Monday, 26 January 2015

Fighting in Science Fiction

When I grew up watching Star Trek, the outcome was often decided by a fist-fight or brawl at the hands of Kirk and Spock. Even as a kid, I thought, come on, really?

When I read Iain Banks' Excession, I thought now this is more like it, space battles fought in microseconds with ship minds controlling the battles way faster than humans ever could.

But, I decided, there are likely to be hand-to-hand combat situations - close quarters fighting - in any war or conflict, but it is simply unlikely to be decisive in the larger frame.  And so, being something of a martial arts fan and amateur practitioner most of my like, I relished for example the Sword-Masters of Ginaz in Frank Herbert's Dune series, with their anachronistic neo-Bushido style. And I'm reading Snow Crash right now where the protagonist (who is called Hiro Protagonist, in true Neal Stephenson style), brandishes two Japanese swords.

And so in my own series, I included a warrior sect called Sentinels, dating back to the Middle Ages, and gave them the nano-sword, and a Ninja philosophy, and the very first Sentinel in the Eden Paradox, Gabriel, became a hit.

I wanted them to have a warrior's creed, but to be tech-savvy at the same time, and to use advanced biochemical techniques. The scene coming up was influenced by the film Equilibrium, itself a precursor to the more famous film The Matrix (personally I prefer Equilibrium). In this film the hero projects likely  lines of fire people will take when trying to shoot him as a moving target, and so he aims simply never to be where they are shooting. You have to seriously suspend disbelief in some of the later scenes in the film, but the idea seems reasonable, at least for a few seconds of fighting or gun-play, if you could be that fast...

But it's never just about fighting. There has to be more to it, more at stake than winning the bout. The film Equilibrium is rendered far more powerful because of what the hero loses, not what he wins. I try to do the same in my writing.

In this scene from Eden's Endgame, the fourth and final book in the series, the Sentinel Ramires has been captured by the enemy and is hopelessly outnumbered. He also believes himself to be the last Sentinel, but is he?

The doors to the atrium closed, sealing Ramires and Ash inside the Alician headquarters. Ash had his hands bound and was surrounded by six guards, so Ramires couldn’t count on any help from him. He walked calmly towards Louise, his left hand on the hilt of the nanosword inside his jacket pocket, his right hand concealing a skin-coloured wafer. Louise stood at the head of six armed Achillia, her personal guard. Ramires estimated that with the advantage of surprise he could take her down and maybe three of the others, though he and Ash would not survive. A fair trade.
Diagonal shafts of sunlight from high windows bathed the Alician leader and her entourage in an orange glow. She looked younger than he’d expected, but then Alicians barely aged once re-sequenced by the Q’Roth. Her eyes, though, reminded him of some of his fellow trainees back in Tibet who had gotten a taste for casual killing. His Master, Cheveyo, called them ‘shark-eyed’, because they had lost perspective, and were highly dangerous. Ramires noticed the claw where her left arm should be; no matter, the nanosword would slice through it, he’d tested it on enough Q’Roth.
Louise’s eyes narrowed, as if she recognised him, though they’d never met. Two more steps and he’d be close enough. He froze; she’d drawn a pistol unbelievably fast – one moment it wasn’t there, the next it was – her arm steady, the weapon aimed at his face; quicker than a normal Alician, quicker than a Q’Roth.
            “Ramires, isn’t it? I’ve heard so much about you.”
            Guns ripped out of the guards’ holsters, and pointed at his head. The moment had passed. He let the nanosword slip back into his pocket and stood, feet splayed, ready to spring in any direction. Ramires folded his arms, one palm concealing the wafer. He recalled a Sentinel maxim: never converse with the devil.
            Louise spoke again. “I watched the vid of you fighting two Q’Roth warriors back on Esperia. Impressive. The last Sentinel.” She put away her pistol. “Well, not quite the last.”
            Ramires kept his poker-face, but wondered what she meant. All the other Sentinels were dead.
            Her demeanour changed, a little more tension around the eyes and lips. “Where is Micah?” she said in a flat, controlled tone. “We have some unfinished business.”
            He stayed silent.
            “We could torture you, but I’ve studied the history of our so-called Silent War. Sentinels are notoriously resistant, almost as if you relish pain.”
There were twelve Alicians around him and Ash, all armed. Too many.
“Or we could torture this one,” she said, nodding towards Ash. “Looks like someone already started.”
Ramires wondered if Ash would hold up under torture. Perhaps he should kill him now with the sword. But Ash was four paces behind, Ramires wouldn’t get close enough in time.
“Or your wife, Sandy.”
Ramires outwardly showed no reaction. Inside, his heart slowed, and his muscles loosened. In nine hundred years of unseen war between Sentinels and Alicians, there was one maxim both sides shared: better to die than be captured, because the latter path never ended well. So be it. He was less sure he could kill Louise, but he could take out several of the guards. Better to die on his feet than chained to an interrogation rack. 
Without moving his eyes, he pictured where each man stood, and their most likely pistol aim trajectories, given that the wafer would catch them off-guard. He envisioned the layers of pulse-fire. In the initial confusion, blinded by the flash as soon as the wafer ignited, they would fire towards his trunk or head; he would have to duck low. A second later he would need to be above three intersecting layers of pulse fire. He estimated that there was a sweet-spot where the guards’ lines of sight would be conflicted: they would hesitate, in order to avoid killing each other in the crossfire. It would require a high leap but he could do it. Next he calculated the place where he would be least easy to target, but from where he could still shoot Louise. After that it didn’t matter.
The assessment had taken two seconds. He’d trained blindfolded hundreds of times back on Earth, and had continued to practice with the Youngbloods on Esperia. His right hand gently squeezed the wafer inside his fist so that it split open. Now it just needed a little air.
Louise studied him, then the corners of her mouth lifted a fraction. “Let’s see how good you are, Sentinel.” She took a step backwards then spoke to her personal guard. “Take him.”
Ramires took in a sliver of air, and then held his fists out in front as if to be cuffed, but as two of the Louise’s personal guards seized his wrists, he blinked hard and dropped the wafer. It burst into a curtain of blinding light that smarted his retinas even through closed eyelids. He locked the wrists of the two stunned guards, then drove them into each other. Ramires ducked amidst a sizzling eruption of pulse-fire that fried the two guards. Two down. He leapt up high and spun mid-air, flailing the nanosword around him, decapitating two more guards and slashing the arm off a third, releasing a pistol that he snatched before it reached the ground. He breathed in more air. Five down. He landed behind one of the collapsing bodies, and used it as a shield while he fired at the two guards on either side of Ash, striking them in the middle of the neck, sending them tumbling to the floor. Seven. A pulse strike speared through his pistol arm, rendering it useless. He took another sliver of air as he dropped the sword and grabbed the pistol with his left hand and fired at Louise, who had vanished. The pulse round found another of her guards; they moved in a zigzag pattern aimed to defend and distract. Four left. They shot Ramires’ corpse-shield again and again, blowing off its head and limbs, leaving Ramires with only the torso as a barrier, the tang of ozone and charcoaled flesh sharp in his nostrils.
Two more of Louise’s guards toppled backwards; Ash, hands still bound, had fired two weapons from a prone position. Two left.
Ramires’ legs exploded with pain, making him gasp in air. With a grunt, he flung the charred torso away from him and rolled to the right, firing two quick shots, dropping the last two guards.
Louise was nowhere to be seen. He reached for the nanosword, but it was gone. There was a ‘pfft’ sound, and Ash slumped forward, a feathered dart sticking out of his neck. Ramires fired towards the likely point of origin, but only hit shadows.
“Here,” Louise whispered, behind him.
Ramires made to turn, but felt ice on his neck, and found he couldn’t move. His chest muscles locked, and he rocked forward, his forehead striking the floor with a thunk, his eyesight growing blotchy.
She whispered two more words to him. “Not yet.” With her boot, she flipped him over onto his back.
Ramires struggled to remain conscious; whatever Louise had used on him was powerful. He let his face muscles, closed eyelids and neck go slack. He heard soft footsteps, like those of a cat, approach Louise.
“I didn’t need you to fire the dart, Toran,” Louise said, “everything was under control.”     
“This one is good, very good. I admit I could learn from him. I have the knowledge, the latent memories. Sparring with this one would activate them, translate them into real skills and reflexes. Your next set of guards could do with more training, though. They were complacent, unattuned to the shock of a sudden, violent attack. They have grown soft.”
            Ramires listened to Toran’s voice. He didn’t recognise it.
            Louise nudged Ramires with her boot. “That’s why he isn’t dead,” she said.
            “I doubt he’ll help you, Louise, even if you use Sandy as leverage. He’ll just as likely kill her quickly. It’s what I’d do. It’s what we were trained to do if the situation ever arose with a partner or children. We call it ‘releasing angels’.”
            Ramires’ mind sprinted. Louise had implied there was another Sentinel. And this man knew one of the most guarded secrets. Ramires thought about opening his eyes. But Toran started to walk away.
            “Where do you think you’re going?” Louise said.
            “He’s still awake. Some of the training school memories from my original host are still intact. I heard rumours about this particular Sentinel. We never knew each other’s names, but during early training nicknames were common. His was ‘possum’.”
            Ramires opened his eyes in time to see Louise crouch over him, and he felt the ice cold touch of something on his neck again. This time there was no resisting it. But as he slid towards unconsciousness, he quickly put the pieces together. Toran must have been cloned from a Sentinel, probably with Alician enhancements to make him even tougher. An abomination, yes, but that was irrelevant now. He could only exist for one reason: to infiltrate Esperia. Infiltrate and assassinate. Yet Toran was not ready; borrowed memories are not the same as honed skills. If Ramires could kill him, then the problem was solved. But if they fought and Toran survived, that could catalyse Toran into the strongest Sentinel ever.

            Ramires’ mind clouded, and he gave up on thinking about the never-ending war between Alicians and humans that had already consumed so much of his life, and thought instead about the one woman he cared for, the only person who had ever given him some respite, and happiness. He prayed he would see Sandy before the end.

Eden's Endgame, and the other three books in the series, are available in kindle and paperback from Amazon.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Scifi to make you think...

I had a recent review of Eden's Endgame on Amazon, entitled 'Scifi to make you think'. I was pretty happy with this one as the entire series has been posing certain questions, amongst them the ones the reviewer posted:

  1. What is “intelligence” and does it guarantee survival?
  2. What sort of beings may have populated our Milky Way galaxy before mankind?
  3. Do we already have “aliens” hiding in our population?
  4. Can humans accept the mutation of their children – an upgrade – into new and “better” creatures?
  5. Could mankind live with a race of superior machines or is a deadly organic/inorganic conflict inevitable?
  6. What sort of life might exist in the dark matter between the stars?
  7. What lies beyond the black holes?
  8. Does humanity matter? Could we be reconstructed?

The whole four-book Eden Paradox series has the first question as an underlying theme, the first three books seeming to answer 'yes', but it is only when the reader reaches the last book that it become less clear that this is the case. The questioner is usually Pierre, himself a scientist, who has spent his entire life believing the answer to be yes, who only starts to doubt at the end. Probably like some scifi readers, I'm also scientifically trained, and grew up
watching Star Trek's Spock and assuming the answer to be yes, but lately I'm also not so sure...

The second question is answered by the twenty or so alien species I've used to populate the 'Eden Universe', from organic to machine-based organisms to those we're really not sure about (e.g. the Hohash). The aliens (see a glossary here) live in an ordered society called the Grid, and each has its place, giving  the books an overall 'culture', one in which humanity finds it difficult to integrate. The trick was to make them really alien, not simply human-shapes with deep forehead ridges (as in many scifi TV soaps).

The third question - well, I don't to give away too many spoilers, and anyway, as readers of the Eden Paradox know, it's not quite that simple...

The fourth one is explored in Eden's Revenge. Scifi author Sophia McDougall reviewed an early draft of this book for me, and asked me to go deeper into the psychosocial impact of genetic upgrading, too often brushed over in SF works or series. So I did, and it continues into the last book, where humanity is once again faced with a 'Genning' dilemma.

The inevitability of conflict between a Machine race and 'organics' has been dealt with many times in science fiction. In Eden's Endgame, where the Machine race the Xera are reanimated and once again threaten the galaxy, I took a slightly different take on it, by having one of the characters merge with the Machines, giving up his humanity entirely. He then becomes schizoid inside the Machine's emergent consciousness, and plays a pivotal role in the ensuing conflict. But is such a conflict inevitable?

In the last three books, Eden'sTrial, Eden's Revenge and Eden's Endgame, I go far beyond 'known' science and speculate about inter-galactic life. If you want to get a taster for this, read the excerpt from Eden's Trial here. This chapter is rather different from the rest of the book, and is in many senses a 'mini-prequel' for books 3 & 4.

What lies beyond black holes? Well, they are called a singularity for a reason. But in the last book, Eden's Endgame, again I speculate as to what really lies beyond them. I also explore and discount wormhole travel as too dangerous and unstable for 'organics' (like us). This last book gets a bit more 'cosmological', because it has to, as the enemy is trying to destroy our galaxy... Hence one reviewer referred to the book as 'Galaxy-busting'.

Does humanity matter? The title of the last book uses the chess metaphor, but as readers will know, humanity is a pawn on this chessboard. However, as one of the characters notes, in chess a pawn can take down a king...

One question not mentioned so far, is how superior aliens would judge us? This is the central theme of the second book, Eden's Trial. We have war in our heads, we commit atrocities against each other and our planet - what would more 'cultured' aliens think of us? Would they believe we are galactic weeds that should be culled, or think there was something about us worth saving?

As in most science fiction, even when an answer is supplied in the books (e.g. when necessary for plot advancement or resolution), the reader can still ponder the questions, and think otherwise, or simply, 'But what if?' This is what science fiction is about, using future landscapes to make us consider who we truly are, and what we might choose to become. Scifi is there to make us think.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Drift diving and interstellar travel

One of my most popular blogs concerned scuba diving as inspiration for writing science fiction (read it here). Well, having recently finished and published Eden's Endgame, I'm on vacation and diving again, and this morning's dive reminded me of that original blog.

Three of us (all instructors) dropped down off a boat in pretty choppy seas and headed down into the deep blue into a strong current - around five knots - and began what is called a 'drift dive'. Because the current was strong, the visibility was good, at least thirty metres, and the first thing I saw was a shark resting on the sandy white bottom at round 30m, at the foot of  reef wall resembling a cliff. The current swept us along at a brisk pace as we descended, and I felt something like an astronaut floating through space, weightless.

The deep blue stretching to my left was devoid of fish, and so reminded me of space, but ahead were some large fish, and a six-foot black-tipped reef shark. I often use fish to think of alien space ships, and for me this type of shark remind me of a Q'Roth Marauder warship - sleek, elegant, manoeuvrable and deadly. As I drifted closer, the shark became more agitated, watching me, swimming more of a zig-zag (which is a dangerous sign, by the way, as it means it is getting closer to 'fight-or-flight' mode), then headed left toward the blue. To keep watching him (I decided it was a male for some reason) I first flipped upside-down then backwards so I was driftng feet first, eyes on the shark throughout. I finned to slow down but there was no way I could go against the current so I spun back around to face forwards again, and briefly reminisced about the film Gravity (or maybe it was just Sandra Bullock).

Next up was a large black stingray, stationary on the sand, no way to slow down for more than a second or two before being whisked past. This 'travel' made me think about two science fiction books I've been reading while on holiday - A Talent for War by Jack McDevitt, and the Forever War by Joe Haldeman (both excellent, by the way). In both of these they describe inter-stellar travel and the need to slow down, and just how long it takes to decelerate from near light speed, and how this can be used to tactical advantage in battle situations. I imagined the sting ray could easily have lifted off the sand and stung me, and there would be nothing I could do (I've been stung once before, not to be repeated).

As the current slowed down, a few 'deep space sharks' later, we drifted closer to the reef, which was like entering a planetary system, a menagerie of fish including electric blue triggerfish who seemed to be policing everything, and myriad other fish, like a flotilla of ships you might expect when entering a busy, prosperous solar system. We raced past columns of brown cauliflower coral and green table coral that stood out from the clffs like cities buzzing with life, small cleaner fish servicing the gills of the larger ones.    

The coral became less uniform with a wide range of hard and soft corals, and began to look like vegetation, wiry trees interspersed with mushroom coral that resembled alien dwellings. At this 'city-level' the different fish are busying themselves, eating and trying not to be eaten, and of course the coral is also alive, giving the inviting scifi idea of living cities that might need to feed at night...

Near the end of the dive we entered a cave where the fish littered teh inside of it, including the ceiling, and I thought, hell, why not have underground cities where towers hung like stalactites from the roof as well as growing up from the floor...

The most complex social system on our planet (besides our own) is underwater, yet we still understand relatively little of it. Down there, as in Haldeman's book, we can either think of the fish as alien, or else realise it is us who are the intruding aliens, ungainly in our scuba gear and less manoeuvrable than most fish (okay, we can out-perform a puffer-fish, but that's about it). But the over-riding feeling I have when diving is that I'm in another world, alien, deadly, beautiful.

And it gives me ideas for the next scifi novel that I'm planning, called Last Human. A maxim of diving is 'Never dive alone', but in this book, as given away by the title, the hero of the story will have little choice, and will be cast adrift in a galaxy full of alien life forms... 


Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Eden's Endgame - first reviews

Eden's Endgame has been out for just under a week and has already attracted some good reviews. I've extracted some elements which, as author, I find hit the nail on the head with what I was trying to achieve with this final book in the series:

Awesome finale! Love how the threads of this multi-layered epic were woven back into a singularly satisfying tapestry. And finally, some of the good guys died!

I did want there to be a crescendo to the series, and it does end up in one last big galactic battle, But there also had to be some suspense and some surprises, e.g. what can the Spiders and the Hohash really do? What is Kalaran's real game plan, or for that matter, Qorall's?. The plot development to realize this had me tearing my hair out about a year ago. Getting that intersecting, inter-woven tapestry effect was not easy, and I'd say this was the hardest of all the books, as I needed to wrap up everything. And yes, heroes fall, and that was not easy as an author to do, to kill off a few who had been around since the beginning. But it was necessary, you can't have a galactic war where we're hopelessly outnumbered and out-gunned without there being losses and sacrifices. Still, it was tough, and I still pause over passages where certain people die.

Beyond the compelling end to the galactic war that humanity has found itself sucked into, there are layers of thoughtfulness here that make this much more than just a space soap. For example, I love Hellera's observation that "directive evolution was painstaking, requiring careful steps over hundreds of millennia, whereas species regression, by comparison, was as easy as falling off a cliff."

This one meant a lot to me because in this book I continue with some of the philosophizing that began in Eden's Revenge, often from the viewpoint of Pierre, about the nature of intelligence and species who might be far smarter than we are. In Eden's Endgame, the dark-side of what the character Jen refers to as 'galactic apartheid' comes into full view. Hopefully there are issues raised in this book that go beyond the action and the drama, concerning what might be out there, and what we might one day become.

With sweeping action sequences and a story full of intrigue, betrayal, and triumph, Barry Kirwan weaves the end of his four-book story of humanity's fall to the stars in Eden's Endgame. I don't mean to sound like a TV-movie ad here, but with the epic scope and stunning visuals in this book, reading Eden's Endgame felt as effortless and entertaining as watching a move—one I didn't want to leave until the last of the credits rolled. It was bittersweet to see the heroes who made it through from Eden Paradox for this one, final time, and I truly wish there was more to read.

Also very glad to see this one as I always try to create intrigue, without over-complicating, and visual is what I go for. I see all these scenes in my head, and want the reader to - whether close-ups of personal moments, hand-to-hand combat, alien ships and worlds, or wide-angle panoramas of space battles, of which there are plenty.

Sad to see this series end but Endgame certainly does it well. Relentless action as the battle for humankind and the galaxy as a whole is fought on numerous fronts. Fast-paced page-turner. Will miss the characters but a great conclusion.

The book is meant to be a page-turner, but I was mindful of a comment from a friend that the last half of Eden's Revenge felt 'breathless', that there was not enough time to take stock and digest what was going on. So in Eden's Endgame I had some 'spaces' to allow an inbreath, though I kept these short. Nevertheless, since the onslaught of war is relentless, there is a drive in the book, particularly the last six chapters or so, which should make it hard to put down..,

There's another more formal review coming out soon on Pikers Press, and I'm going to share a little of it below, giving the last word to the reviewer Lydia Manx:

The deeper I dove into Endgame the more I admired the complexities the author has added to his already familiar characters. Back stories came forward along with the hero components I'd already come to expect from such a talented writer. The visual words pulled up a world or three that I could see and that added to the fast moving plot and the well anchored 'reality'. I didn't feel like I was anywhere but in the now for the future. Every time a chapter ended I felt myself racing to continue, and then I was caught up in the newest thread 

Eden's Endgame is available in paperback and kindle version on Amazon all over the galaxy.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Eden's Endgame Countdown: Tomb Planet, Part 3

Happy New Year!

The third part of the Tomb Planet sequence from Eden's Endgame, just released on Amazon (the previous two parts on the two blogs prior to this one). Jen and Dimitri have gone down to the planet to bring back an ancient relic, that they should not have woken... Pierre and Ukrull are in orbit above, and are under attack from Qorall's ship on the edge of a black hole...

Pierre had never seen Ukrull so concentrated. His tail was perfectly still, his muscular shoulders hunched over the controls, eyes closed as he mind-plexed a distress call via the Hohash. Pierre held onto his seat, the Ice Pick shaking violently as they tried to outrun Qorall’s black hole. The grinding noise from the engines told him they weren’t going to make it.
Pierre glanced at the display, the dark, insatiable mouth of the vortex, the deadliest natural phenomenon in the galaxy, continuously sucking them towards it, as if it only ever breathed in. As an astrophysicist back on Earth he’d studied black holes, and had always found their awesome power fascinating. But soon it would crush them, absorbing them into its singularity. No being, no matter what Level, had ever come back from one.
This black hole sat amidst a translucent dark green swathe of space, like a negative image of a moon reflecting in a lake. This was Qorall’s liquid space – not truly a liquid, but not empty space either – a feature imported from his own distant galaxy, which even the Kalarash hadn’t yet fathomed. Every few minutes gravitic shock waves emanated from the black hole, colliding both with the Ice Pick and the planet, before they swept back towards the singularity. Each wave buffeted them, then yanked them backwards.
Whatever Qorall had done to normal space, it prevented the opening of Transpatial conduits, so the Ice Pick could not simply jump out of the system. Pierre nudged a control and switched displays to see the planet. It was cracking up, fissures opening on the dead Machine world’s formerly smooth surface. The planet no longer had a molten core, so at least there were no volcanic eruptions. Pierre presumed Qorall didn’t want to get too close to it, knowing what was there, not wanting to awaken it. Staring at the slowly lengthening trenches, Pierre wondered if Jen and Dimitri were still alive on this tomb planet. He juggled the probabilities and uncertainties in his head. Whichever way he analysed the available data, their prospects didn’t look good.
But there was one curious thing: towering dust tornadoes were flashing up from the planet’s surface, rising kilometres above the surface. He had no idea why this should be happening, since there was no atmosphere. It could be due to the black hole, but he didn’t think so; they looked too uniformly spaced. But a sound like metal tearing apart reminded him of other priorities. 
            “No use,” Ukrull grunted. “Abandon ship.”
            At first Pierre thought he must have misheard, then he remembered the Ice Pick could teleport the two of them across a short range; in all their travels they’d never once used it, as it required so much of the ship’s energy, but that hardly mattered now. Ukrull stood up on his hind legs, his bony head brushing the ceiling, and began donning a self-sealing suit. Pierre stepped onto the suit-forming platform, the black gel crawling over his feet and up his legs, like cool wet leather, until it reached his neck. Ukrull tossed him a helmet and back-pack. While his helmet auto-sealed, Pierre watched Ukrull interfacing with the Hohash, gripping its rail-like outer edges with both fore-claws. Ukrull slipped on his own helmet, with an elongated visor to accommodate his snout, and turned to Pierre.
            Pierre didn’t know exactly what to expect, but he nodded. Besides, the noise from the ship suggested strips of the hull were shearing off; it was time to leave.
            The ship around Pierre appeared to dissolve, and for a moment his mind seemed to catch, as if someone had pressed ‘pause’ in his head. For a tantalising fraction of time everything was a uniform grey, featureless and silent, and he wondered where he was. Then he found himself standing on the planet’s surface, next to Ukrull, watching a tiny dot streak across the dark green sky towards the black hole. Pierre’s helmet visor magnified, tracking the Ice Pick’s trail. For the first time he saw something else, a black disc on the edge of the event horizon – Qorall’s ship. The image continued to magnify and Pierre became aware of the spherical shape of the ship, the size of a large asteroid.
            “Watch,” Ukrull said.
            Pierre didn’t know how this level of magnification was possible, unless... ah, the Hohash – it was in space, transmitting to their visors. He followed the Ice Pick  as it attempted to ram Qorall’s ship. Suddenly the closest wave to the black hole grew in size, a ghostly green tsunami. It closed around the Ice Pick like a vice, then crushed it until the ancient craft was nothing but debris.
            Ukrull let out a long hiss, his booted foot stomping against the ground.
            Pierre didn’t know what to say; Ukrull had forged a deep attachment to his ship over thousands of years; it had been a gift from someone special, though Ukrull had never said who. 
            “What about the Hohash?” Pierre asked.
            “Is okay. Not affected by gravity.”
            That was something Ukrull consistently refused to explain, but Pierre decided now was not the time. Besides, they had new priorities. Perhaps this was all simply a stay of execution. The planet did not have long before it would be torn apart, them along with it. Or else the Machines might find them in order to replicate – Ukrull had explained about the organic catalyst requirement only after Jen and Dimitri had gone down to the planet’s surface.
Pierre scanned the broken horizon for dust tornadoes, but saw none. But as he looked upwards again, he was sure he could see less stars than should be visible. Stars were winking out, Qorall’s green, liquid space being slowly occluded by a spreading black curtain. Within a few minutes there were no stars, although a dull grey light emanated from somewhere. The Machine must have awakened, and erected a shield. No sooner had Pierre thought it, than a section overhead glowed green briefly, then returned to black. Other green splodges peppered the shield, but none of Qorall’s attacks broke through.
“Not shield,” Ukrull said. “Shell. Protect new-borns.”
Pierre realised that they were both safe and trapped at the same time.        
            “What do we do now?” he asked.
            Ukrull snorted. “Run from those,” he said, flicking a gloved fore-claw to Pierre’s left.
            Pierre stared into the darkness and detected giant beetle-like objects scurrying towards them, fast. He turned back to Ukrull, who was already bounding away in the opposite direction.

Pierre didn’t need to be told twice.


Jen felt a trickle of sweat run down her spine inside her spacesuit. She panted, her re-circulated air hot from all the running. She leaned against the smooth wall for a moment’s respite and glanced at Dimitri. He was bent double, large hands planted on his knees, chest and shoulders heaving; he wasn’t cut out for this. But the husk was closing on them. She checked the pad again: two choices as always, now that they were in the bottom layer of the maze of tunnels left by the Tla Beth caretaker: left or right. It had been thirty-five minutes since they’d woken the Machine remnant, and now it was hunting them down.
Left or right? She had to decide quickly, the maze wasn’t infinite, and they mustn’t get caught in a dead end. But it could move faster than them – it didn’t have to choose at each juncture, merely follow their path. Luckily, two of Jen’s drones were still working, and were tracking it from a safe distance. She didn’t know what it looked like now, but from the blip on the pad she could see that it had grown in size, larger than her and Dimitri put together.
She checked the map on the pad, planning the next five turns ahead. It was tricky, because according to the drones, the husk was leaving some kind of residue behind it, and she didn’t want to risk entering any tunnels it had already been down. She could almost laugh; it was as if they were stuck in a child’s cheap holo-game, trying to stay ahead of a monster eating the path as it chased them. And now they were on the last, deepest layer in the game, and she couldn’t see a way out, except to keep running.
Without warning, the ground shook, knocking her to the floor, Dimitri just managing to stay on his feet. She assumed it was another hit from Qorall; the strikes were arriving more frequently. Ukrull had said the planet had unusual properties, making it hard to destroy using ‘conventional’ weapons, whatever that meant in Level Fifteen parlance. But Qorall was Level Nineteen; so it was only a matter of time. She hoped Ukrull and Pierre had made it out of the system.
She got to her feet. “Left,” she said, and they sprinted down the tunnel. They came to an open chamber, and she slid to a halt. Before them was an array of upright, shiny cigar-shaped objects, each one about six metres in length. She recognised them as the weapons the Tla Beth had used against the Level Sixteen attackers. There was no obvious means of propulsion, nor any device to launch them, nor hatches leading to the planet’s surface. Level Seventeen, she reminded herself; why should she understand how they worked? And in any case it wasn’t her priority.
“Do you think it might prefer these to us?” She doubted it; in her experience good fortune usually slid downhill out of her grasp.
            “No, if… I am right… it is… hunting organic material,” Dimitri said, between pained gasps, as he blinked hard and tried to catch his breath.
He didn’t complain, nor did he look at her. Yet she knew him well. He would be feeling ashamed he had never kept fit, that he was endangering her. She kept expecting him to tell her to go on without him, which was exactly when she would tell him to go to hell and keep moving. But he said nothing.
            “Let’s go,” she said, and set off at a slightly slower trot.
She knew he was right about the husk. It wanted them: the only organic material on this dead planet. They’d passed other stashes of Tla Beth equipment earlier and it hadn’t even slowed down to take a look. Pierre had briefed them before their descent that it would need an energy source to re-awaken, and Jen’s nanosword had provided that. But the power of the Machine race was in their ability to replicate, and the planet was ten kilometres deep with inert metal residue. So, given that the planet was under attack from Qorall, she’d assumed the husk would simply replicate and engage in battle. Wrong. And now she and her lover were running out of both time and tunnels.
Next junction. She glanced at the pad. The husk had just entered the section behind them. “Right!” she shouted, and dashed down the tunnel. Dimitri’s wheezing rattled over the intercom. Just keep running, Dimitri, please.
Jen tried to reason it out for herself; she was sure Dimitri already knew, but he needed all his oxygen for his muscles, not speech. The Machines were based on organic metal; she didn’t really know what that was, presuming it was a metal that was literally alive and grew. But what if it needed a small amount of living organic material, either as a base or as a catalyst in order to replicate? If it took one strand of DNA per replication, then she and Dimitri would offer the husk the chance to replicate billions of times.
Her helmet torch-beams lit up a cathedral-like chamber ahead. But she skidded to a stop as the floor disappeared. Cave-in. Shit. She glanced at the pad; the husk was in the tunnel behind. Dimitri bumped into her, almost sending her over the edge, and peered over her shoulder. The floor had collapsed, no doubt due to Qorall’s bombing, and she couldn’t see the bottom. Her mind raced.
“Thrusters, Dimitri. We have to go down now. Are you ready?”
“Always, my love.”
She should have heard it in his voice – the way he said it like an epitaph – before she leapt downwards. But no sooner had she started falling, her thrusters almost depleted from the initial descent to the planet, than she knew Dimitri was not following. 
Panic seized her. She flipped around and stared upwards. “Dimitri, don’t you fucking dare! Come on, we can still escape!”
She saw his helmet peering over the ledge as she tried to flare her thrusters to ascend again, but it was no use.
He gasped a few more urgent words. “Tla Beth… must… have…”
No. Not like this. No, no, NO! She tapped her visor to zoom in as she fell, not caring where the floor was, her thrusters sputtering. Something was behind him. His body stilled. Shadows of black dust grew up his legs, over his torso, creeping towards his helmet. On maximum zoom she could just make out his large eyes, baleful, remaining open until dust encrusted his helmet and took on a shinier, metallic form. Through the intercom, she heard his last breath being sucked out of him, and she knew the Machine had taken him.
Jen screamed, an anguished, deafening cry inside her helmet. She couldn’t believe it; the one thing about Dimitri was that he was always so full of life. A flood of memories of their life together skated across her mind: seeing him for the first time lecturing in Athens University when he captured her heart; seducing him a week later in his office; cramped together in a submersible in the depths of the Mariana Trench where they located the first Q’Roth ship; finding Dimitri looking so ragged and alone in the caves on Esperia after she’d sent him away; and in Kalaran’s vast ship where they’d spent the past year, a year she’d never wanted to end. The galaxy had just stupidly thrown away a brilliant, vibrant mind. It didn’t make sense.
She called out to him again, somehow hoping he would reply, knowing it was futile. Jen found it hard to breathe. She wanted more than anything to get out of her damned suit.
And then she decided.

Still falling, barely able to see Dimitri up on the ledge, Jen’s hands moved to her helmet seals. She’d never been religious, but she’d always believed that if your lover died, there was a short moment when maybe, just maybe, you could go with him, be with him forever. The time with Dimitri eclipsed everything else. Besides, the husk would get her soon. Better to go this way. She knew he’d stayed above to give her a chance, but it was her life, hers to do with as she pleased. She hooked her index fingers under the release catches and took a breath, just as the ground slammed into her, knocking her out cold. 
© Barry Kirwan |
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