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By THOMAS STEVENSON

 

“Don’t think. Just do it.” As I led Chiara over the edge, I repeated these words over and over in my head, and I suspect she was thinking the same. We clung to each other and to our enfolded balloon as it tipped and plunged into the sky. For ten minutes we plummeted, with nothing but the harvester’s square bamboo base for support, shielding our faces from the tearing wind.

We had to be careful not to put any weight on the balloon itself, for fear of damaging it or deploying it too early. In the former case, I’d only be repeating my last terrifying freefall. In the latter, we’d still be floating by the time the whole Void disintegrated. Wonderful.

The whole time I focused on the words: “Don’t think. Just do it. Don’t think. Just do it.” But what exactly were we doing? How would we find Bikral, let alone shut him down?

Finding him turned out to be the easy part. As we approached the layer of swirling inert hydrogen, an eye of flashing blue opened up directly below us. Chiara didn’t dare look down, whereas I was transfixed by the chaos below us. Lightning surged around the rim of the opening, arcing and sparking toward the centre, converging on a silver dot that rapidly enlarged. It became two silver blobs and they grew into fire-proof hydrogen harvesters, with something big and black suspended between them. That was our target.

The relay box next to my head beeped and released the balloon. I called out to Chiara to hold on – as if she could grip any tighter. Her knuckles were white against the wooden frame, her eyes screwed shut, but her face showed pure determination. She would make it through this, no matter what. As for me, I was busy thinking about not thinking.

The silver sheet inflated between us and blossomed upward with an almighty swoosh. As it decelerated, the deck levelled out but we stayed flattened upon its surface. With no wind to blow us off-course, we sank straight down toward Bikral’s aerial hideout. I detected a shimmering of the air, as if we were caught in a heat haze, and realised the energy beam from the dissipator was passing around our harvester. No more time to lose.

“I’m going down there,” I called to Chiara, who lifted her head from the deck. She looked up at me, then past me, her eyes wide with fright. I’d just seized one of the balloon’s long anchor ropes, but I dropped it again when I followed her gaze. What we saw above our heads was so beautiful and so terrifying, I will never ever forget it.

That black dot we’d seen from New Honolulu was now an ocean flooding the gas layer. Bombarded by raw energy, the Void itself was being torn open from the inside. We could see stars and nebulae as specks and smears on the vast backdrop of space. I vaguely recalled diagrams from church of the various astronomical bodies – there was the disc of a faraway galaxy, the glowing ring of a supernova, the rapid flashing of a pulsar.

Right in the middle of this view, a gigantic orb floated in the heavens. One half was shiny, white and cracked like an eggshell. Emerging from within was the dark, dead northern hemisphere of the Earth, the desolate world in my books, here made real and very imposing. A tangible vision of Hell.

In my moment of shock, I’d dropped the rope. “Alright,” I said, forcing myself to focus on picking it up again, “If we’re doing this, we need to go now. Are you still with me, Chiara?”

“All the way,” came her resolute reply.

“We need to steer the balloon in between those two! Come closer – putting our weight on this side should do it,” I shouted. Ordinarily I didn’t approve of shouting, but by then we were close to the savage lightning arcs, so it became necessary.

Chiara wriggled around to my side of the deck and it tilted, prompting her to grab hold of the railing. It worked – the whole harvester dipped toward those below us. Their tops loomed up, illuminated by electricity and the glow from the now distant ring of crimson gas. For a second, the dormant, logical centre of my brain woke up to tell me this was sheer madness. It tried to shove upon me a list of everything that was about to go wrong. Just a second. Then I shut it out, took the rope in both hands and flung myself into the open air.

My timing was perfect, but the landing still jarred my knees. Harvester decks weren’t designed to be comfortable. Before I got a chance to take in the surroundings, I felt something large and cold strike my face, flinging me backward. Crashed into a bamboo rail. Spun around. Lightning everywhere. Bikral charging up.

It seemed I’d dropped down right beside Bikral, but he showed barely a blink of surprise. There was no hesitation in his movements. As he strode toward me, his coilgun glowing, I caught a smirk on his face. He said something but I couldn’t hear anything except the constant crackle of sparks jumping into the dissipator behind him. I only knew it wasn’t a compliment I’d received.

Chiara swooped right on top of Bikral, bowling him over and knocking the weapon from his grasp. She crouched on the deck for a moment, letting her breath return. A great, purple bolt whizzed below her feet. The noise was growing unbearable. With each passing second, more and more lightning was drawn to the machine’s base, throwing sparks in all directions. Without the flame-proofed bamboo and envelope, we’d be roasted.

Seeing Bikral spring back to his feet, Chiara raised her own coilgun and swung it at his head. Missed. Flicked the switch. Bikral lashed out. First a punch, then a step back. Kicked the gun from Chiara’s grip. It tumbled away. Fell into oblivion. Damn.

I pounced. Bikral countered. Elbowed me in the stomach. Out of breath. His gun was charged. Aimed at Chiara. She twisted around. Wrenched his arm aside. Shot went off. Hit our balloon. It sank and lightning danced around its edges.

Chiara and I tried to wrestle the coilgun from Bikral’s grip. Even with missing fingers, he kept a tight hold on it. The shoulder sling didn’t help us. Something stopped me reaching the sling. It was bulky and metallic, like… a jetpack! It was then I realised Bikral had a headset, but without the distinctive goggles. A microphone protruded from his cheek. He was ready to fly if things went badly.

In one sweep, he fell both of us, leaving us sprawling on the deck. Smashed his heel into my face. An explosion of pain. Nose definitely shattered. His next blow gave my sternum a similar treatment. I could barely breathe. Lost vision as blood poured into my eyes. Almost ready to give up… but my companion wasn’t.

This time, I could just hear Chiara’s words over the lightning. They went something like, “Leave my friend alone!” An object flew past me, out of the harvester, and I wiped my eyes to see what it was. To my disappointment, it wasn’t Bikral’s body that had been tossed away. Just his coilgun. At least I could no longer die the same way Father had. That eliminated one out of a hundred possible deaths.

“Turn it off!” Chiara yelled. “Kopra, turn the machine off!”

Right, the machine. I coughed and groaned as I heaved myself up, my lungs struggling to keep up. The electro-gravitational dissipator flashed and sparked and I didn’t want to even touch it, but there was a switch there I had to push. We were minutes away from extinction.

Bikral wouldn’t stand for interference. With his bare fists and feet he fought fiercely against Chiara’s swift, incessant blows. They sparred just like the legendary ninjae of old picture-books, or so I imagined, for my only concern was finding that kill switch. Static electricity pricked my neck and enfrizzled my hair. Why hadn’t we been electrocuted already?

The engies and I must have unwittingly designed the device to keep Bikral safe while he was still near it. It hung in a spiderweb of ropes and rigging. Another web made of multi-coloured electricity lay under that, drawn to the long conductor sticking from the bottom. Tentatively, I crawled out onto the ropes, my feet leaving the solid deck. Glanced backward. Chiara and Bikral still fought. I couldn’t tell who was winning.

I couldn’t bear the noise, but I couldn’t cover my ears or I’d let go of the rigging. Even my beard hairs were sticking out by this point. Just a bit further… My leg jolted and I gasped with pain, collapsing into the ropes.

Luckily, there was no serious damage. I could still feel everything. Screwed my eyes shut. “Don’t think. Just do it. Don’t think. Just do it.” Opened them again. Made the final dash. Reached the dissipator. Found the switch. Punched it.

Nothing happened.

“Oh, for God’s-“ I was cut off by another jolt, more painful than the first. I’d heard graphic descriptions of heart attacks and feared I was about to have one. But as I hung there, my hand upon the black box and my feet twisted in the ropes, a worrying thought came to me. My mind drifted back to the Guild of Engineers, where poor Xarza and I had been assembling heavy-duty surge protectors. While they were active, keeping the lightning from damaging the Fractal Matrix and other critical parts, the whole system was deadlocked. It couldn’t just be turned off.

I needed a knife. Chiara’s knife. I twisted around and tried to return to the harvester. Bikral’s bloodied face was right before mine. This time, when his yell was only a few centimetres from my ears, I managed to understand him.

“You’re already dead, Kopra!”

Then he tried to push me overboard, but I was ready. My hands found the railing and I heaved myself over, back onto the deck. Chiara was lying face down, curled up and motionless underneath the giant balloon. I called her name. Reached out to her. Still had a pulse. She’d just been knocked out… so Bikral would have time to finish me off.

All his body weight came smashing into me, pinning me against the far rail. It buckled alarmingly under the strain. Brought my hands up to protect my face. They were covered in blood. It spattered on my face when Bikral went for my head and I blocked his punch.

“Just give up, kid. Save yourself the stress!” Another punch. This one almost dislocated my shoulder. “Do you really think you can survive this? You’re already dead!”

With my raggedy voice box, I could barely make myself heard over the thunder. All the falling and running and fighting had battered every aspect of my being… but I would not give up. “Never,” I shouted back at him. “We’re still alive, which means it isn’t too late! You can stop this!”

“Why would I do that?!” Kicked me hard in the shin. The railing buckled some more. I noticed cracks spreading in the wood.

“There’s no way you can know what happened! Your cult is being rounded up by the breloom keepers. Your own friends have died while you were up here… and my friends, too!”

“You think I care about them?!” Another kick. My defensive footwork was very lacklustre. “My friends accepted their fate long ago,” delivering an elbow to my cheek. “All humanity will burn and our destiny will be achieved. We are God’s chosen ones. We will silence the Earth’s sins forever!”

His next blow might have taken my head off if I hadn’t dodged. I lashed out at him, then dove for Chiara. Her knife was in her pocket – I could see its hilt protruding. Took a breath, reached out… and an iron-capped miner’s boot shattered my fingers. I screamed in agony. There was so much pain I felt ill. My vision seemed to spin, Chiara’s body uncurling. Only when I saw the blade flashing before me did I realise the truth. She was awake.

Her voice was a primal roar as she leapt at Bikral once more, slashing and thrusting at every opening. Why hadn’t she thought to use it earlier? No time for questions. My right hand was mangled, but with my left hand and a bit of luck, I could untie some knots. Looked over at the far edge, where the dissipator was anchored to the harvester. Those were some seriously thick knots. Time for a new plan.

I didn’t know how long we had left, but I could see the black hole above us spreading. By then it was so big it seemed to surround us, but we weren’t being pulled into space. Not yet. I didn’t have time to worry about how much time was left. All those knots were tied around the same bamboo rod in the deck. It was attached to the other rods by varnished flaxweave.

My functional fingers slipped upon the smooth surface, but I managed to tear some of the flax away, loosening the rod. Zipped over to the other side. Glanced up. Bikral had seen me. More fumbling. Tore up more flaxweave. The whole rod came loose… and nearly dragged me with it as it fell away.

One final bolt struck the dissipator as it lurched and sank into the blue below. Its immense weight dragged the second balloon down, more than counteracting the lift from the inert hydrogen within. In seconds, it was out of sight. No more machine. No more energy beam. No more lightning.

Suddenly, I could hear everything. The first thing to hear came from Bikral and was far from publishable. The second thing was a shriek from Chiara. I jumped to my feet and spun around, just in time to see Bikral wrestle the knife from her grip and kick her to the floor. He stood there, glaring at us. A predator in a corner. That’s when predators are at their most vicious.

“Told you,” I said, my ears ringing. “It’s only too late when you’re dead. This is over.”

“Not over,” he spat. “I was given this mission by God. It will succeed! And if I can’t defeat you two… He will!”

“That’s not how God works,” I protested.

“Look up,” Bikral said. “Look up and think for once. Do you see what our kind has done to their own home?”

Again, I glanced at the half-frozen planet floating ominously in space. Until I’d caught her, it was the only world Chiara had known. A life trapped on the ice, scavenging and surviving at any price. Yet, I saw things Bikral did not. He stood there now, his contorted face a monument to pure anger and hatred, and I realised that was all he saw on Earth. This man had used my own emotions to torture me. He must have understood the psyche of ordinary, good-willing humans. How could he not see what I saw?

“What happened to Earth was done by a minority. Folks like you,” I snarled. “The majority of people are good. They’re kind and loving, and they have hope. That’s why I don’t give up. It’s why Chiara never gave up.“ My friend was bleeding readily from the forehead, her injuries distracting her from Bikral. “We care about each other. Humans care. It’s a constant in our lives. God would not want to destroy that!”

“You do not know…” Bikral growled, grabbing me by the collar. “You know NOTHING!”

“I know you’re a monster and even if we can’t defeat you, God will. He’ll send you straight to Hell for what you’ve done.”

As he leaned closer to me, Bikral’s jetpack clanked on his back, and the microphone on his face nearly jabbed me in the eye. “My faith is not misplaced. And I know all about what people feel for each other… it makes them all too easy to manipulate. Fear is the only true constant. Earthlings fought each other and desolated their home because they were afraid. It’s how my cause has come this far. How I deceived you all.” He spat in my face. “Fear was always the key!”

Finally, Bikral pushed me away and raised the knife he’d taken. Chiara and I were both on our feet, but neither of us dared to move. We’d just saved the Void, but could we save ourselves? I didn’t like to speculate, but-

“Excuse me,” came a hiss. “I have a few words for you.”

Our enemy rounded on Chiara and swung the knife at her. It plunged into her forearm and came out the other side. Blood spurted everywhere. I cried in horror. Bikral gave a satisfied grunt.

But Chiara? She stood there, her face blank, her eyes boring into Bikral’s. I couldn’t decide who looked more like the Devil. Chiara’s face was completely red where it showed beneath her hair, and more blood was spreading down her ripped sleeve. The point of the knife dripped crimson just under her elbow.

Bikral roared, “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!!?”

“You want to know what’s wrong with me?” Chiara replied. “You couldn’t begin to understand. Others call it anxiety, but I call it a living nightmare.” She didn’t move. Didn’t even look at the knife. Just stood and spoke. “Ever since my family died, I’ve been trapped in a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from. I saw things on Earth that would make even you sick. Even when I’m safe and there is no danger, I feel death is ready to take me, and I panic. Even here, before you showed up and ruined everything.”

“Fear isn’t just an emotion you can use to control people,” she continued. “It’s my life. I fight it every single second of every day. I have to fight so I don’t lose my mind, or hurt the people I love. It burns me like nothing you’ve ever felt.” Chiara raised her trembling arm and grasped the hilt of her own knife. Without even a wince, she pulled the blade free, flicking more blood onto Bikral’s face.

“So don’t try to lecture me about fear, monster. I am fear!”

“You’re insane!” he shouted.

I barely had time to take in what happened next. Fast as a falcon, Chiara flung herself at Bikral and grabbed something on his face. The microphone. The control for his jetpack. Before my astonished eyes, she put her mouth right up to the device and said, “Burst test sixty!” Then she snapped it clean off.

Bikral flailed and snatched at her clothes, but it was too late. His jetpack powered up and showered us all in vapour. I coughed and flapped a hand around my face, hoping to clear my eyesight. By the time the cloud dispersed, there were only two people left on the harvester.

Chiara was the other.

“Where is he? Where’s Bikral?” I cried.

My friend pointed at the gaping hole in the sky. Trails of hydrogen from the distant clouds had started to worm their way back toward us, slowly closing the rift. Way up there, a vanishing speck against the orb of the Earth, Bikral was disappearing into space. Having lost his microphone, he’d have no way to control his jetpack and return to safety. He was gone.

“You… you beat him,” I stammered.

We beat him,” Chiara corrected. She sank to her knees and clutched the arm that had been stabbed. “There doesn’t need to be any more violence.”

I looked around at the clear, azure sky, the reforming red clouds and the balloon supporting us. It was all so familiar… why did I suddenly feel like a completely different person? Every cell of my body hurt, but I felt good inside. Relieved. Accomplished. Alive.

I could also start to think about our return trip. “Come on, buddy. Let’s get you to a nurse.”

“Great idea. You know,” she looked upward once more. “Those jetpacks of yours are really dangerous.”

 

Follow Thomas on Facebook (@tomthecatsnake) to catch all his latest work, including behind-the-scenes looks at Downfall. Stay tuned for the epilogue – coming soon!

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