid to find out.

“Duval is dead,” said Jovumi solemnly. “He marched up there, all by himself, to remind the F-bags there’s a chamber in Hell reserved for them.”

“The what?” I croaked.

Gafra started, “F-bags. You know, like fu-“

“They shot Duval right in the face,” Jovumi cut back in. “We took that as the signal to begin an uprising. We decided we wouldn’t go down without a fight. I don’t know what they were expecting… mass panic, probably. In any case, people have been holding them off for two days now.”

“How…” More dry coughs rocked my body, but at least my vocal chords were co-operating. “Sorry. How are folks holding them off?”

They all turned toward Xarza, who had been sitting quietly, his hands twitching and fidgeting. I hadn’t noticed such movements when we worked together in the Guild, but back then he’d been constantly holding tools or fiddling with dials. “Luckily,” he explained, “while the coilguns are extremely powerful weapons, they have weaknesses common to all electromagnetic weapons. For one thing, they require a strong pulse of electric current to fire.”

So far, I followed. The coilguns generated so much current their projectiles melted, producing that deathly beam of fire.

“The current is provided by a series of capacitors that need three seconds to charge fully. Once charged, up to eight…” Xarza scratched his beard, then resumed. “Yes, that’s right, up to eight projectiles can be fired in quick succession. However, the extreme electric current brings a risk of overheating the weapon.”

“This ain’t exactly helpful,“ Gafra butted in. “Why don’t you get to the good stuff, then we can get back to work?”

“Oh… apologies. The most important consequence for us is that coilguns transfer electricity to the capacitors through a thick, external charging cable. Severing the cable renders the weapon useless and, if some charge has already been stored, the user may well be electrocuted. You see, having that cable inside the casing would make overheating far more likely, so it’s exposed in front of the charging circuit.”

My head bobbed like a buoy to indicate my understanding.

“There are other weaknesses we have discovered,” he went on. “These coilguns are rather advanced models, but of course, the more complex a thing is, the more that can go wrong with it. During the three-second charging phase, the weapon is particularly vulnerable to a disruptive EM pulse. We have been building devices capable of delivering such a pulse.”

“We call ‘em disruptors!” Gafra chirped as she presented one. From what I could tell, it was just an ordinary fuel cell with some rusting transformer blocks bolted on. A lump of scrap, in other words. My eyebrow lifted.

“This device can completely disable the charging circuit. It is effective up to a range of ten metres, so best used when you and your target are indoors and confined, not out in the wide open.” Xarza pointed to my right, where I saw a stack of disruptors in the corner, the spiked Thagomiser lying next to them. “We have a substantial supply of them now, but each can only be used once.”

Once more I coughed, but it was simply to clear my throat. My senses were nearly back to normal and my gills no longer burned. I croaked, “What are we going to do now?”

“We’re trying to get into the radio tower. Jura and his sister are guarding it, but we think we can get inside, repair the transmitter and get a message to New Rakiura.” It was Jovumi speaking again, while the others listened and showed their approval in weary half-smiles. “They should be able to fly over and help us. Then we can hunt for Bikral.”

“There is hope,” I muttered. For the first time in a long time, I really felt it. We had a plan and we had a means to fight back, crude though it appeared.

“There is always hope,” Chiara responded. Her tone was of the distant, almost detached type. “Even if you have nothing else.”

“Well… when do we go?” I asked.

Mother’s mouth dropped open. “We? You must stay here, sweetheart! You are too weak.”

“I’ll judge that.” My legs shivered somewhat as I slid myself up the wall and tried to stand. However, upon reaching my full height, the shivering became an uncontrollable tremble and I found myself toppling sideways. My arm flopped out and my hand was nearly pierced by the Thagomiser. I seemed to be spending a lot of time on the ground in those days.

They all watched with various degrees of wustration. After too many seconds of awkwardness, Rutalis spoke up. “If ye wan’ to help, laddie, will ye not rest a bit? Can’ we wait for ‘im?” He turned to Mother.

“We really should go now,” she said. “Xarza, are you able to take care of him while we’re gone?”

Xarza seemed unsure. Deep down, he was probably sick to death of looking after me in the Guild of Engineers. Before he could say anything, I sat up again and pleaded, “I can catch up. Just give me five minutes. Please, I want to help.”

“At least you are improving quickly,” Mother considered. “Be careful, dear.” Then she asked the others to gather their equipment and head outside. They filed past me and the hodge-podged disruptors were handed out. Gafra took up her Thagomiser – now decorated with red and green bands of rubber – and gave me a kind smile. Jovumi was the last to pass me and, with considerable effort, I was able to stand and look her in the eyes.

“Hey, I just wanted to say-”

She held a finger to her lips. “Save your breath, falcon. You can thank me later.”

“Thank you? Are you kidding? If we get through this, I’ll marry you.”

“I wouldn’t be against that.” Jovumi placed a hand on my shoulder and said, “We could see you, y’know. While you were falling. It wasn’t easy hijacking that Suppressor to come and rescue you. Hmmm…” She bit her lip and glanced sideways, like she always did when she was in trouble. “Nobody mentioned it, but the Suppressor I found was piloted by Crita. She might be on her way to this side of the mountain to take it back.”

Crita wasn’t the sharpest shooter in the Order of Silence, but she was mean enough. I shuddered at the thought of her jumping out from behind a flax bush, snarling and clawing at me. “Well,” said I, “better get on with it. I’ll be right behind you.”

“Five minutes to rest, okay?”

***

Six minutes later, I crept through the doorway and onto the still grass. Xarza stayed just behind me. He’d decided to come along, stating that he didn’t want to sit there all alone, and he had the relevant experience, for it was his brother who had been responsible for maintaining the radio tower. We said nothing more of Urata, save a prayer for him and the others who had fallen, as we followed our comrades into the flax fields and swiftly caught up with them.

Harakeke flax grows tall and its leaves are decently broad, so we had good cover along the south edge of the mountain. It saved us from detection by Crita, who jogged by with both hands on her coilgun, but we saw nobody else along the way. Our destination was among the cluster of ‘industrial’ buildings in the east. (The only truly industrial operation in the Void used to be the copper mine in New Auckland.) They included the food processing plant and the recycling centre, both of which had continued to run during Bikral’s occupation.

Almost everything else had been shut down, so when the area came into view, we were surprised to see activity at the hydrogen refinery. No balloons were coming in, but the ground crew that usually pulled them in were there in full force. Mother carried a monocular and used it to scan the scene. She observed the crew were armed with home-built slings and a couple of disruptors. One of the disruptors had just been used, for a moment later we saw three members of the Order appear from behind the building. They threw their guns to the ground and sprinted forward into a fistfight.

We edged closer, Mother keeping her eyes on the brawl ahead, while the rest of us lay low and checked for trouble in all directions. A series of weird shrieks suddenly came to us, echoing from the black peak that towered above everything. They were coilgun discharges. No less than eight of them. Somebody had completed a full firing cycle and probably done the damage of a rampaging rhino. We next heard a very human scream and the noise of crumbling stone.

“I think I know what that is,” whispered Chiara in my ear. She hadn’t said much, but she didn’t show the fury I’d been expecting since she was sealed in that cage. “Yesterday I saw some men and a young boy take refuge in the church. A gun shot the child after penetrating the marble wall.”

“Nasty,” I grunted.

“You should make the walls thicker when you rebuild that place.” She was very matter-of-fact. We crawled forward, just behind Jovumi, who was careful not to let her right arm slip out of its sling. I guessed her humerus had healed, but was still causing her pain. She had volunteered to act as lookout while the rest of us infiltrated the radio tower.

The tower itself was a pyramid of steel reaching skyward, standing atop a two-storey building assembled from massive rectangular tanks. According to historians, these tanks were once common on Earth in pre-Cryocene times, when they were carried by ships and hauled cargo between the continents, across warm, liquid seas. They presented us with several entrances, but the building was under watch. A man and a woman patrolled, following each other in brisk laps. We were still a considerable distance away, but Mother could identify them as the siblings Jura and Hyotia.

We’d broken away from the flax belt and cowered in a natural trench eroded many years before by strong rain events. Rutalis was now at the front of the group. He lay on his belly and used his hooks to pull grass blades aside, allowing his working eye to assess the danger. “We’ll be needin’ a distraction to git close, mates.”

“Or a miracle,” said Jovumi. “Ow, my arm!”

“Sorry,” Xarza whispered. He had kicked her in a clumsy attempt to turn himself around. “I just thought of something. Even if we are within ten metres of them, we can’t use the electromagnetic disruptors.”

“Why not?”

“They will not only disable the coilguns, but any powered circuits inside the radio transmitter,” he answered in a slow, grave voice.

“Well then, I guess it’s time for Plan B,” Gafra chimed. She ran her hands lovingly over the Thagomiser’s whittled surface. “You wanted a distraction?”

“I see one. Quiet!” Mother urged. Her attention had been drawn by something moving to the west. No, somebody. It was Myros and he was walking away from us, having come out of the recycling centre. As we watched, he shot at a target in the distance and a poor girl’s dying scream reached us. Mother’s next words sounded more like a primal growl than a civilised sentence. “This is for Chayon, you filthy demon spawn.”

Before any of us could react, she leapt to her feet, seized the Thagomiser from Gafra’s grasp, then sprinted westward. I’d never seen her move so fast in my life. Myros just had time to turn around before she closed the distance and, with an almighty underarm swing, drove the weapon right between his legs.

The howl that escaped Myros roused the hounds of Hell.

Jura and Hyotia were very quick to react. They spotted Mother immediately and charged toward her, their coilguns lighting up. My heart skipped a beat. Mother might only have three seconds to live! My brain, a befuddled mess for weeks on end, kicked into action. It told me that we had to make use of the distraction, but we could save her if we were fast. I communicated this to the team as rapidly as possible, just like giving orders to a flight computer. At once, Gafra, Chiara and Jovumi made for the tower, while Rutalis stayed and proclaimed, “I’m with ye, lad!”

“Take these,” Xarza said. He held out a pair of disruptors and we grabbed one each. “God speed!”

Although I had a reputation for speed, Rutalis was clearly the faster, for he roared ahead while I was left stumbling through the grass. That made me the backup, but I wouldn’t be needed right away. As soon as Jura heard somebody else approaching, he swung around and aimed at Rutalis. My friend mashed the big button on the disruptor just in time. I could see the orange ports on the coilguns become inert and heard their bearers yelling naughty words. More screams and battle cries echoed in the air, mingling with the less dignified yelps from Myros.

“Fer Chayon!” shouted Rutalis as he sprang toward the enemy.

“For Father,” I gasped, my legs finally finding their rhythm. Without even thinking, I ran to join the combat. I’d never been in a fight like this before. To be sure, I’d had a few after-church scraps as a child, but a fight to the death was a new experience. It was weirdly exhilarating. As if I were about to suit up and go for a jump.

Jura moved first. Swung a fist at Rutalis. Hit him square in the chest. Swift retaliation. Rutalis hit back. Hyotia barged into him. Mother kicked at her. Jura blocked. Complete chaos.

I arrived. Lashed out at Hyotia. She blocked. Dang it. Countered with a kick. I dodged, somehow. Jura smashed into me. We both tumbled. Arms locked together. Kicking up soil. He grabbed my arm. Teeth sank in. I scratched at his jaw.

Sudden shriek. Ear-splitting pain. Looked up. Blood raining down. Some white fluid, too. Rutalis’ hooks planted in Hyotia’s eye socket. What a shock.

“SISTER!!” Jura roared.

He abandoned me, sprang to his feet and tried to tear Rutalis away. Mother was too quick for him. She took another swipe with the Thagomiser. Trails of red had appeared on it. One blow was enough to knock Jura out. He slumped to the ground and a moment later, his screaming, spasming sister fell upon him.

“This’ll attract more of the F-bags,” I shouted over the noise. “We better go!”

“Aye, laddie. Right be’ind ye!”

The three of us raced to the radio tower as the sounds of battle in the distance intensified and hooded figures surged toward us through the fields. What a mess we’d made! Yet, the fight had only just begun.

 

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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