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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

For the first time in what felt like a long time, the mystic light of the Void fell upon my face. It was blinding and hot compared to the dank interior of the Guild of Engineers. Although it reminded me of my extensive bruises, the soil over which I was dragged provided a welcome feeling, much softer than the volcanic rock of the cave. My fingers tugged feebly at grass blades as they slipped past. My nostrils picked up the familiar smell of ploughed fields, but also the distant stench of burning.

Without warning, Bikral released me and allowed my head to bang on a stone. Stars exploded within my vision. When they were gone, I could just make out the filthy faces of Crita and Hyotia. I had to squint to make out the cruel grins on their faces. They truly were horrid women.

Like most meetings with Bikral, I had to twist my body around and hoist my head up to view him. I paused for a moment, then asked, “Where are we?”

“Take a look,” the beast replied. He took a step to the side so I could clearly see the red-painted warning sign behind. We were at the very edge of New Honolulu, the kind of place I might have come for a jump with Gafra or Rutalis. I suspected we weren’t there for leisure purposes.

Bikral said, “You call me mad. Would you care to explain why?”

At least I might find something out before I was chucked over the side. “Even if your plan somehow works,” I wheezed, now certain one of my ribs was cracked, “and you manage to destroy the Earth and the whole Void… what do you hope to gain from that? Don’t you realise you’ll go straight to Hell for it?”

“Earth is Hell. It’s a frozen wasteland with no hope of salvation. You must have read the history books. Your dear, stupid Father must have told you all about his miserable upbringing on the ice.” There again was the crocodilian chuckle. “Earth is also home to the most destructive and the most savage species in the universe. The species that froze it in the first place!”

“What species?” I asked.

“Humans! Greedy, idiotic, self-serving humans,” he spat. “They are a plague to the rest of Creation.”

“And you’re not?” I retorted. That induced a foul giggle.

Crita was not so amused. Neither was her weapon, always glowing and humming. “Your next joke will be the last thing you ever say, you little-“ Her next word shall not be repeated in this publication, nor should it be repeated ever, by anybody.

“I’m not afraid of you,” said I. “So shoot away. What does it matter, if I’m just part of a plague?”

Bikral gave a disapproving look. It was directed at Crita rather than me. We’d already determined that taking the easy way out wouldn’t be an option for me. “Let me explain,” he continued. “My followers – the Order of Silence – have learned to view the world from a bigger perspective than what The Bible permits. Your view of life is restricted to a simple plane of existence, but we see the entire cosmos for what it is.”

“What are you on about?”

Hyotia’s boot met my back as her voice met my ears: “No more interruptions!”

“All those weeks ago, when the first Suppressor arrived, some of you thought it was really an alien craft, didn’t you? I know how it was received. People panicked. They always panic when something strange and inexplicable comes along.” Bikral leaned closer, looking more and more like he was ready to pounce on me. “Have you ever considered that alien life actually exists?”

There was another pause. I realised he was waiting for an answer and I might be able to speak without further injury. So I replied with: “Yes, I have. There’s no evidence for it.”

“No evidence, says the kid. Oh, but you cannot see what I have seen. You have not heard the words of God as I have heard them.” He tapped on his forehead, as if some kind of divine hotline were stored inside. “He came to me and he told me of the Second Genesis. The birth of life elsewhere in the universe, where humans have not yet been… not yet.”

I still couldn’t grasp what he was talking about, or where this talk was going. When I glanced at the armed women, however, I was disturbed by their attentiveness. They were smiling at Bikral, their chins held high, like they were listening to the greatest speech of their lives. In truth, they probably were. Only then did I consider that, in order to amass such a devoted following, this man must have found something inspiring to say. Was there reason behind his actions?

Then I recalled the actions in question. This was the man who had murdered Father and several other engineers. Of course he was insane.

“We believe that intelligent beings exist on other worlds, where they survive in a sustainable manner, not wasteful like our species,” he continued. “Humans pose an unprecedented threat to these beings. It is God’s will that humans should be destroyed so that his more advanced and loving creations may grow without interference. That is the purpose of the Order of Silence… we strive for the silence of humanity!”

Quite insane.

“Of course,” said Bikral, “we must all make the sacrifice. That is why my plan is so neat. The device you helped to build will drain power from the Void and wipe us all from existence. The wormhole will dissipate into nothingness. This is God’s eraser, as was the Great Flood of Noah’s time. It will create a perfect universe – safe from our plague!”

I couldn’t hold it in any longer. Despite the pain in my chest and the two angry women aching to inflict more pain, I had to speak up. “You’re wrong, Bikral. I’ve read all the history books and I know this isn’t right. You think you’re on some mission from God? It sounds a lot more like the Devil’s work to me.”

This time, two blows came from behind, but I hardly felt them. Raw anger seeped into my muscles and drowned out the pain. I shouted up at Bikral. “Humanity is not a plague. The wars on Earth were the result of a few greedy folks, not the actions of a whole race. There are far more good people, don’t you see? Just look around! Humans can live sustainably and they can live in peace. At least, we lived in peace until you showed up!”

“This would be a good time for you to look around.” He pointed nonchalantly at something in the distance. “Right about there!”

Whatever the object of interest was, it was ablaze. Its tall structure was engulfed in red, orange and blue flames, and a dense column of smoke rose into the azure sky. I could make out the shapes of people around the base of it. Some of them were screaming and their calls echoed off the bare peak of the mountain. At first I couldn’t figure out which building I was looking at. Then it came to me. They were burning my parents’ shop. My family’s legacy had gone up in flames.

It broke what was left of my heart.

“You should have kept all that flammable gas better hidden. But where were we? Oh yes… the Void. Do you really consider this ‘sustainable?’ We can’t live here for much longer. Populations will explode and we will use up all the Void’s resources. Then move somewhere else and try again. It goes on and on, forever. That’s how our species works.” His hand grabbed my shoulder. “I intend to end it all.”

“Let go of me!” I cried, as Bikral began dragging me across the ground again. It had become rocky and tore at my clothing.

“It is your hour of judgement…” he muttered.

“Your plan isn’t going to work!”

“It is foolproof. I have access to all the power I need.”

“Even if that’s true, your faith is misplaced.” A particularly pointy rock passed underneath and I gasped.

“My faith will not be broken,” Bikral said as he dropped me once more. My hand drooped down into empty space. We were right up at the edge.

“But you’re wrong,” I said as I scrambled to my feet.

“Stand up straight and look me in the eyes.” That came as a weird request, but I obliged. At least I might have a chance to go down fighting.

“You’re wrong,” I repeated.

“No, Kopra. I am a saviour!”

His last word rang in my ears as I charged forward. Unfortunately, Bikral was too fast. His foot lashed out. Caught me in the abdomen. I was flung back, back toward the edge… and over it. 

You can never forget the feeling. The lurch of your stomach followed by the sensation of weightlessness. The roar of wind zooming past your ears. The knowledge there’s nothing under you except air. It’s the feeling of falling.

For the first time in my life, the feeling was terrifying.

Fingers of black rock slashed past and then I saw only the infinite blueness, with New Honolulu rapidly vanishing above me. I was approaching terminal velocity. No jetpack, no headset, no airbrakes, no friends, not even a sliver of a whiskerbean to save me. Helpless and going down like a brick.

My chest burned as I struggled to breathe. My heart threatened to explode, it was hammering so fast. My sprawled limbs were numb with fear, as was my head. Only one question I could think: How would I die?

There were two possibilities. The obvious one was that I would fall right through the Void, smash into the mountain and Mother would have to scrape off my remains. That was an absolutely chilling prospect. As I entered the swirling hydrogen clouds, however, the other possibility became apparent.

Supposing I missed the edge of the mountain and continued falling… I would never stop. I’d plunge through the Void again and again, forever and ever. Three days at most would pass before I died slowly of thirst. It would be agony. Would anybody still be alive to catch my lifeless body? Not if the monster who pushed me had his way.

So that was it. Unless Bikral’s ridiculous plan worked and the Void disappeared, I’d either be dashed to pieces in ten minutes or dry out in three days. Fantastic.

Those ten minutes seemed to pass in ten seconds. My terror grew, scrambling my brain and freezing my body, as the rounded outline of New Honolulu reappeared below me. This must have been what Chiara experienced on the fateful day when she fell into the Void. She couldn’t have known what had happened to her. All she knew was that she was falling and falling. I would never think of a skydive the same way again.

I wasn’t at all surprised by the lack of an automated message telling me the time to landing. I knew there was no point, but I still found myself whispering control codes, purely on instinct. My body even oriented itself into the pose for retrograde thrust. It was pointless.

There were only seconds left. I could see the burning shop, the ruined church and the lancing discharge from a coilgun. Directly below, a stone shelf rose up to greet me. My eyes were stuck open and staring straight down. The shelf came closer and closer and…

Missed.

So that was it. My fate had been decided. With no natural wind to blow me closer to the mountain, I was trapped in this loop. Held by the relentless pull of gravity. What a way to go.

There was no lightning when I hurtled through the red clouds. Each time I reached them, there was a slight whoosh as I entered the hydrogen layer, only to drop out of it a minute later. Then my home would rise up before me again, changing from a speck to a looming leviathan, only to disappear when I rocketed past, out of control. On each approach I noticed the flames burning a bit brighter.

The small part of my brain still ticking normally kept track of how many times I passed New Honolulu. On the eleventh lap and those afterward, I could just make out silver, polygonal shapes darting about the mountain. They were the bomb-lobbing Suppressors.

By the time I reached twenty descents, my body began to accept its grim fate. My heart slowed just enough for my lungs to catch up, so they burned a little less. Some of the blood that had pooled in my head began flowing again, so vague sensations returned to my arms and legs. The roar of the air was giving me a splitting headache. The prolonged weightlessness started to make me nauseous.

Another twenty descents – meaning I’d spent an entire day falling – and I passed out. In the end, my organs just couldn’t keep up with such stress. My body tried shutting down. I don’t know if it’s possible to dream in this state, but I may have dreamed then. I think I would have dreamed about my friends. About hugging Chiara one last time. Having a race with Gafra. Sharing toast with Rutalis, or half-melted chocolate with Jovumi.

Perhaps I dreamed about my parents, alive and happy. Mother in her professional attire. Father dressed like a shepherd. Both of them grinning in front of the shop she built with her own hands, bright and gleaming and not on fire…

Something woke me up. My eyes snapped open and, as expected, I saw only blue. Still plummeting. Still going at my terminal velocity of fifty-five metres per second. Was I really still alive?

My limbs weren’t responsive at all, but I could twist my head around to search for the disturbance. I got the impression it had been a sound that awoke me. A sound that was loud and piercing in order to be heard over the rushing air. Its source must have been very close by. Indeed, it was. I found the creature diving alongside me.

It was a falcon.

This daring raptor was the only one of its kind that had ever been observed in the Void. I’d seen it once as a young boy, causing mayhem at the meerkat colony on New Kuala Lumpur. It was a pleasant memory and, very briefly, it distracted me from the extraordinary dryness that baked my skin and throat. At least I’d found an old friend before I perished.

The falcon tucked its wings in as tightly as possible, engaging its hunting dive. It had a terminal velocity three times my own and it zipped toward the expanding shape of New Honolulu. I watched it go. Not like I had anything else to do. It was soon gone from my wind-battered sight.

However, a moment later I could make out another object. It was high above the edge of the mountain, geometric and shiny. A Suppressor. It hovered above the site where Bikral had kicked me off. I couldn’t have cared less about its intentions. Gravity would pull me right past and we’d part ways in a matter of seconds.

Then I made a strange observation. The Suppressor seemed to be flying straight down along my trajectory. Its outline didn’t change in size, so it must have been going at a similar speed, too. Why? I was genuinely curious. Suddenly a spark of hope flickered. As long as the craft maintained this motion, I might be able to land safely on it. ‘Might’ was the key word there.

I’d all but given up on survival, but here was an unexpected chance. Diving after it, reaching out toward its pointed hull, I prayed it wasn’t Bikral inside the Suppressor, trying to play one last prank on me. To my immense relief, the pilot stayed on their course. New Honolulu raced toward us, but I raced faster. My body sprawled upon the hull. It immediately began to slow its descent and I could hear its engine pods firing, although my ears rang like bells. What luck!

At that point I must have blacked out again, for my next memory is of waking up on the grass. I’d never felt better. I could barely breathe, swallow or speak. Every muscle ached and every nerve buzzed, but I wanted to dance because it felt so good to be on solid ground. To be alive.

A pair of hole-ridden boots materialised next to me. The person wearing them was talking, but I couldn’t understand their words. When I tried to communicate this problem, all that came out of my mouth was a pained gasp. My rescuer knelt down and put her face right up to mine, so I could see she was Jovumi.

She whispered in my ear: “I said, it turns out you only need one arm to pilot this thing. More importantly… welcome back, falcon boy. We missed you.”

 

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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