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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

“…Can’t you see? They’re going to kill us all!”

“No they’re not, they’re just interested in the engies. We’ll be fine if we keep our boots on the grass.”

“‘E’s a right devil, tha’ Bikral. An’ callin’ us in the first place, wha’ was that aboot? Makin’ us think ‘e was a ‘ostage? No sense to it!”

“Actually it does make sense. First they wanted to scare us by bombing the church. That worked. Made us reveal where the weapons were. Then they took the weapons, right, but then-“

“We should have all flown away! Evacuated! Isn’t that what all this technology is for?!”

“Yes, yes, but by making us think New Auckland was the target, that is what I’m getting at, they gave us no real reason to leave. If we evacuated to New Rakiura, would they not have been just as likely to go there?”

“The Guild o’ Engineers ain’t in New Rakiura, me friend. They’d ne’er waste their time thar!”

“Yes, but my point is…”

This kind of discussion went on and on around me, but I paid little attention to it. I was trapped inside my own personal black hole. Biblical effort was needed to get anything in or out of this hole. I couldn’t eat. Couldn’t drink. Couldn’t speak out loud. My internal voice screamed though, one word over and over: “Gone.”

Father was gone.

There hadn’t been any point in denying the truth. Not when I saw it happen right before my face. Not when Mother and I half-dragged his body back through the tunnel and into the dreadful night. Not when we set him upon a marble slab near the church, watched by a band of heathens and their guns, preparing him for the Voidese equivalent of a funeral. When folks die here, they can’t be buried because they decompose too slowly. They have to be manually turned into fertiliser.

Bikral, the Order of Silence, the captured engineers, the  deception… none of it mattered any more. Father was gone. That was all I could think about. As I lay in my hammock, staring at the one he used to occupy, all I felt was a horrible void within my chest. Once he told me that nature abhorred a true void. Empty space wasn’t allowed. I guess that meant I wasn’t part of nature any more. That thought numbed my brain.

Chiara, Gafra, Rutalis and my other friends drifted through to give me their condolences. They blurred and their voices were faint in my ears, so I didn’t notice when they arrived and barely cared when they left. It was like I wasn’t even a person any more. For the first time in my life, I felt alone. It ground my heart.

This state enveloped me for several days. I can’t quite remember how long it was. We had visits from Jura and his cronies, reminding us that anybody caught using our flight tech would be shot down. When I say ‘we’ I mean Mother. With no strength or will to leave the underground, I didn’t even see the shop. Somehow Mother battled her feelings and kept herself going. Keeping me going was another challenge.

“Please dear, you need to eat.” She held a bowl of greening cornplant extract. “At least tell me how you’re feeling?”

“Terrible,” I replied. “But thanks for asking.” Even those syllables were a struggle. My normally athletic self had been reduced to an energy-sapped wreck. I’d later learn to call this state depression.

There were simple things I could fall back on, at least. Courtesy, honesty, things like that. I had to be sure Mother was okay as she was trying to do for me. So I asked her, “How are you feeling?”

“Oh, don’t worry about me. I will survive. Please eat up, dear.” She left the bowl on the floor beside me, then returned to the shop. My appetite had vanished along with my emotions. It only took one terrible moment to suck all that out of me. Was I done, too?

Not yet.

It had been a while since I heard any good news and it was very welcome. It showed up in the form of Jovumi, her arm bound in a waist-sling but otherwise fine. By her account, the Order had barged into the infirmary to look around, but let the nurses stick to their schedule. That meant she had been released on time, well on the road to recovery.

“They didn’t even charge up their weapons,” she told me. “But they did say your father was, um, dead. I’m so sorry.” Jovumi hugged me as tightly as you can with one arm. That time, I felt something. I hugged back, only to hear her wince as I bumped a bit too close to the sling.

After some persuasion, I joined her upstairs. Gafra and Rutalis were sitting on the wide, empty floor of the shop. We could hear Mother and Chiara keeping themselves distracted in the storeroom. Ordered out of business, we weren’t making room for customers or bothering to refill gas canisters. All we could do was be there for each other.

Apparently Gafra had made a habit of dragging the Thagomiser everywhere she went. To my horror, I noticed she’d carved a smiling face into the blunt end. When I asked why, she replied with, “It’s there so when I crack Bikral’s skull open, he’ll know I meant it with love and affection!” Crazy girl.

Rutalis tried to change the topic slightly. “Yer father ‘ad a few sayin’s, ye know. ‘E told me many a time t’coont me blessin’s. ‘Eard it?”

“Yeah. Count your blessings,” I repeated. “Doesn’t feel like there are any to count.”

“Ye kiddin’? Take a look, laddie! We’re all still ‘ere!”

“He’s right,” said Jovumi. “We are still alive. If we let Bikral get what he wants, he’ll just leave us alone, won’t he? Considering what we’re up against, that’s definitely something to feel good about. Don’t you think?”

“I suppose…” Then a question arrived in the mailslot behind my eyes. That was an encouraging sign. “Why does he want to go to Earth anyway? What’s the attraction of all that ice and acid smog?”

Mother had just emerged from the storeroom. I could hear her footfalls behind me. Tragedy hadn’t changed her features at all. She maintained the same stern front and refused not to wear her trademark suit while indoors. How was she coping so well? Perhaps she wasn’t; if it was so easy for Bikral to wear a mask, why couldn’t she?

“They seem to think it’s their destiny, or something to that effect.” Her voice was perfectly normal too. No different from the professionalistic tone she used with customers. “Anyway, it doesn’t concern us. Kopra, I think Chiara would like a word with you. In private.”

Chiara wanted more than just a word. Complete sentences ensued when I located her in the storeroom, surrounded by all the jetpacks and other paraphernalia Father had been repairing. With any luck, they’d be used again some day.

“We haven’t spoken much and I wanted to say,” she began, “I do understand how awful this must be for you. If it’s okay, I wanted to give you some advice. That’s all I can really do to help you, but you deserve help because you’ve helped me settle in here. So, um… Kopra?”

My eyes had unintentionally drifted downward as she spoke. For the first time since the incident, I remembered what Chiara had been through. Both her parents had died and she’d buried them alone, under an avalanche-stricken glacier. Of course she knew this hollowness that consumed me. Why hadn’t I asked her for advice already?

“Yes, sorry. I’m listening.”

Taking my hand in hers, Chiara smiled shyly at me. “That hole inside you? I had that too, back on Earth. Do you want to know how I got rid of it?”

I nodded with a certain degree of caution. Part of me feared the answer was some hallucinogenic compound.

“I let go. I learned to shut out the memory of what had happened and I moved on. That was the only way to survive on Earth; detach yourself from your feelings and focus on the present.”

“What exactly are you suggesting I do? Just forget?”

“Um, yes. It’s the only way to move on in hard times.”

My hand retracted from her grip and I stepped away. I was taken aback in more than one sense. “Forget Father? How could I possibly forget him?” Anger drove my questions now. “How could you say that?!”

“I’m sorry, Kopra. Really. What’s happened is brutal, but we have to be brutal if we’re going to live through it.”

“No. That’s not the way we do things in the Void!”

“I guess this is a very different place… but you’re at war now, do you realise that? There’s nothing else you can do.”

“How about avenging hm? What if I killed Bikral?”

“You wouldn’t do that, would you? You’d only be shot yourself and I don’t want to hear my best friend died too.”

She was right; it was a dumb thing to suggest. My eyes slammed shut and I fought to focus. “She only wants to help you,” I told myself. “Chiara is a friend. Listen to her.” Then I became aware of a growing ache in my forearms. I’d clenched my hands into tight fists and they were shaking in agitation. My emotions were getting the better of me. I opened my eyes.

Chiara stood there, staring at me. She hadn’t moved. Brave girl. “Just so you know, that’s what your mother is doing. She has chosen to detach herself from the event so she can help you. Otherwise she’d just burn up inside like you are. Do you understand why I’m saying this?”

“I… uh… thanks, Chiara. However I don’t see how I can just move on.”

“Focus on something else. Something positive! You have four people you can count on in this building right now, so focus on them.”

“I’ll try…” For a moment I was still, breathing deeply and enjoying the sensation of something other than numbness. Chiara had a point. We’d all have to move on from this at some point. Nobody else had to die. It was going to be fine.

Another query came to me. “Hang on… you consider me your best friend?”

Before I received an answer, there came a terrible shriek from outside. Not the fearful kind, more like a battle cry. Definitely not an encouraging sound. We raced to the door, threw the control wheel and poked our heads outside. Just in time to see an orange beam lance through a woman’s chest and hear the hideous noise of a discharge.

It was Jura who had fired the shot. His target collapsed into the gravel in a smouldering heap. Something long and shiny fell from her grip – I had to squint to make out the form of a heavy-duty wrench. Onlookers screamed. My friends gasped and froze like meerkats. That made two New Honolulan victims.

Jura was accompanied by Bikral, Crita and four other members of their gang. All of them looked equally ruthless, from their grimy faces to the magnifiers bolted onto their weapons. Without a word, they stomped right toward us. As he approached, Jura flicked a switch on his gun and it regained its glow in a very few seconds. It was recharging.

“Fascinating,” said Bikral as he set his pawprint on the door frame. “They look like lasers, don’t they? When you fire one of these, the extreme current and voltage in the coil actually melt the projectile. By the time it leaves the barrel, it’s been reduced to a stream of molten particles. Originally, coilgun designers saw it as a defect. What a happy accident… the ‘defect’ did more damage than what they’d hoped to build.”

We huddled in the centre of the shop as Bikral’s thugs crawled inside and aimed in uncomfortable directions. None of us were even armed with a wrench, but they obviously wouldn’t take any chances. The monster himself was among us. Right then I would have charged at him without a second thought – if it weren’t for the blasted coilguns.

As he entered, Jura grunted, “get to your point, will you?”

“Don’t rush me,” barked Bikral. His eyes darted between Mother, my friends and I as he continued. “My point is this. It would be very easy for us to set your little shop on fire… very, very easy! It will happen if I hear of a single person trying to fly off this mountain. Is that clear?”

It could hardly be clearer.

When nobody answered him, the monster said, “It’s a cute sign you have outside. We could change it for you, if you like. So it just says ‘Alika Flight Tech.’ Not that it matters, now you’re out of business.” He waved to the thugs and they started heading back outside. “Thank you for your co-operation.” Without a care in the world, he left us, almost skipping into the sunlight. Crita spat on the wall as she followed him, snarling at us.

Our encounter barely lasted three minutes, but it was enough to burst the bubble that had been my prison for days. My fists trembled. My teeth were clenched so tightly it was like I’d eaten glue. No longer numb, I felt raw fury wash through my blood. Mother echoed the change. Her face reddened rapidly and, although she still tried to look calm, the throbbing veins gave away her thoughts.

“I’ll kill him,” I murmured in an alien, grating voice. “He will die!”

“Try not to die first,” said Chiara.

 

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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