By THOMAS STEVENSON
From an objective perspective, the occupation of New Honolulu wasn’t as catastrophic as we’d feared. For the most part, Bikral’s gang left us alone. Some of them patrolled the mountain, searching for anybody trying to take off or otherwise cause trouble. Never were they seen without coilguns in their filthy hands. Luckily, the weapons weren’t used as long as folks behaved and didn’t get in the way. They said if we kept our heads down, we’d be okay.
Except I wasn’t okay.
I’d always been happy to follow everybody else’s lead. Fly the common path, as they say. Things had changed – not just out in the once-beautiful Void, but inside my head as well. Two people had been murdered and Vicar Duval insisted they shouldn’t be avenged. Why not? Murder was the worst of sins, even worse than profanity. Somebody had to take action!
Several days passed before I could collect the courage needed to express my feelings to Mother. In all that time, we didn’t get a visit from Bikral, but none of the engies were seen either. Order of Silence members had been taking portions of our food and water to sustain them, so when I sought Mother in our shelter, she was grumbling about our cornplant supplies running out.
“At this rate, there shall be a major food shortage in just a few weeks! Lord curse those heathens. Surely this was part of their plan… Sweetheart, are you all right?”
My nerves must have flushed my face. I cleared my throat and said, as steadily as I could, “I have to get into the Guild. Make sure our friends are okay. Maybe I can even convince Bikral to-“
“Stop right there! If you go into that tunnel, it’s suicide. They will kill you. What part of that seems like a good idea to you?”
“Bikral killed Father and none of us are doing anything. Why should we hide away like this and let him get away with it? I want to do something!”
“Please don’t shout at me,” Mother snapped. “It’s insane. We must do as we are doing to survive. You understand that, don’t you? To get through this, we just have to leave the Order alone, so they leave us alone. Otherwise we will all be blasted heavenward.”
“Your father was killed because he stood up to them. If you try it, you will be no better off. Is that clear?”
“Listen to me, Kopra! This is a bad idea. You need to clear thoughts of vengeance from your head. Clear your mind. Then you will see this is the only way.” Her hands rested on my shoulders. Her eyes penetrated into my brain. “I lost my husband to the heathens. Don’t let them take my son too.”
“Are you listening?”
I bowed my head. Looking at Mother’s face gave me no comfort. It only reminded me of what we’d both witnessed; the horrific scene of Father’s death that replayed over and over in my head, fuelling the flames that made my hands shake. “Yes, I’m listening.”
“Good,” Mother replied. “Perhaps you should talk to Chiara. You know she has plenty of wisdom to share… and you two haven’t talked a lot recently.”
That was true. Chiara still shared our dwelling and didn’t dare venture outside. Gafra and Jovumi visited regularly though, and even Rutalis did his best to keep in touch. Despite my best intentions, I’d begun to think of my friends like ghosts. Were they really the folks I’d grown up with or, in Chiara’s case, plucked out of the sky? I’d already proved I wasn’t in a nightmare – it involved a lot of pinching – but nothing felt real any more.
Mother gave me a nudge and I realised I’d been sitting motionless for a minute. Again I cleared my airway. “Uh… okay. Where is she?”
“She is upstairs right now.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled as I made for the trapdoor. Lately Chiara had been spending most of her time in the shop. I figured she’d run out of books to read and was studying Voidese technology, or something like that.
Sure enough, I found the young woman squatting before a set of shelves containing unsold jetpacks. All of them had Father’s red stickers on. What a jolly time it was when our biggest problem was faulty ignition coils!
Chiara poked around the inert shell of one of them, exploring the air intakes and the large cavity designed to hold a fuel cell. “Guess we won’t be having any more flying lessons,” she said with her back to me. “What were you going to teach me next?”
“How to hover, I suppose. Doesn’t matter now.”
Her face turned to me, peeping through untidy black hair. “I hope you haven’t given up hope, Kopra.”
“Yeah, you know. That thing people use to get through tough times. If you have nothing else, you’ll always have hope.” For a moment her attention returned to the jetpack, specifically the round clamps to hold gas tanks in place. Her fingers ran over their various hinges and welds. “This is really impressive for something made of scraps!”
“We’ve had four generations to refine it. When I was a kid, I saw one of the early prototypes. Now that thing was scrap! We took it apart to make a better one, after an empty ship fell into the Void and we managed to harvest steel from it.”
“A ship fell on this place?” The unobscured half of her face looked intrigued.
“Not here; it landed on an uninhabited mountain. Well, not really a mountain. It’s called the Giant Sulfur Cluster, it’s… um…” What was I talking about? This wasn’t going to help us against Bikral. I cleared my throat and said, “It doesn’t matter. I have to get in there.”
“In where, exactly?”
“The Guild of Engineers! I need to go in, make sure they’re okay, and maybe-“
“That’s suicide!” She grabbed my wrist and held it, like she was tethering a hydrogen harvester. “Do you want to share your father’s fate?”
“That’s what Mother said.” Again I bowed my head and stared at the stone floor. That made two against one. Honestly, I hadn’t been optimistic about gaining support.
Chiara growled, “Your mother is very wise. Strong, too. Stronger than most women I’ve met.” Her finger pointed around the ceiling of the shop. “Is it true,” she asked in a much chirpier tone, “that she built this place by herself?”
None of this was helping stave off the fire in my blood. It took a lot of effort to maintain my normally gracious aspect. “Why do you keep changing the subject like that?” My voice was little more than a sneer in my own ears.
“Because,” she retorted, “I’m trying to make you see the positives. Hold onto hope. Because I care about you.” Her mouth bent into a smile as she brushed the hair out of her face. “Come on, let’s go and do something you like. This talk isn’t helping either of us.”
“Actually, I might just go to sleep. Natural night is setting in and I’m tired.” To press the point I pretended to stifle a yawn, inhaling so deeply I nearly sucked my palm into my throat. In truth I was tired, but not enough to stop these new feelings consuming my mind.
“Sleep? That works… I hope you don’t have nightmares this time.”
My ears pricked up. “Who said I’ve been having nightmares?”
“You talk in your sleep,” Chiara said. “It’s okay. I used to do it too, after my parents died. Every night I saw the avalanche roaring down on them, again and again. Every time I’d wake up in a cold sweat and start throwing up.” Again she forced a smile.
The only reply I could manage was, “Uh… good night, then.”
“I know you want revenge. I get it. But there’s no point trying to fight these people. For the sake of everybody you love, please don’t go sneaking out when night falls.”
When night fell, I went sneaking out. There was an art to creeping past Mother and Chiara as they slept, then opening the trapdoor without making it creak, not to mention twisting the lubricant-deprived wheel on the shop’s portal. Luckily they didn’t stir and I was out in the open, where the grass didn’t creak and the soil didn’t squeak.
Last time I’d been outside during darkness was when the Order of Silence first showed up. This time, there were no red spotlights or vicars holding globes. Everything was black as basalt at first. I waited for a few minutes so my eyes could adjust. Gradually I began to make out the outline of the piano sitting next to our shop. Needless to say, it hadn’t been played for a while.
Pinpricks of blue indicated the light globes inside the tunnel leading to the Guild of Engineers. When I felt comfortable I wouldn’t trip over, I started marching uphill toward them. Almost immediately I tripped over. Continuing on all fours was the way to go. More scuttling than marching I carried on, not thinking about what I was doing or who might be around. As far as I was concerned, getting into that tunnel was all that mattered. If God was with me, he’d sort everything else out from there.
I crept closer and closer, looking like a tusk-weasel sneaking along the ground. It rose in great steps up to the invisible peak of New Honolulu. Those blue lights got bigger and bigger. Soon I was within sniffing distance of the cave. Couldn’t see anything moving inside. So far, so good. I kept creeping closer and closer…
My hand snagged on something very thin, suspended about ten centimetres above the ground. It snapped, but I hadn’t put any huge strain on it. What was this obstruction? Then it struck me… a tripwire!
Three seconds was all it took to power up a coilgun. My heart started racing as multiple orange spots appeared before me. A woman’s voice called, “Get a Suppressor on him!” Then a pair of now-familiar harsh, crimson beams were trained on me. Just three seconds for everything to go wrong.
“You again,” said Crita as she stomped toward my exposed, crouching figure. She crouched down too and jabbed me in the rubs with her humming coilgun. Somehow she got uglier every time I looked. “Chayon’s son. We have specific instructions involving you. We’re taking you to Bikral!”
I didn’t know what to make of that. On the one hand, it was just where I wanted to go. On the other, I’d have an armed and irate escort. Trying to hold back the fear that threatened to numb my head and moisten my trousers, I mumbled, “So those flying things are the Suppressors?”
“Sharp as a ball, aren’t you? Get moving and don’t talk!” Her weapon slapped me across the back and I cried out in pain. I’d have been brought to my knees if I wasn’t already on them.
Crita and a few other brutes pushed me into the tunnel and down to the scarred gate of the Guild of Engineers. It was then that I understood I’d made a mistake. Mother and Chiara had both warned me not to do this. I should have listened to them. I’d fallen right into Bikral’s hands. He was going to kill me, right where Father died, then keep on going with his ridiculous plan.
What a terrible mistake I’d made! What a terrible son and friend I was!
For the second time I fell upon the tiled floor, but I didn’t feel the impact. Just lay there like a corpse. Given the option to turn back time just a few minutes, I would have listened and stayed in my hammock. However, my regrets didn’t distract me entirely from the surroundings. In particular, there was a sickening smell coming from a bright red patch very close to my nose. Heathens hadn’t even bothered to clear up the bloodstains.
Somebody chuckled, “What took you so bloody long?”
Considerable effort was needed to raise myself off the floor. It was Bikral who had spoken. What did he mean, what took me so long? Wasn’t like I was in a speed-dying competition. I tried to convey this, but he cut me off.
“People are so predictable when they’re scared. Especially the ones like you,” he said with his regular measured pace, like he’d scripted this situation. “When I first spoke with you, you came across as somebody who likes to think of himself as a hero. You saved a girl’s life when she fell too close to this mountain, didn’t you?” Bikral leaned across me, glaring down at my body sprawled on the floor. “You also came across as an idiot. Heroism plus idiocy is an extremely dangerous recipe. And predictable. I knew you’d come knocking.”
“If you’re going to shoot me, just do it. I already know I’m an idiot.”
“Ah, the unmistakeable sound of a man who finds his senses too late. You want to get out of this, don’t you? Tough luck. I’m not going to shoot you.” For a moment he stepped out of my field of vision. I heard him shout, “You should all be working! We have a job to do, so stop staring!” He was barking at the sixteen surviving engineers.
“Why aren’t you going to kill me?”
“Because,” came Bikral’s disembodied voice, “there are much worse things than dying. Fear, grief, sorrow, regret… yes, I’ve been through them all. Did Chayon ever tell you I used to have a wife? She died ten years ago. Somehow she was caught at the wrong end of a drilling machine. I know how you feel now, Kopra. It will burn you up. Before that happens, I hope you’ll be of help to us.”
“Help… you?” I snarled.
“We have a vacancy, you see.” He chuckled again; a most hellish noise. “Since Chayon tried to be a rebel. Your father was really keen to die, wasn’t he? What a role model.” A mutilated hand floated into sight and pointed with one of its digits. “Xarza was just complaining about not having an assistant. You worked in your parent’s shop; I bet you know how all his machinery works. Why don’t you offer him your services?”
“I’d rather die.”
“Not an option, Kopra. When we’re done with this project and my people have returned to Earth, I will allow you to die by any means you choose. Until then…” Something the size of a boot prodded my back. “Get off the floor. You’re a gearhead now. Look alive!”
Previously I’d known Xarza as Father’s second-in-command and the owner of the Void’s whitest beard. ‘White skies’ research was his speciality – projects that were valuable to science but not necessarily beneficial to people. He studied things like the makeup of the hydrogen clouds and the geological history of the floating landmasses. Now he was just a sullen slave, trapped with the rest of the engies who worked through the night. As two men deposited me next to him, the bags under the bags under his eyes were strikingly apparent.
We sat at a workbench littered with electronics, mostly bits of old computer systems. Xarza held a magnifier in one hand and a pronged soldering stick in the other. He said, “Better get to it, lad. I’m putting together some surge protectors. You’ve done this before?”
I nodded. The brutes and their EMPLs returned to Bikral’s side, giving me at least a little relief.
“Why did you come here?” Xarza breathed in my ear. “Don’t try to be a hero.”
“I won’t. Never again,” I whispered back. “They won’t kill us though, will they? They need us.”
“Apparently. They will still torture us. You, especially.” The old engie raised the magnifier to his eye and started soldering two lengths of wire together. They were connected to a pair of thick copper coils, themselves attached to some form of heavy-duty circuit board. “Not physically, but psychologically. This Bikral knows how to play with your emotions.”
“What do you suggest I do?”
Xarza looked up and over. Not at me, but at something in front of me. “You could start by passing me those diodes. Thanks very much, lad.” In a flash, he secured the diodes to his device. “They want these surge protectors to be able to withstand lightning strikes. I’m not entirely sure why.”
“They’re making you dismantle old computers to do it?” When I looked around the cavern, I saw others tearing up old circuits with pliers, wire-strippers and corundum lasers. Occasionally there came the sound of a hard drive being wrenched open.
“We still have a shortage of copper, of course. To compensate, Bikral told us to salvage it from all our old projects. It’s a shame, but we have no choice. The most important things survived, though. Primarily because they’re the devices that don’t contain a lot of copper wiring.” His gaze shifted again, however he still avoided looking at me. Instead, Xarza focused on the rock wall behind. “Do you hear that buzzing, lad?”
“Erm…” As a matter of fact, I did hear buzzing. It had been hard to distinguish from my painfully rapid heartbeat. When I turned, I saw an extraordinary assembly on the wall. A large portion of it, many square metres, was covered in chips of a translucent purple material. It took a moment to comprehend what I was seeing. The wall contained thousands of fork-shaped crystals, all of them vibrating.
“That is the Quartzwall,” Xarza explained. “An analogue computer made by the first generation of engineers. It uses resonance patterns to store information.”
I tore my eyes away from this amazing contraption. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
“Ah, you’re curious! That’s a handy trait, lad. Every row of crystals in the Quartzwall vibrates at a different frequency. Periodically, resonance happens within a row or between rows. That’s when the vibrations add up to a very large amplitude – a louder noise. We use the timing of resonances to keep track of things like the hours, how fast various mountains are sinking, the length of the natural night…”
“Annoying, if you ask me,” Jura cut in. I swear I jumped when I heard his growl. He’d snuck up behind us, as I had intended to sneak in from the front of the Guild. All my worst enemies in one night. How could it get any worse?
“We’ve told you before, there is no copper in there,” was Xarza’s calm reply.
“I know, but I’d rather smash it to pieces anyway. It hurts my ears!” Jura swung his coilgun in our direction and flicked the charging switch. “Get back to work, both of you.”
“Kopra, I need an NADF please.”
“What? Oh…” I found the critical component amidst the half-rusted heap of parts. “Here you go.”
With a bully’s smirk, Jura left us to our own devices. I didn’t know whether to be furious or terrified. So I remained curious instead.
“There’s a plutonium reactor down here, isn’t there? A shielded one? To provide power?”
“Yes lad, but we need that even more than we need the Quartzwall.”
“Suppose we unshielded it-”
Xarza dropped his magnifier on the bench and finally turned to face me fully. Any other time, his wide head would have looked comical upon his short, squat body. This time he looked like he was about to administer the physical torture Bikral hadn’t promised. “For God’s sake, lad! What did I tell you? It’s useless trying to be a hero here.”
“But don’t you think we should do something?!”
“We are doing something. We’re building surge protectors.” He glanced cautiously at the nearest agents of Bikral’s pestilence. They appeared to be preoccupied with another engie and hadn’t heard us. “Could you pass me that stripping laser, please? I need to get this insulation off…”
“Don’t apologise to me. You should apologise to your mother when you get out of here.” When he tried activating the laser, it emitted a puff of smoke instead of the traditional thin, red beam. “Oops! Has anyone a spare?”
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...