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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.
            “Ready?”
            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. 

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