Monday, 29 December 2014

Countdown to Eden's Endgame Release: Tomb Planet

Here's another teaser excerpt from the forthcoming Eden's Endgame, due out on ebook on Jan 2nd (paperback already out on Amazon). Jen and Dimitri have been sent to a tomb planet to find a relic, to help Kalaran in the war against Qorall. But above all, if they find it, they are not to wake it up...

Jen and Dimitri shot towards the planet, helmeted heads first, like two silver bullets. The timer in the corner of Jen’s visor indicated ten minutes since they'd torpedoed out of the Ice Pick parked safely above them in orbit, another ten till touchdown. Ukrull had refused to land, and as usual declined to explain why. The planet had no atmosphere, so there was no need to worry about burning up. But the silence was eerie: no rushing wind, only her own measured breathing and Dimitri’s ragged gasps.
They were on the galactic rim. To one side there were no stars, on the other a disc-like swathe of light. It gave Jen vertigo whenever she glanced towards the inter-galactic void, so she focused instead on their destination below. The planet was dark, even though this was the side facing the system’s red dwarf. As she tried to make out details, her helmet visor sensed her eye muscles’ effort and zoomed in. But there were no distinguishing marks, only a frozen ocean of metallic dust, 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 galactic species had barely survived, but had finally conquered the Xera, leaving nothing but this tomb planet, ten kilometres deep with metal ash. It was a memento, and above all a warning. And now she and Dimitri were there to find a machine race remnant if one still existed, and bring it back to Esperia for examination, without waking it up.
The planet grew large beneath her, the terrain stretching far and flat in all directions, and she took one last look towards inter-galactic space. She and Dimitri knew pretty much nothing about the Xera; apparently such intel was only fit for Level Fifteen and above. When they’d arrived, however, she’d asked how the Machine race had started at the galactic rim; it seemed unlikely. Ukrull had replied, “Before Machines, galaxy bigger.” She guessed the Xera had somehow chewed up entire star systems for resources. Either that or the purge of the Machines at the end of the war had necessitated a clean-up operation on an unimaginable scale. She felt a chill, and adjusted a control to put a little more heat inside her suit.
            Jen glanced across to Dimitri, his bulkier space suit looking awkward, his arms waving in jagged movements as if to stabilize himself, when there was as yet no appreciable gravity, his gloved fingers splayed as if for protection against an imminent fall. Dimitri’s helmet visor, like hers, only showed half his face, from nose to eyebrows, but she could see his eyes were wide.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
            She knew him better. While she was enjoying the thrill of the ride, he was clearly terrified. This was taking too long. “Pierre, how close are we? I can’t see the entrance.” She waited, wondering if Pierre and Ukrull, sitting in the Ice Pick, were paying attention, or were involved in deep discussion about tactics in case Qorall had tracked them.
“Twenty klicks to the right, Jen.” Pierre’s voice still sounded synthetic, although he had most of his humanity back. “I’m adjusting your suits’ course direction. When we blasted the drop-shaft there was some blowback debris. It should be safe now.”
            “Should?” She knew Dimitri could hear Pierre, too.
            Ukrull’s gruff voice boomed inside her helmet. “Safe.”
            The altitude readout said one hundred twenty klicks to go. 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 several minutes she felt the top of her head press against the helmet as they began to decelerate. “Lights, Pierre,” she said.
            The drones sent down earlier activated, and the ten-kilometre chasm beneath them lit up like a glistening, bottomless shaft, its smooth lipless mouth rising slowly toward them.
“Piece of cake, Dimitri,” she said.
            Dimitri, normally loquacious, grunted something. Jen had thought the light might help, but it only emphasized 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, its cauterised wall a polished coal mirror reflecting two blurred shapes tearing downwards. She tried to breathe normally. Dimitri’s arms started to flail.
“Pierre, can you slow us down?”
            “We’re on a tight schedule, Jen. You know as well as I –”
            “Pierre, just do it.”
            She thought she heard Ukrull’s grunting laugh, but there was no other response. They began to brake hard. Firing her micro-thrusters, she drifted towards Dimitri, within arm’s length. The halo of small helmet lights around his face accentuated his dark bushy eyebrows and wide, eager eyes, but covered his dark moustache and goatee. He looked tense. She selected private 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, it is just –”
            “I’m not. Please. Take my hand.”
            Without facing her he reached across and clutched her hand. She didn’t flinch, though it hurt at first. She saw him blink hard.
            “I must seem a big fool to you,” he said.
            She said nothing, the best way to get him to talk.
            “I’m afraid of heights, my one weakness. That is, I’m afraid of falling.”
            She laughed, not unkindly. “But you lived on Santorini, high above the Mediterranean waves. And for the record, you have plenty of other weaknesses.”
            He let out one short staccato laugh. “I left that isle as soon as I could.” 
            “We’re nearly there,” she said.
            “It’s okay, I’m feeling better, we can go a little faster. Pierre is right, we’re on a tight schedule.”
            “Just because Pierre is never wrong, doesn’t mean he’s 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 Dimitri’s hand, glad he was with her.
            Suddenly two steady blobs of light appeared on the floor below; their reflections.
            Decel was severe this time. Her head rammed into the top of her helmet. At first she flailed her arms as Dimitri had done earlier, then she punched the thruster controls on her heels, flicking herself upright. With relief she saw Dimitri execute the same manoeuvre, but they continued to drop too fast, their reflections still a blur on the sides of the shaft. Pierre should have been precision-controlling their descent from the Ice Pick to minimize drop-time, but this was cutting it too fine.
"Pierre! Slow us the fuck down!" She felt Dimitri's arm tug around her waist, pulling her against his larger frame, trying to protect her. Abruptly their suit thrusters fired a plume of blue flame, and Jen felt herself slide down inside her suit, compressing towards her heels. Dimitri let go; just as well if they were to avoid an uncontrolled tumble.
Three seconds later she hit the ground. She attempted to roll but instead sprawled, her visor whacking against the smooth metal floor, banging her forehead hard against the padded helmet interior. She ended up on her back, panting. 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 his help, she got to her feet and checked herself. Nothing broken or sprained. Dimitri was smiling; now that they'd landed and he could go play the explorer.
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 fifteen seconds."
            The concern in his normally unemotional voice stalled her anger. "So, something is still down here," she said. The weight of what they had been sent to do finally hit her. She'd thought it was most likely a dead end, it seemed so fantastical, that part of the Xera – the galactic equivalent of an urban myth – could still be alive. How could the other species have been so reckless? How could they have left the job unfinished two million years ago?
            She 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. Ukrull’s precision impressed her: thirty thousand kilometres up, he’d sunk a hole to exactly where he’d detected an underground maze and a single, very faint, heat signature. Inside she felt a shiver again; the Machines had been supposed long dead. There should have been no tunnels, no heat signatures, and no power surges. Jen wished she'd brought along a tactical nuke.
            “Let’s go, my sweet!” Dimitri said, and bounded towards the tunnel's mouth.
            She smiled, happy with his return to form as an eager explorer, but then pursed her lips; she knew how often his enthusiasm 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 to locate the heat signature, but it registered nothing. Not good. Staring down the tunnel’s entrance she saw that it divided in two, but couldn’t see any light; Jen didn’t know which way he’d gone.
“Hey, Dimitri, I said wait up!”

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