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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Eden's Endgame Xmas Teaser Part 2

About a week ago I put a 'teaser' online for the start of Eden's Endgame, the last book in the Eden Paradox series. Here's Part Two.

I've included the first part again for convenience - if you want to jump straight to the 2nd part, scroll down to the sentence in red, where Part Two starts.

Happy 2014 everyone :-)


Jen and Dimitri freefell towards the planet, helmeted heads first, like two silver bullets. Jen read the purple timer in the right corner of her visor ten minutes already since they'd shot out of the Ice Pick parked safely above them in orbit, another ten till touchdown. Ukrull had refused to land, and as usual had refused to explain why. At least there was no atmosphere to worry about.
To one side there were no stars whatsoever. On the other a bright swathe of stars blazed; she was on the galactic rim. Her heart beat harder whenever she stared towards the galactic equivalent of an abyss, so she focused instead on their destination below. The planet was dark, even though this was the side facing the systems red dwarf star. As she tried to make out details, her helmet sensors registered the ocular effort and zoomed in via her visor. But there were no distinguishing marks, only a flat plain of grey dust, an ocean of iron filings. It was all that was left of the Xera, the hyper-intelligent machine race that had almost taken over the galaxy two million years earlier. The other inhabitants in the galaxy had barely survived, but had finally put the Xera down, leaving nothing but this tomb planet, ten kilometres deep with metal ash. It was a memento, a shrine, and above all a warning. And now she and Dimitri were there to find a machine remnant, and wake it up.
As the planet grew large beneath her, so that the terrain below stretched far and flat in all directions, she took one last look towards inter-galactic space. She and Dimitri knew pretty much nothing about the machine race; apparently such intel was only fit for Level Fifteen and above. When theyd arrived, however, shed asked how the machine race had started at the galactic rim; it seemed unlikely. Ukrull had replied, Before machines, galaxy bigger. She reckoned the machine race had somehow chewed up entire star systems and planets for resources. Either that or the purge of the machines at the end of the war had necessitated a clean-up operation of unimaginable scale. She felt chilled inside her suit.
            Jen glanced across to her lover and former mentor Dimitri, his bulkier space suit looking awkward, his arms wavering as if to stabilize himself, when there was as yet no appreciable gravity. Fingers inside his gloved hands splayed as if for protection against an imminent fall. His helmet, like hers, only showed from half-way up the nose to the eyebrows, through an almost invisible visor, but she could see his eyes were wide.
Are you okay? she asked.
            Yes.
            She knew him better than that. While she was enjoying the ride, he was clearly terrified. This was taking too long. Pierre, how close are we? I cant see the entrance. She waited, wondering if Pierre and Ukrull sitting in the Ice Pick in geo orbit were paying attention, or were involved in some deep discussion about tactics in case Qorall had tracked them.
Twenty klicks to the right, Jen. Pierres voice still sounded synthetic, though he mostly had his humanity back. Im vectoring your suits that way. When we blasted the drop-shaft there was some blowback debris. Should be safe now.
            Should? She knew Dimitri could hear Pierre, too.
            Ukrulls growly voice sounded loud in her helmet. Safe.
            The altitude readout in the corner of her visor said one hundred twenty klicks. Abruptly her suit-thrusters kicked in, and her head and internal organs squeezed to the left as she and her lover tacked to the right. Within thirty seconds she saw the gaping hole in the dust-sea, blacker than its surroundings.
After seven minutes she felt the top of her head press against the helmet as they began to decelerate. Lights, please, she said.
            Either Pierre or Ukrull activated the drones sent down earlier, and the ten-kilometre chasm beneath them lit up like a glistening, bottomless coal shaft. Piece of cake, Dimitri, she said.
            He grunted something. Dimitri was normally loquacious. Shed thought the light might help, but it only emphasised how fast and deep they had to go. The decel continued as they plunged into the borehole lasered by the Ice Pick, thirty metres across, a perfect cylinder, its cauterized wall a black mirror reflecting two blurred shapes tearing downwards. She tried to breathe normally. Dimitris arms started to flail. Pierre, can you slow us right down?
            Were on a tight schedule, Jen. You know as well as I –”
            Pierre, just do it.
            She thought she heard Ukrulls grunting laugh, like breaking rocks, but there was no other response. They began to brake hard. Firing her micro-thrusters she drifted towards Dimitri, within arms length. The halo of small helmet lights around his face accentuated his dark bushy eyebrows, those wide, generous eyes, but covered his dark moustache and goatee. He looked shaky. She activated suit comms so Pierre and Ukrull would not hear. Take my hand, please, she said.
            He stared straight down, his eye-brows connected. I am fine, my love, its just –”
            Im not. Please, take my hand.
            He turned to her, and she stared into those large, normally laughing eyes, now wild, like a cornered animal. He reached out and grasped her hand hard. She didnt flinch, though it hurt at first. She saw him blink hard.
            I must seem a big fool to you.
            She said nothing, the best way to get him to talk.
            Im afraid of heights, my one weakness.
            She laughed, not unkindly. But you lived on Santorini, high above the waves. And for the record, you have plenty of other weaknesses.
            He let out one short staccato laugh. I left as soon as I could, to Athens. 
            Were nearly there, she said.
            Its okay, Im feeling better, we can go a little faster. Pierre is right, were on a tight schedule.
            Just because Pierre is never wrong, doesnt mean hes always right. She flicked a comms switch at her waist. Pierre, half-speed, please.
            Jen gazed downwards, into the blackness. She tried to suppress a gnawing intuition that this was going to be a one-way trip, and squeezed Dimitris hand, glad he was with her.
            Suddenly two steady blobs of light appeared below; their reflections. "Pierre!"
            Decel was severe this time, her head rammed into the top of her helmet. At first she flailed her arms as Dimitri had earlier, then she punched the thruster controls on her heels, flicking herself upright, awkwardly, till they auto-stabilised. With relief she saw Dimitri had also executed the same manoeuvre, but they were still dropping too fast, their reflections still a blur on the sides of the shaft. "Pierre, dammit!" She felt Dimitri's arm tug around her waist. pulling her against his larger frame, trying to protect her. Abruptly their suits fired with a blaze of blue flame, Jen feeling herself sinking inside her suit, compressing towards her heels. Dimitri let go; just as well if they were not to begin an uncontrolled tumble. A second later she hit the ground, attempted to roll to absorb some of the kinetic energy, but instead sprawled, her visor whacking against the smooth metal floor, banging her forehead hard against the padded interior of the helmet. She ended up on her back. At least the visor hadn't cracked. Her partner loomed over her, holding out his hand. You're tougher than you let on, Dimitri. Accepting it, she got to her feet, checked herself. Nothing broken or sprained. Dimitri was smiling, probably grinning, now that they'd landed and he could go play the explorer. But Jen wasn't smiling.
            "Fucking hell, Pierre, you almost -"
            "Jen, are you both alright? There was an energy surge down there, off the scale, blocked us for a minute."
            The concern in his normally unemotional voice stalled her anger. "So, we're not alone then," she said. The weight of what they had been sent to do finally hit her. She'd thought it a probably a dead end, the galactic equivalent of an urban myth. How could the other species not have finished the job two million years ago?
            Jen nodded to Dimitri. "Okay, Pierre, we're going in."
            This way, Dimitri said, his voice regaining some of its customary exuberance. He pointed, and she saw the circular tunnel off to the left. Ukrulls precision never ceased to amaze her: thirty thousand kilometres up, hed sunk a hole ten kilometres deep to exactly where hed detected the network and a single, very faint, heat signature. Inside she felt a shiver again; the machines had been supposed long dead, but the tunnel entrance looked fresh. There should have been no tunnels, no heat signatures, no power surges. Jen wished she'd brought along a tactical nuke.
            Lets go, my sweet! Dimitri said, and went bounding towards the tunnel's mouth.
            She smiled, happy with his return to form as an enthusiastic explorer, but then pursed her lips; she knew how often it got them into trouble. Wait for me, Dimitri. Jen ran after him, the low grav allowing her to take long leaps as he disappeared from view. She flicked on the finder, but it registered nothing. That didnt sound good. Hey, I said wait up!

*          *          *

Pierre didnt need to look at a clock to know how much borrowed time they were on. This was the vulnerable phase; Jen and Dimitri deep inside the fifty-kilometre maze of tunnels theyd detected eight hours earlier. If trouble arrived, there was no fast way to get them out. And if they found a live machine, theyd probably be killed anyway, and he and Ukrull might have to go to plan B and destroy the planet. But Kalaran had been specific, as always. Retrieve a dormant one. Dont activate it, just retrieve it. Pierre guessed Kalaran could control it, dissect it, and get what he wanted from it, without unleashing the plague of machines again. But then he didn't entirely trust Kalaran, or his mate, Hellera.
              He glanced across at Ukrull, his two and a half metre long lizard-like travelling companion these past eighteen years, who was chewing down on something unsavoury, some kind of bone that didnt smell too good.
            You miss daughter, Ukrull grunted.
            Pierre had hoped to have more time with Petra before leaving again, having only just rediscovered her after all this time. But the war was headed their way, its front nearing Esperia where she and the rest of humanity lived.
            He stared at his hands, nearly back to normal, fleshy on the outside, some hairs even starting to grow. But his palms were still platinum flow-metal, as was half his nervous system. He had more in common with the dead civilisation beneath them than most. He wondered; if Hellera hadnt intervened in his ongoing metamorphosis, would he have become like the machine race? But then hed never had any desire to rule the galaxy or purge it of organic impurity. Nor had he arrived at the conclusion that order and logic were better than the semi-chaos of most living species, even one so hierarchically structured as Grid Society. But perhaps Hellera had done it because he reminded her of them, and though the probability of his evolution into pure machine intelligence was small, the consequential risk was too great.
            Do you remember them, Ukrull?
            Ukrull crunched through the bone, shattering it, a brown jelly-like substance oozing around his yellow incisors. Not that old. He continued munching noisily.
            But you have ancestral memories, dont you? Pierre knew it was true; all species above Level Twelve did, to stop them repeating former mistakes. One of Kalarans gifts.
            Ukrull put down the bone, flicked his rust-coloured tongue over his lips and eyes, and settled back, foreclaws resting on his tan underbelly. His crescent-shaped pupils narrowed till his eyes were almost pure yellow. Bad time. Almost lost all. Machines relentless. Cell and DNA principle. Each machine made of smaller ones. Nano size to Titan, inter-stellar ship-sized cities. Hardwired to defend galaxy at any cost." Ukrull looked distant for a moment. "Lost perspective. Spread fast. Mined planets for Trancium, hyperconductive metal, very tough, memory structure in-built at atomic level. Organic life got in way.
            Ukrull had never talked about it before, and this wasnt the first time Pierre had asked. He guessed it was the proximity to the planet where the final battle had taken place. What happened then, between the Tla Beth and the Kalarash? This was what both Kalaran and Hellera had refused to tell him. The Kalarash, Level Nineteen, had been the progenitors of the galaxy, seeding and nurturing life and civilisation for eight million years, and had just handed over power to the Level Seventeen Tla Beth, when the machine race emerged, Level Eighteen. Pierre had his suspicions.
            Mistake, Ukrull said. Misjudgement. He shifted position, his equivalent of sitting up, leaning forward. He fixed Pierre with snake-like eyes. The Tla Beth –”
            A klaxon sounded and their heads both snapped towards a holo-display that popped up in the front of the cramped cabin, showing seven bright red dots at the outer limits of their sensor capability. Pierre and Ukrull both uttered the same word at the same time:
Incoming. 

*          *          *

Jen was growing impatient. Black empty tunnel after black empty tunnel, always twisting and turning, their lights shining twenty metres ahead before a curve cut them off. How long has it been, Dimitri? Any sign of those two drones?
            Theyd dispatched six fist-sized drones to explore the network, and one had gone missing. They re-directed another to take its place and ditto, which was why they were walking in the direction both drones had taken. It didnt seem a super-intelligent plan to her, but they had none better. The other four drones were painstakingly mapping out the network, far more extensive than first thought.
            Switch off your lights, Dimitri said.
            What? Getting romantic all of a sudden? Theres a time and a place, you know, not to mention a near vacuum down here. She was grinning beneath her visor, but she complied and turned off the helmet torch beams. At first she saw nothing, but then she detected a faint turquoise glow up ahead. They both stood, watching. The pale blue light was strobing, very fast, almost imperceptibly.
            Whatever it is probably already knows we're here, she said. Flicking a switch, she directed comms back along the tunnel pathway to the bottom of the shaft, where shed left a relay to the Ice Pick. The channel was dead. Now theres a surprise. Looks like its just you and me, Dimitri.
            Ill go first, he said.
            She sighed. Dimitri, we talked about this before: youre the brains, Im the merciless killer.
            He laughed, but moved aside to let her pass as they both re-activated their helmet lights. She took the nanosword from her belt and held it ready in her right hand. As they rounded a second bend the light grew stronger, flooding out from the entrance to a larger chamber. On the ground were two silver smudges. So much for the drones.
            Jen stood behind them, realised what was inside the chamber, then stepped across the threshold, Dimitri a pace behind her. Jen had heard about these Level Seventeen creatures, erstwhile rulers of the galaxy since the Kalarash had largely disappeared two million years ago, right after the battle that had ended where she and Dimitri now stood. Shed seen fuzzy images of the Tla Beth, but had never met one before. It floated a couple of metres above a raised dais. The Tla Beth, at first sight, was spherical, with thin vertical metallic strips rotating around its inner core, some moving to the left, some to the right. The bands looked sharp, conveying to her the idea that if she tried to reach inside, her arm would be sliced off. The bands also shifted colour and brightness, creating the strobing effect, so that she had to concentrate to see the Tla Beths body. It looked like a rounded hourglass, the top half almost pure white, the lower half almost pure black, tiny motes of opposite colour drifting in both halves.
            She knew Dimitri would be thrilled, and sure enough he strode past her to get a closer look. She put her nanosword away; it would be of no use against a Level Seventeen being.
            A cacophony erupted inside her head, making her reel over backwards, eyes squeezed shut with the pain, as if a shard of ice had just slashed through her skull. It shut off, and she found herself in Dimitris arms hed caught her. His dark brows were meshed, his face a picture of worry.
            It accessed your node? It tried to communicate with you, didnt it?
Jen watched excitement break through his concern. She didnt mind; besides, talking to a Level Seventeen was pretty cool. Letting Dimitri help her back to her feet, she nodded gently, the pain melting from her forehead. Then the Tla Beth tried again, slower, less compressed.
           
            Husk? She stared at the dais, and noticed something on it, a flat oblong shape, the size of an old-style briefcase. Oh fuck. Christ, they'd let one survive. Her instinct was to slice through it with her nanosword. She understood what the Tla Beth had transmitted. No tech must be allowed to touch the remnant, as it could be used by the dormant machine as an energy source. On reflection, that probably included her nanosword. Better to bury the damn machine, or hurl it into a sun.
But the Tla Beth had asked her a question, and her and Dimitris imminent survival probably depended on her answer. Focusing, with eyes closed, she thought a reply: , imaging his ship in her mind since she had never actually seen the Level Nineteen being in the flesh.
            A shot of black ink spurted into the upper half of the Tla Beth, and the creature descended towards them. Jens head spun again, then the Tla Beth calibrated properly for her brain.
           
            Its asking me if its time, she said to Dimitri, who was excluded from the conversation. Oh, and we have to keep any tech away from that. She pointed, and watched Dimitris eyes grow. He took a step toward it but hit a force field, bouncing back off. She wasnt surprised.
            How long has it been here? And what are the tunnels for? he asked, massaging the spacesuit material around his right knee with his hands.
            She concentrated on Dimitri's question, so the Tla Beth could perceive it. But it wasn't easy, she wasnt a natural at nodal communication.
            Same response, she said. It asked if it was time.
            Dimitris gloved hand went to the lower edge of his helmet she knew he wanted to stroke his goatee, as he often did when deep in thought. We need to give an answer, Jen. It could be time to destroy the machine, to activate it, or to transport it somewhere else.
            A tremor beneath her feet rocked her, so she had to steady herself. Did you? But she could see from Dimitris expression that hed felt it too.
            Before she had time to ask what was going on, the Tla Beth supplied the answer. A holo appeared. The Ice Pick and the planet were both under attack from seven large ships whose design she didnt recognise.
the Tla Beth transmitted to her.
She whipped out the sword and flicked the electric blue nano-blade to point at the Ice Pick, which was jumping around like a mosquito, avoiding heavy weapons fire. she transmitted.
A tactile alarm on her belt told her the other four drones had just gone dead. Within seconds white lozenges shot up from the planets surface from the borehole finding the seven ships. Each of them stuttered and stalled, consumed by the white plasma-like weapon shed originally trained as a biologist, and it reminded her of an antibody attacking an uninvited pathogen. The firing stopped, the encrusted ships drifted in space, dead or dying. She blew out a long breath. Now she knew what the tunnels had been for they hid defences, ones she and Dimitri were not being allowed to see.
She transmitted again: Then added.
After a few seconds Pierre came online. Jen, Dimitri, are you okay? Ukrull says youre with a Tla Beth. Is it true?
Jen looked at the creature, its black and white halves stabilised again, its bands rotating calmly. Its a Tla Beth alright. It has some impressive weapons. Think it wants to share? She noticed Dimitri circling the dais, his hand by his hip, testing the force field with an outstretched forefinger. She tried to ignore what he was doing.What species just attacked us?
We dont know, which isnt good. It means that like Qorall maybe theyre not from our galaxy. Their ships are were mostly organic, so our weapons werent having any effect. The Tla Beth must have sensed that and applied some new kind of bio-weaponry even Ukrull didnt know about it.
Pierre, it keeps asking if its time. Does Ukrull know what it means? Jen waited. She guessed the Tla Beth and Ukrull would be communicating at a far greater speed than humans could tolerate.
Jen, Dimitri, Pierre said. You need to run back to the shaft. Do it now.
Pierres voice sounded shaky, scared. Jen swallowed. 
Whats happened? Why –”
Just run! Holy –”
The channel went dead.
She whirled around to see Dimitri staring at the Tla Beth. Its bands had stopped moving, and the air around it shimmered. Abruptly there was a clamour in her head, a screeching. Her hands went uselessly to the sides of her helmet. Her legs buckled and she dropped to her knees. Tilting her face upwards she saw a rip in space-time opening up in the chamber, a jagged, blinding white circle of lighning surrounding the Tla Beth. Its hourglass body swirled black and white, and then a deep scarlet appeared, spreading inside both halves of its body like blood in water. The Tla Beth screamed inside her mind through her node, sending her head crashing backward onto the floor. Her muscles stopped working, and she shook violently as if her entire nervous system was in spasm. She tried not to throw up.
An arm grabbed around her waist and picked her up as if she was a rag doll. The ground skated along underneath her to the rhythm of Dimitris powerful stride, making easy progress in the low gravity. She felt something warm and sticky trickle from her nose and her ears. But tears also came; the connection with the Tla Beth was still there, barely. It was in terrible pain, shocked at what was happening, the realisation that the attack had been a lure to find it and kill it. A cascade of images, some making no sense to her whatsoever, flickered in her minds eye. The Tla Beth had lived for aeons, and yet she sensed that same sudden dread of a being about to die who still had so much to do. It had been a star engineer, painstakingly creating new systems where life might take root and flourish. She saw its memories of nebulae condense into starfields, planets sculpted into habitable worlds, oceans precipitating in open space, held together by force-fields while they were ferried to barren desert worlds; wonders she had never imagined, flashing past at an almost subliminal rate. And then its mind remembered she was there, and Jen had the feeling that a god-like creature was staring at her, seeing everything she was, her life, her thoughts, her very being, and through her the entire species she represented, all in an instant, judging her and humanity. It said one word to her, and then with a feeling she equated with compassion, it cut her mind loose. Jen's body stilled, sadness welling up at the loss of such a super-being.
Dimitri was almost knocked off his feet by a massive quake. A curtain of blue flame rushed over them, burning itself out in a second, never really hot she gathered, instead pure energy on some wavelength shed probably never comprehend. A whirlwind of black and white confetti flushed through the tunnel past them, slowing down as if expelled by one last gasp of life, each tiny mote shrinking and then disappearing like melting snowflakes, until the space around them was clear again, and Jen knew the Tla Beth was dead.
They reached the drop shaft, and Dimitri set her on the ground, on her back. Nothing happened for a while. If Pierre and Ukrull were still in control, theyd have lifted them out of the hole.
She gazed upwards and thought there must be some visual after-effect from the nodal transmission, but Dimitri also looked up, then his large eyes connected with hers. The entrance, ten kilometres above them, was green. Space was green, if indeed it was still normal space. Shed heard about Qoralls occasional fondness for liquid space.
Hes changing the rules of the game, she said, still feeling weak.
Dimitri knelt next to her. I fear Qorall himself is here. Only he and his ship could do this.
Then we're screwed. That was when she noticed what Dimitri was carrying in his other hand: the husk, a dull, oblong, harmless-looking slab of grey metal, the last remnant of the Level Eighteen machine race, the Xera.
We can change the rules of the game, too, if we so desire, he said.
She thought about it, as another impact rocked the planet. Qoralls trying to destroy us, and that. She took a breath, staring at the remnant. Kalaran, I hope this is the right thing to do.
She got to her feet, remembering the last word the Tla Beth had transmitted. And deep down she felt it was right, even if there would be hell tp pay later. Probably sooner. 
Its time, she said.
Dimitri nodded, his eyes flattening so she knew he was smiling. You know me, my love. Ive always wanted to open Pandoras box.
She handed him the nanosword. Re-activating the blade, he touched the black, flat object. Nothing happened for a few seconds, then the blade blazed white and was gone. Dimitri studied the hilt, but Jen already guessed it was drained. A single, stark white light began pulsing on the box.
Dimitri, time to go.
They set off, jogging back into the tunnels, following the last map the drones had provided, heading down to the deepest level. While they ran, she thought of the Tla Beths last word to her, when it had been studying not only her, but the entire human race. It had said survive.
As she began to sweat with the effort of running, she thought of Pierre and Ukrull, hoping they had escaped. But her mind kept swinging back to the husk they had just woken. Although there was no sound or light behind them, and she was sure nothing was following them, at least not yet, the back of her neck prickled, and she had trouble controlling her breathing. She lengthened her stride. Faster, Dimitri, we need to run faster.    

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