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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Eden's Endgame Countdown Tomb Planet - part two

Part two of the extract from Eden's Endgame, in the countdown to its ebook release, which actually just happened lol (you can now get it on Kindle here) - the previous blog contains part one. Jen and Dimitri have been sent to retrieve a relic from an ancient civilization believed to be extinct. Pierre and Ukrull are in orbit above the tomb planet, a little nervous in case Qorall has tracked them...


Pierre didn’t need to look at a clock to know they were on borrowed time. This was the vulnerable phase, with Jen and Dimitri deep inside the ten-kilometre maze of tunnels they’d detected eight hours earlier. If trouble arrived, there was no fast way to get them out. And if they found a live Machine, they’d probably both be killed anyway, and he and Ukrull might have to go to Plan B and attempt to destroy the planet, though they wouldn’t have been the first to try. But Kalaran had been specific, as always. Retrieve a dormant Machine relic. Don’t activate it, just retrieve it. Pierre assumed 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, even less his mate, Hellera.
              He glanced across at Ukrull, his two and a half-metre-long lizard-like travelling companion, who was chewing on something unsavoury, some kind of meaty bone that didn’t smell too good.
            “You miss daughter,” Ukrull said, in his rock-grinding bass voice.
            Pierre had hoped to have more time with Petra before leaving again, having only just rediscovered her after all these years. But the war was headed their way, its front nearing Esperia where Petra and the rest of humanity lived.
            Pierre stared at his hands, nearly back to normal, fleshy on the outside, some hairs even starting to grow. Hellera’s gift, or punishment; it wasn’t clear which way she’d intended it; a retrovirus that was making him human again, though so far his intelligence clung to Level Ten. He suspected that would change as his physiology reverted. But for now his palms were still platinum flow-metal, as was half his nervous system. He had more in common with the dead civilization beneath him than most. He wondered; if Hellera hadn’t intervened in his ongoing metamorphosis, would he have become like the Machine race? But then he’d never had any desire to rule the galaxy or purge it of ‘organic impurity’ – something of a hypocrisy given that the Machines apparently relied on a tiny amount of organic metal for their higher conscious processes. Nor had he arrived at the conclusion that order and logic were better than the semi-chaos of most living species. But perhaps Hellera had done it because he reminded her of the Xera, 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 munched noisily.
            “But you have ancestral memories, don’t you?” Pierre knew it was true; all species above Level Twelve had such memories to avoid repeating former mistakes. One of Kalaran’s gifts to the advanced species in the galaxy.
            Ukrull put down the bone, flicked his rust-coloured tongue over his lips and eyes, and settled back, his three-digit fore-claws 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 city-ships. Machines originally hard-coded to defend galaxy at any cost." Ukrull looked distant for a moment. "Lost perspective. Spread fast. Mined gas giants for Trancium, hyper-conductive flow-metal, very tough, memory structure in-built at atomic level. Organic species got in way.”
            Ukrull had never talked about it before. Pierre guessed he did so now due to 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 for eight million years, and had just handed over power to the Level Seventeen Tla Beth, when the Machine race emerged, Level Eighteen. Either the Kalarash or the Tla Beth must have created them, or at least fostered their development. Pierre had his suspicions as to who had unleashed them.
            “Mistake,” Ukrull said. “Misjudgment.” 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.
“Incoming.” 

*          *          *

Jen was growing impatient, but at least she’d found Dimitri. Together they walked along black empty tunnel after black empty tunnel, the path 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?”
            They’d 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 didn’t seem a super-intelligent plan to her, but they had none better. The other four drones were painstakingly mapping out the catacombs, as she thought of them, far more extensive than she’d first estimated.
            “Switch off your lights,” Dimitri said.
            “Getting romantic all of a sudden? There’s a time and a place, you know, not to mention a near vacuum down here.” She smirked 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 light strobed, very fast, almost imperceptibly. It struck her as odd, because she wasn’t sure the Machines would need light. Was something else down here, also come to find a relic? But it didn’t add up. The tunnels had been here a long time. If the Machines were active again they’d have replicated and the tunnels would be brimming with them. They weren’t. And then it struck her: what if, after the Machine-Organic war, something had been left here to guard the planet and its secrets? It would have to be something very old, a long-lived species. She had a hunch which one.
            “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 she’d left a relay to the Ice Pick. The channel was dead. Now there’s a surprise.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, Dimitri.”
            “I’ll go first,” he said.
            She sighed. “Dimitri, you’re the brains, I’m the merciless killer, remember?”
            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 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. Before them was a Tla Beth.
Jen had heard about these Level Seventeen creatures, erstwhile rulers of the galaxy after the Kalarash had largely disappeared two million years ago, right after the battle that had ended where she and Dimitri now stood. She’d 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 vertical metallic strips rotating around its core, some clockwise, some anti-clockwise. The bands looked sharp, giving 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 strobe effect, so that she had to concentrate to see the Tla Beth’s ‘body’. It looked like a rounded hourglass, the top half almost pure white, the lower half almost pure black, tiny motes of black and white drifting in the respective 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. But a cacophony erupted inside her head, making her reel backwards, eyes squeezed shut with pain, as if a shard of ice had just splintered through her skull. It shut off, and she found herself in Dimitri’s arms – he’d caught her, his dark brows meshed, his face a picture of worry.
            “It accessed your node?” he asked. “It tried to communicate with you, didn’t it?”
Jen watched excitement break through his concern. She didn’t mind; besides, talking to a Level Seventeen being 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. Christ, they let one survive! Her instinct was to slice through it with her nanosword. But 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 – no wonder Ukrull had refused to land his ship. On reflection, tech probably included her nanosword. Better to bury the damn thing then.
But the Tla Beth had asked her a question, and their imminent survival might depend 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. Jen’s head spun, then the Tla Beth calibrated properly for her brain.
           
            “It’s asking me if it’s 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 Dimitri’s eyes sparkle. He took a step toward it but hit a force field and bounced back off. She wasn’t surprised: Pierre had told her the Tla Beth used force fields all the time, even for fine manipulation tasks. This one could kill her and Dimitri in an instant, if it so chose.
            “How long has it been here? And what are the tunnels for?” Dimitri asked, massaging the spacesuit material around his right knee.
            She concentrated on Dimitri's questions, so the Tla Beth could perceive them. But it wasn't easy; Jen wasn’t a natural at nodal communication.
            “Same response,” she said. “It asked if it is time.” Jen didn’t add that it was probing her memory, images from recent and past events flashing past in the background of her mind. It had also asked her about the other ships, but she didn’t know what it was referring to. 
            Dimitri’s 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 mean time to destroy the machine, time to activate it, or time 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 Dimitri’s expression that he’d 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 didn’t recognize.
the Tla Beth transmitted to her.
She whipped out the sword and flicked the electric blue nano-blade to point at Ukrull’s craft, 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 stopped transmitting. Within seconds, the holo showed silver ellipsoids spiriting upwards from the planet’s surface, from the borehole, homing in on the seven ships. Each of the enemy vessels was quickly engulfed by a blue cloud that crystallized around its host. She’d originally trained as a biologist, and it reminded her of an antibody attacking an uninvited pathogen. The firing stopped, the encrusted ships drifting 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 had not been allowed to see.
She transmitted again to the Tla Beth: Then added.
After a few seconds Pierre came online. “Jen, Dimitri, are you okay? Ukrull says you’re with a Tla Beth. Is it true?”
Jen looked at the creature, its black and white halves stabilized again, its bands rotating calmly. “It’s a Tla Beth alright. Has some cool toys. 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?” she asked.
“We didn’t recognize the ships at first, but the Tla Beth confirmed they were Level Sixteen, Nchkani, more powerful than the Ice Pick, but no match for Tla Beth weaponry.”
Jen mentally filed away the intel of a Level Sixteen race joining Qorall’s side; bad news indeed. “Pierre, it keeps asking if it’s 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. Go now.”
Pierre’s voice sounded shaky. Jen swallowed. 
“What’s happened, Pierre? Why –”
“Just run! Holy –”
The channel went dead.
Jen 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 screeching, banshee-like noise in her head. 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 micro-storm of jagged jade lightning surrounding the Tla Beth. Its hourglass body swirled black and white, and then Jen felt like she’d been stabbed in the stomach as a deep scarlet cloud mushroomed inside both halves of the Tla Beth’s body, swirling like blood in water. The Tla Beth screamed through her node, sending her head crashing backward onto the floor. Jen’s instincts told her it was fighting for its life. She shook violently as if her entire nervous system was in spasm. She bit down on an urge to vomit; throwing up inside a space suit would hardly help matters.
An arm scooped around her waist and picked her up as if she was a rag doll. The ground skated along underneath her to the rhythm of Dimitri’s 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. It was in terrible pain, shocked at what was happening, and the realization that the external attack on the Ice Pick had merely been a lure to find and kill it. A cascade of images, some making no sense to Jen whatsoever, flickered in her mind’s eye. The Tla Beth had lived for aeons, and yet she sensed that same dread of any being about to die, who still had so much to do. This Tla Beth had been a star engineer, painstakingly creating new systems where life might take root and flourish. She saw nebulae condense into star fields, planets sculpted into habitable worlds, oceanic habitats precipitate in open space, held together by force-fields while they were ferried to barren waterless star systems, Dyson spheres the size of Earth’s solar system, and even a ring-world slowly turning around an ice blue star; wonders she had never imagined. But there was something else.
For the last period of its life – the time-frame impossible to gauge accurately but possibly tens of thousands of years – it had been the guardian of this tomb planet, and its secret. 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 species she represented, all in an instant, judging her and humanity. It transmitted a fast thought-stream through her node:
.
She felt its life-force sputter, then it seemed to rally one last time. It said two more words to her, 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 she’d probably never comprehend. A whirlwind of black and white confetti flushed through the tunnel as if expelled by one last gasp of life. Myriad tiny motes settled on her and Dimitri before melting like snowflakes, until the space around them was clear again, and Jen knew simultaneously that the Tla Beth was dead, and that they were hidden from Qorall’s sensors.
They reached the drop shaft, and Dimitri set her on the ground. Nothing happened for a while. If Pierre and Ukrull were still in control, they’d have lifted them out of the hole using the Ice Pick’s gravitic scoop. She gazed upwards and thought there must be some visual after-effect from the nodal transmission. The entrance, ten kilometres above them, was green. Space itself was green, if it was still normal space. She’d heard about Qorall’s fondness for ‘liquid space’.
“He’s 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, 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. “Qorall’s trying to destroy it, along with us in the process.” 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 words the Tla Beth had transmitted. And deep down she felt it was right, even if there would be hell to pay later. Probably sooner. 
“It’s time,” she said.
Dimitri nodded, his eyes flattening, so she knew he was smiling. “You know me, my love. I’ve always wanted to open Pandora’s Box.”
She handed him the nanosword. Re-activating the blade, he gingerly touched the black, flat object with the tip of the nanosword. Nothing happened for a few seconds, then the blade blazed purple and was gone. Dimitri studied the hilt, but Jen already guessed it was drained. She watched the box, waiting. A single point of light shone faintly, dead centre on the top side, then began to stretch into a line, reaching towards the edges of the box. She knew what it meant. It was going to open.
“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. As she began to sweat with the effort of running, she thought of Pierre and Ukrull, and prayed they’d escaped. But her mind kept swinging back to the Machine husk. 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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