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Monday, 31 August 2015

Where it all started - Episode 11

Episode 11 from The Eden Paradox - where we discover Blake's dark secret...



Kurana Bay

Ten years earlier…

Zack heard the shouting voices, including his own, screaming at Blake.

"Pull the trigger; take him out for Christ’s sake!" Zack saw the ghoster leaping from man to man, ripping out their throats like they were paper soldiers on a daisy chain. Only Blake had a clear shot. But he wouldn’t take it. The screeching of the ghoster was mind-numbing, but Zack fought against it. Ted and Abe fell as the ghoster smashed their skulls together, ignoring the two commando knives they had both buried half-way into its thorax. 

            "Blake! Shoot! For fuck’s sake shoot!" Zack knew why he didn’t. Sons of bitches! He limped, blood pissing from a gaping wound in his left leg, his left arm already broken, a machete in his right hand. Shots rang out but only Blake had the Slow Gun, the ghoster killer that embedded a delayed pulse charge inside the body, exploding it from the inside. Archie and Kalim were grappling with it but it was triple jointed and soon it had them, snapping both their necks with a dual, sickening crunch. Only three of them remained. Charlie pinned himself against the wall, terrified.

            "Charlie, high and low, you high!" Charlie glared, knowing it meant his death, but he bit his lip and screamed like a madman, flinging himself high in the air, two razor sharp machetes raised to strike it, while a fraction of a second later, Zack dropped onto his back, pushed off from the wall with his good leg, and slid in the blood-soaked floor. The ghoster caught both Charlie’s wrists and was about to bite through his jugular when beneath him Zack slashed six inches through the ghoster’s groin. It couldn’t raise a foot to crush Zack’s skull because Charlie’s weight was still on him. It spun Charlie’s left wrist, breaking it, and drove one of the machetes through Charlie’s neck, decapitating him. Blood sprayed the walls. Zack chopped the left leg of the ghoster clean off at the calf. It somehow kept its balance, threw Charlie’s slack body away, and hopped to face Zack, Charlie’s machete in its claw. Zack gazed into those hooded eyes he had once known so well. There was a dull popping sound and a flash of light. The ghoster looked down at the hole in its stomach, then it exploded, flinging parcels of flesh and clay-coloured blood over the entire room. Blake had fired the weapon.

            Zack crawled over towards Blake, past the open-mouthed head of the ghoster, finally silent. Blake sagged against a wall, bleeding from a chest wound caused in the first seconds when they’d encountered the ghoster, only a minute ago, after having destroyed most of the ghoster complex and set free a dozen captives, and killed four more ghosters already transformed but not activated. Once transformed, there was no way back.

Zack leaned against the wall too, next to Blake, surveying the carnage. They both looked inevitably towards the ghoster’s head: the trace of curly black hair still apparent if you knew where to look; a scar on the cheek from a farming accident two years ago; the mottled Caucasian skin. Zack noticed Blake’s right hand trembling. It had never done so before, not in nearly three years of battle. But Zack knew why it did now. It was the hand that had pulled the trigger.

They’d come to Kurana Bay, deep behind enemy lines, because they’d captured and interrogated a ghoster scientist to find out the location of the processing centre. They’d heard a rumour they were using POWs as ghosters. After the questioning, they were going to send the man back to base for further interrogation. The scientist had known he would be tortured by Chorazin there, so he’d taunted Blake with terrible information, and it had worked. Blake had slit the man’s throat from ear to ear and watched him bleed to death, convulsing for a full minute. It seemed too lenient now, as Zack gazed at the head of the boy he’d been godfather to.

Zack studied Blake’s ashen face, as he stared at the ghoster’s – the boy’s – head. And when he spoke, it was not the voice of his captain Zack heard, but of a man distraught, chopped up inside, who would never be whole again. He turned to Zack, tears streaming down his face, mixing with the bloodstains of his offspring.

            "They took my son, Zack! They took Robert and they stole his soul!"     

            There was nothing Zack could say. He gathered up the dog tags of their dead platoon members, got the released captives – young boys Robert’s age – and Blake, outside, then torched everything. A heli-jet picked them up minutes before the enemy’s reinforcements arrived. They had to leave the burning bodies of their men behind, to give room for the half-drugged captives they’d saved. Zack gave Blake a heavy dose trimorph shot. It seemed the best thing to do. Robert was listed as Missing in Action. No one ever found out he’d been at Kurana Bay. Blake and Zack made sure no one ever would.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Where it all started - Episode 10

Episode 10 from The Eden Paradox. Time to step back, look things in the face...



Stakes

Four months earlier…

Blake stood on the threshold of the antique wood-panelled office. The smell of leather upholstery, mingled with the residue of a Havana cigar, drifted out into the corridor. The mid-afternoon blinds created a lattice of orange shafts of light which sliced diagonally across the office. The rays framed the slim, seated figure surrounded by a nebula of drifting dust motes. It gave Blake the overall impression of a miniature galaxy, this one man as its epicentre.

From his silhouette, Blake recognised someone who used to be a fit soldier. But age and battle had exacted their toll, lending a hollowed-out leanness to the body. Still, the alertness, obvious in the angle of the neck and head, spoke of someone who was no stranger to command. The seated man with five polished stars on his shirt collar looked up from a holo-pad and punched a desk control, snapping the blinds shut, restoring the lighting to a more tolerable sunset level. Blake had seen what was on the holo-pad before it had cleared – photos of the four assassinated astronauts who were to have led the Ulysses mission to Eden. Blake had wanted this mission like hell, but not at this price.

 "Come in, Blake," he said, his voice raspish but firm. "And don’t salute me. I sit behind a desk too much these days to respect myself, so I don’t want it from you of all people."

            Blake saluted anyway, and waited, standing to attention.

            "At ease, soldier," General Kilaney sighed.

Blake nodded and sat down in the chair indicated. He remained straight-backed, refusing to surrender to the inviting black leather. He noticed how much weight his old mentor had lost.

            "I see you haven’t lost the tricks of the trade." The General passed Blake a glass of iced water. Blake took it and clinked glasses with him. A single splash of bourbon escaped from the General’s tumbler, as he met Blake with defiant eyes. "To absent friends."

Blake held his glass high. "To absent friends." He savoured the cool water. It was thirty-five Celsius outside, even in the depth of winter high in the Rockies. Somewhere he could hear soldiers marching, being drilled. Some things never change.

            He sipped gingerly and watched the General – his erstwhile mentor – wondering whether he would indeed end up like him, stuck behind a desk these past ten years, shuffling papers instead of soldiers, riding a holo-rig instead of a real fighter, wasting away in endless meetings. Still, he respected the General. The NWA, the shaky Post-War coalition of some fifty-three aligned nations, needed people like him near the top. He waited while the General scrutinised him over the rim of his glass. His eyes hadn’t lost their edge.

            "How’s Glenda doing?" the General asked.

            Blake’s grip on the glass became iron. "Fine, Sir. She’s doing fine," he replied. "Thanks for asking."

            The General slammed his glass down on the edge of his desk, grabbed the sides of the chair and hauled himself up. "Stay put, Captain! And don’t give me any more bull. This is me you’re talking to. I said how the hell is she?"

            He took another sip, not meeting the General’s gaze. He felt the soothing water travel down his throat, but a moment later it felt as dry as the Potamac river bed.

"First cancer successfully treated.’ He took another sip. "With the ambient rad-levels, it’s almost certain to return within a year." He paused, feeling the pressure rise in his chest, pushing up against his throat. He didn’t want to say it. He hadn’t said it to Glenda, though she knew well enough. He took a breath. "Then she’ll have a few months at most – second timers don’t usually…" He willed his fingers to ease off the glass.

            The General perched on the desk. "Damned sorry. You tell her that, Blake."

He wanted to change the subject. "Sir, why – "

"You pretty much have command of the mission, there’s just the final psy check tomorrow, then it’s yours."

            He nodded once. He’d worked so hard for this, even if others would assume he only got it because of his so-called "hero" status.

            "Thank you, Sir."

            "Well, I don’t mind telling you and no one else – I always had you as first choice. Kacheng was a good man, sure, but his assassination put you back in front."

            He flinched at the memory of Alpha Team’s shuttle exploding in a shroud of white-hot flame seconds after take-off to Zeus. He stared down at his glass. The last shards of misty ice surrendered to the afternoon heat. "Who’s my team, Sir?"

            The General slumped back down into his chair. "Zack will be your first officer and Chief Pilot."

            Blake allowed himself a sigh of relief.

            "The other two – well, one thing about the Forces is I don’t have to argue with you about it. You’ll have Pierre Bertrand as Science Officer and our Katrina Beornwulf, on Comms."

            He stiffened. "Bertrand – you can’t mean Professor Bertrand’s son? After his father blocked all our gen-defence research during the War? And Beornwulf – you want me to baby-sit?" He stood up and walked around to the back of the chair. "Permission to speak freely, Sir?"

            The General’s eyes glinted as he raised his glass in a mock toast. "Denied. I know neither one is your choice, but Pierre’s a genius, and smart too, and you and I understand both the difference and the rarity of the combination. Don’t blame him for the sins of his father. Beornwulf – well, she passed all the exams. Practically a comms genius, and the last thing we need is a third loss of communications. Anyway, her uncle and all that… You can’t always avoid politics. God knows we owe both France and England enough."

He noticed how weary the General seemed, the hollowing around the eyes, that haunted look. He instinctively glanced to the General"s right wrist, under the shirt-sleeve cuff. He could just make out the tell-tale small triangular holes of a micro-transfusion implant. He met the General"s gaze again – the look on his face confirmed it, but the General continued unabated.

"Blake, there’s more. And it’s Black level. You don’t tell anyone – not Zack, not Glenda, not even your mistress if you damned well had one. Nobody outside this room."

            Blake leaned forward.

"Why do we need Eden?"

He sharpened his eyes on the General. He couldn’t be joking. "We need its resources. In the longer term, a sister planet for Earth – we can colonize it, though it will take around – "

            "Fifty years." The General finished the sentence for him. "We have ten, that’s all."

            Blake’s mouth opened involuntarily. He thought of all the things he could say, but there would be no point. He studied the deep lines on the General’s face that spoke of heavy responsibilities and things nobody would want to know, but somebody had to.

"Sir?"

            "The biosphere isn’t going to recover. Not for around fifty thousand years. We have maybe ten years like this, hiding from the sun, waking and sleeping in our sweat unless we’re fortunate enough to live underground. You know the only remaining productive food farms lie in the Polar grain-belts, but a couple of years after the last sub sea permafrost is gone, the average temperature outside will shoot up from forty-five to sixty-five degrees Celsius. In one year. Unsustainable."

            Blake needed to be sure. "But the research – I’m no scientist, but I took a good look. The re-forestation; the Arctic re-freeze project…"

            The General waved a hand. "Statistics and lies – garnished with some truth, of course, but the climate cascade we instigated with our little nuclear catharsis is locked in. We’ll actually have a drop in temperature of a couple of degrees in the next five years, but then it will rise and keep on rising, linear at first, and then after a decade, a step change."

            "What about the lunar projects? Mars reclamation?"

            "Won’t work on the moon without Earth’s resources. And Mars – well, Mars is probably what we’re going to look like a million years from now; after we’ve cooled down again."

            He trusted this man’s judgement – he was high enough in the machinery to have quality information. He sank back into the chair, draining his glass.

            "Now you see, Blake. You see why we need Eden. Survival. Plain and simple. We have a decade to start colonizing it, and start building as many ships as possible."

            "We’ll only move a fraction of the population, even if things go well. The Alcubierre Drive won’t handle transport-sized ships."

            "I know, it’ll be tough. But we’ve had some luck recently with this new dark matter tech. Maybe with another research break… If we can get Earth organised... But only if there’s the dream – if Eden fails, all humanity will see is the abyss – we’ll tear ourselves apart before the end. So, Eden’s the only game plan, our last chance. Someone needs to set foot on it, come back, talk about it – shout about it."

            Blake nodded slowly, but in so doing, he knew he was transferring the tremendous weight from the Old Man’s shoulders onto his own.

"You can handle it, Blake. Frankly, I don’t know another who could – except maybe me, fifteen years ago." He heaved himself up out of his chair. "Two more things," he said, as he picked up the bourbon bottle and held it out. This time Blake nodded, and watched the cedar-coloured alcohol sluice into his empty tumbler.

"You have to return with good news. Eden is like propaganda during a war, but this time everyone needs it – they need the dream, or God help us all. Whatever it takes – that’s why I wanted you in the first place. You get the mission done, even if you have to leave people behind."

            Blake winced inside.

            "Oh, I know you lost a lot of men in Kurana Bay. But you completed your orders. You understood what I taught you all those years ago. Mission first, men second. It sucks. Most soldiers can’t handle it. You can. It’ll be rule number one on this mission."

            Blake gazed into the bourbon. He’d been having the old nightmares again, seeing faces of the dead, their unseeing eyes wide, as if they still had something to say. "Second thing, Sir?"

            "Heracles didn’t suffer an accident. It was sabotage – we don’t know how yet, but there’s no question about it. Explosion. Tore the ship apart. They never stood a chance."

            Blake felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, but he wasn’t surprised. He’d known that crew well, too. "Alicians?"

"Seems crazy, but the more society unravels and despair sets in, the more people turn to those bastard Fundies, and the more support bleeds into their terrorist wing. They’re a virus, and they’re making us weak just when it’s our last chance to be strong and survive. It almost makes me long for the days of the Chinese Dragon Hegemony before WWIII tore that abomination apart – at least they thought long term."

            Blake narrowed his eyes as he remembered something. "You know what Professor Bertrand said? He said that the rise of a global religion, with easy-to-follow rules and a multi-cultural God was inevitable after a global war." But then Blake remembered more – he’d said the rise of fundamentalism had been engineered. No one had paid much attention to him by then – he’d moved too far beyond his comfortable scientific domain to the treacherous landscape of politics. He’d also developed a habit of ranting in public. And after he’d been assassinated, gigaquads of his data disappeared in the infamous web-net crash. "I never quite grasp why they fear Eden, Sir."

            The General swirled the remaining bourbon in his glass. "Well, my father told me a long time ago the last thing a priest wants to see is a genuine miracle – it reminds ordinary people that priests are servants – representatives – not the real thing. Alicians don’t like it. But Eden’s a miracle alright, and we damn well need it. And we’ll fight for it all the way." He raised his glass.

            Blake remembered how different the General had been at his and Glenda’s wedding twenty-three years ago, bursting with life and energy. Everyone had told Blake he was marrying too young, but this man, a captain then, had told Blake to listen to everyone, then do what his heart commanded, and never second-guess himself afterwards. It had been his way of life ever since. He owed this man a great deal. "You can count on me, Sir."

            The General eased backwards and closed his eyes, a hint of a smile emerging.

            Blake stared again at the General’s wrist, wrapped in frail skin like waxed paper. Glenda had the same microporous chemo transfer system. He sensed the formalities were over, and cleared his throat. "What stage are you, Bill?"

            The General’s smile faltered, but his eyes stayed shut. For the first time in Blake’s presence, he spoke softly, his voice no longer in uniform. "I should be around to hear you arrived on Eden, but I’ll miss your homecoming. Now, go home to Glenda, leave an old man in peace."

            Blake knew better than to push the issue – dignity, the last vestige of this man’s identity, was all that was keeping him going. He got up quietly, and parked his half-full glass on the desk. At the doorway he took one last look, saluted and held it for a long moment, then closed the door behind him with a soft click, as if closing the coffin lid on a dear friend.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Where it all started... episode 9

Episode 9 from The Eden Paradox. This episode features Gabriel, not seen since chapter one. It has a religious-terrorist cell context, because that's the way things are headed I'm afraid. This is the chapter where we start to wonder whose side Gabriel is really on...


Star Council
Gabriel knelt in the gothic church, hands clasped in prayer he didn’t believe in. He tried again to still his mind – he’d gotten further than any Sentinel before him, close to finding the leader of the Alician Order. A slim chance to overturn their endgame was at hand. But the bitterness of remorse threatened to overwhelm him: he’d just killed his best friend.
            Samuel, like him, had been in deep cover working inside the Alician cell-structure, living, breathing, and sleeping in the enemy’s ranks. His mission had been to uncover the facts about the loss of the Prometheus and the Heracles. In doing so he’d unearthed the ghoster plot on the Ulysses. Samuel had been about to release it on the nets: the Alicians made a pretence of being anti-tech for their Fundie supporters, whereas ghosters were tech-weapons, reviled by every soldier who had survived the War.
An Alician section led by Brother Marcus had surprised Samuel and Gabriel during a meeting. Samuel had immediately acted as if Gabriel had found him first, and had reached for his pistol, knowing Gabriel would have to react. There had been a brief glimmer of forgiveness in Samuel’s eyes just before Gabriel shot him. The worst part was that Gabriel had not been able to close Samuel’s eyes, with Marcus and his men present, and had to leave his corpse in the rotting apartment for the rats to plunder.
For four hours Gabriel had incanted the Tellurathonicat, the long-lost song for the dead. Although he didn’t believe in God, he believed in his best friend. He closed with "Amen".
             The emotional gale that had threatened to undo him from his own mission died down, and a hollow semblance of calm finally arrived. He would need it to honour Samuel’s sacrifice. He scanned the rows of wooden benches around him. Since the War, churches were rarely empty – there were so many lost loved ones that people used the churches to commune with the dead. Cemeteries had become a thing of the past, every last scrap of decent soil used for crops. Funerals culminated in cremation and vitrification of the deceased’s ashes into a dusky glass teardrop that fitted into the palm of a hand. Four people knelt, heads bowed down on the bench’s ledge, arms outstretched, holding the "pearls" as they were called, as if offering them to God, or perhaps, in the silence and impunity of prayer, asking "why?"
In order to concentrate, he parked everything about Samuel. He pressed his left palm to his right, his right palm to his left, with equal force. He was about to penetrate an Alician Inner cell. He needed to get into the role again, immerse himself in the thinking patterns of the enemy: believe like one of them, react like one of them. He recalled the scripture: structure, discipline, equanimity – the three principles of Neo-Fundamentalism. Even the posture for praying was critical. If the base was strong, all else would flow correctly, and all action emanating from such a structure would be right.
He checked his wristcom. Two small green lights on its side, linked to micro-sensors on his jacket collar, told him there was no one behind him. Reaching into his pocket he snapped open a mini-phial with his thumb, bowed as if in prayer, and smeared a trace of clear liquid onto his lips. It evaporated in moments. He rose silently, and trod softly as if still in prayer towards an alcove and a bolted iron door. He didn’t touch the handle. Placing his eye to the peep-hole, he circled his eyeball once to let the ret-scan do its job. The door, bolt and all, heaved upwards like a mute portcullis. It descended behind him as soon as his rear foot had passed the threshold, encasing him in total darkness. He remained perfectly still.
"A boy kills his sister with a gun. Who is guilty?" The tone invited feelings of unworthiness, the voice of a man who commanded people to serve in a Holy war. Gabriel answered immediately – reflex not reflection – as he’d been taught.
"The father, for letting it fall into the hands of the son." He spoke louder than intended; he instructed his body to relax.
"Who else?" The voice was aggressive.
"The mother, for not admonishing the father." Gabriel heard the speaker pace. Still not enough. "The government, for allowing weapons in the population." Continued silence and pacing. Was the speaker carrying something? Gabriel detected unevenness in his step, favouring one side. As an assassin, he’d been trained to hear the nuances in every movement. He would not be allowed too many more attempts. "The manufacturer, for not equipping the gun with a child-sensor-block." As soon as he’d said it he knew it was wrong – too tech. The pacing stopped, a sleeve rustled, something being lifted. He didn’t panic. Then he realised what was expected.
"Scientists, for making the weapon possible." Gabriel relaxed. He knew it was right. He felt balanced again. A whisper somewhere in the chamber; something metallic put down, a drawer closed. He heard another speaker, female.
"Welcome, Brother Matthias," she said, an accent he couldn’t place, her voice guttural yet fluid. "Change and join us in the Inner Chamber." She left, followed by the other man, the coldness from her voice lingering in her wake.
Bright light deluged the room, stinging his eyes. He found a simple grey robe neatly folded on a stool. He didn’t look for the weapon the first man must have been carrying: he knew he was being watched, one always was. He undressed, removing the wristcom that otherwise never left him, and put on the robe, naked underneath, as the Structure required.
In the nearby mirror he performed the mental self-examination ritual. Regard truthfully that which the Creator has fashioned. A gaunt face, fringed with black hair, jet-black eyes. Know thyself, the Structure taught. Killer’s eyes, he said to himself, the last things my victims see, eyes of a Cleanser, one who releases souls to God. The ritual satisfied, he opened the door, and walked through the ultraviolet-tinged archway that scanned for any hidden devices or bio-implants. Anti-tech when it suits them. He flushed away the thought – he had to play the role, be the zealous assassin they believed him to be.
The inner chamber was cave-like; myriad candles scattered shadows onto whitewashed brick walls. Five figures awaited him, draped in white robes, hoods covering all but their chins and mouths, hands concealed inside billowing sleeves. Each stood on the point of the blue chalk pentagram drawn on the smooth granite floor. The points were connected with gold lines, creating a star inside the pentagram. Gabriel stood in the star’s centre, hands open by his side where the others could see them. He bowed deeply.
"Welcome, Brother Matthias. You may report." It was the voice of the man who had questioned him in the Outer Chamber; the leader of this Alician Star Council, the Cultivator. He stood at the pentagram’s vertex, facing Gabriel.
Gabriel was concise, in accordance with what he knew about Star Council etiquette. "From the Devil’s craft, all contact has been lost. An analyst in the Project suspected something, told the Project Manager. Both have been cleansed."
There was no reaction from any of the five until the Cultivator spoke.
"All is not as you say."
Gabriel’s breath closed in, his sinewy muscles tensing. To lie in the Star Council meant death. He waited. In theory he could kill all of them in less than two seconds, but he’d heard that lasers targeted the centre of the star, primed to activate in case of sudden moves – he was fast, but not that fast.
"The Eden Manager is indeed cleansed. The analyst, Micah Sanderson, lives on."
Gabriel didn’t see how that was possible, he had made the hit himself, as ordered – but the Cultivator would not lie.
"In addition," the female voice cut in, "a woman is missing –"
Gabriel preferred the man’s voice: his was like bracing seawater; hers was like a wave of rotting seaweed, concealing broken glass.
"– we do not know where. The Project Manager’s assistant, Sandy Mindel."
Gabriel had seen her file.
The Cultivator cut in. "She must be brought to God, Brother Matthias, as quickly as possible, by whatever means."
Gabriel knew the "by whatever means" included doing it in public, in which case he would be discovered. Before he could voice his question, the woman spoke again.
"You must find her, Brother Matthias, and eliminate her. She may have seen our brother in the Eden Mission. He cannot be unmasked; his work is not yet done."
He raised his left hand in front of his shoulder, palm facing the leader.
"You may speak, Brother Matthias," the Cultivator said.
"I will do this. But if I am caught?"
The woman lashed out, "Then you will kill yourself as you have been trained, and go to meet your maker!"
Gabriel’s tongue involuntarily flicked back to his false left molar. Painless, so they said, but he didn’t believe it – he’d seen a comrade’s contorted face after one had been accidentally broken during a training bout. Besides, he’d seen too much death to believe it was ever painless. He bowed his head in silence. Inside the Star, respect for the Council was paramount, even if the interviewee had been misunderstood. The Cultivator rescued him.
"I believe, Sister Esma that Brother Matthias is referring to the ramifications after his body is found."
Gabriel knew now why this man was the leader of this Council. Sister Esma was the most righteous, but sending people on suicide missions was not just about orders from God, it required careful handling. However, the fact that the Cultivator had used her name was not good news for Gabriel.
"If you die while executing your mission, the Chorazin will realise they had an Alician within their midst. Even though you left them ten years ago, this will be damaging to them. A Chorazin agent becoming an Alician Cleanser is unheard of. If you are caught performing this act, it will focus attention on you, drawing it away from another Alician agent."
So, another Alician was still in the Chorazin.
The Cultivator continued, "Such a finding will cause fear and increased self-monitoring in the Chorazin; it will slow them down at a time when we are moving forward at a greater pace."
Gabriel knew they were telling him far more than they should. They firmly believed – presumed – he would be dead in the next twenty-four hours.
"Then my sacrifice will be all the more beneficial," he replied, and bowed deeply. Although the disciplined group remained motionless, he nonetheless heard their collective breathing ease, reflecting their satisfaction with his answer, with the exception of Sister Esma, whose outbreath was a derisive snort. He also perceived that the session was over, that he was about to be dismissed. He pressed his luck, raising his left hand again. Sister Esma inhaled sharply, but the Cultivator got there first.
"Brother Matthias, you have a further question?" His tone was a potent cocktail of surprise and menace.
"I have a question, but am not sure I am permitted to ask it."
This time Sister Esma did not wait. It had been what he had hoped for. He knew the leader would be annoyed by the question, but would be even more vexed by Sister Esma’s abrogation of his authority.
"You know very well the Dictates of Structure, Matthias!" she shouted.
He noted she had dropped his earned title of "Brother".
The Cultivator broke in. "To ask any question is your right, Brother Matthias, but you must take responsibility for what the answer brings."
He foresaw a power struggle between these two – it would be ended by the assassination of one or the other, as was the usual course of Alician internal politics.
"Brother Matthias, what is your question?"
He thought of Samuel: this is for you. "I understand, Your Eminence, that a ghoster may have been installed on the Devil’s craft." There, he had said it. He heard the two behind him gasp. Sister Esma said nothing, but her hooded head moved momentarily towards the direction of the leader, before she checked herself. She hadn’t known. The Cultivator drew himself up to his full height. Clearly, he had.
"Where did you hear this?" His voice was a drawn blade, seeking blood.
Gabriel knew he had to answer this question, or forfeit his own life here and now.
"In the Fourth Chapel."
"WHO?"
Gabriel bowed his head lower. "Brother Marcus," he said quietly. He saw the Cultivator make a quick hand movement, and the one behind Gabriel’s left side immediately left the Chamber.
The leader’s voice softened. "You have done well to bring this to our attention, Brother Matthias."
In Gabriel’s mind he closed Samuel’s eyes.
"And why does this concern you, Brother Matthias?" Sister Esma was no doubt enraged that she had not known, another reminder that she was not the leader; not yet, at least. Gabriel did not hesitate this time, but answered directly.
"Ghosters are an abomination. They are derived from science, and…" he paused, "even though they start as humans, they have no souls."
He waited for the answer. This time the Cultivator placed his hand on Sister Esma’s robed arm, and spoke as if delivering a sermon.
"Brother Matthias, ghosters are a tool. In this war – and we are in a war – we must use whatever weapons we have to secure victory. If we must use the devil’s own tricks against him, then that is what we will do. The ghosters these days, few as they are, volunteer for the procedure."
Gabriel found the idea of anyone volunteering to be changed into a ghoster an unlikely prospect. Alicians outwardly eschewed technology, to lure a blind following from gullible and angry masses, but he knew they were more advanced in some ways than most military governments.
"Go now," the Cultivator said, "release this woman Sandy’s soul. Do not fail."
            Gabriel dropped to one knee, lowering his head. The Cultivator proffered his hand so that Gabriel could kiss it. With head still bowed, Gabriel stood and backed away to the entrance. It was done. As soon as he was back in the chamber he picked up his wristcom and wiped his lips on it, downloading the Cultivator’s pheromone signature.


Gabriel stood on the barely-lit street outside the Church, dressed in his original clothes. A light drizzle fell undisturbed by any breeze except the steam rising from hot-ground level. He walked over to the sleeping tramp on the otherwise deserted sidewalk – the rad-level was high even up here – and bent over to pick up what looked like a discarded plastic food carton. He snatched it up and glided over to a nearby disposal chute, retrieving something before discarding the box, and placed both his hands in his pockets. It was an antique silver locket, a four leaf clover carved on its front, his only connection with the past. He was relieved it was still there, where he had left it five hours ago. Luckily nobody picked up rubbish anymore, least of all that which lay next to a stinking, radioactive tramp. Gabriel had drugged the man just in case – Cleansers who left things to chance did not survive long.
            He stared up into the rain, not bothering to shade his eyes from its acidic sting. Somewhere up there the dart-drone waited, primed with the Cultivator’s pheromone signature. As soon as the man left the building, the drone’s sensor would pick up the scent. Then it was just a matter of time. Samuel’s sacrifice had not been in vain, though he wished he could have taken out Sister Esma as well.
He took an elevator to the mid-levels and walked towards his squalid apartment in the ruins above the orange level rad-zone, passing the Virtual Sex boutiques. He lingered outside one. A flabby sleazeball with waxed moustache called out to him, vaunting lurid promises Gabriel did not even hear, but he approached the man. Gabriel knew he was being captured on some vid system. They’ll think I know I am about to die, and wish one last carnal act before the end. He held his wristcom to the man’s reader, confirmed the credit transaction, and stepped inside.
No real women there, of course; that made the charade easier. He found an empty booth smelling of cheap deodorant, entered, and sealed the door. Inside were the usual plastic-sheeted padded table, an immerser headpiece, and a data crystal port.   
            He ignored the table and sat cross-legged on the floor. Pulling out the locket, he flicked it open and gazed at the holopic of the young girl inside, noting the family resemblance. He touched the picture, pulled out a sliver of quartz the width and depth of a fingernail, then snapped the locket shut with a click.
            He got up, removed the sex menu crystal and jacked his own data shard into the port, donned the headpiece, and lay back on the table. It took only a few seconds to adjust. He was in a white room, so uniformly bright it was hard to see where walls, floor and ceilings began and ended. He heard stiletto heels, and turned around.
            "Good evening, nice to see you are still alive," she said, a stunning redhead with green, feral eyes. She wore a vermillion tycra mini-dress. Gabriel and his Master always played along like this, just in case anyone hacked in. Of course in reality she could be fat and forty, or, in this case, a seventy year old pony-tailed male. What you see is all you get, he remembered, echoing the ambivalent ad of the Virtual Sex industry. But he wasn’t here for games. He switched to an undocumented Tibetan dialect, just in case any porn-hackers bypassed the audio jamming code built into his crystal.
            "The Cultivator is taken care of. Samuel is gone, as I’m sure you know, but he is avenged: Brother Marcus tonight. Sandy Mindel, Kane’s assistant tomorrow."
            "We’ve paid a high price for this. Nonetheless, Samuel would be proud of you," she replied, her dialect more polished than Gabriel’s. "There is a slim chance this Miss Mindel may know the password – if not, it died with Kane. We’ve already searched the city for her, but there is no trace. Not an easy trick with all the micro-surveillance these days." She smiled coyly, all part of the show.
Gabriel knew her words were a challenge to him to find Sandy, but he said nothing. She seemed about to turn, and then cocked her head at him. "You know where she is, don’t you?"
            Gabriel nodded.
Her smile vanished. "The battle we have anticipated for a millennium is almost upon us."
"How close?"
"Maybe a week. We must find the password to open the ships. Then we can destroy them." Her face was grave, the charade suspended. She nodded once and turned, just as another woman entered. For the sake of the show, the two women embraced, languorously. Gabriel, embarrassed, wanted to look away, but that wasn’t possible inside a V-Sex scene. A low shanga beat started up as the platinum blonde let the redhead depart, and slinked over to Gabriel, stripping before him. His crystal had tactile sensory effects disabled – just as well, as she promptly sat on his lap and began to grind to the music, breasts brushing his chest, lascivious lips pouting centimeters from his own. He mentally disconnected from the scene, though it had been a very long time. He voided the thought and decided to end this – it was an illusion after all, like life. Letting his breathing rate increase, he began to moan, and within a minute faked an orgasm. It wasn’t so hard to counterfeit a climax – virtual sex booths enabled mental orgasm without its usual physical messiness – allowing the sex industry to escape certain laws, and sidestep health regulations. The too-perfect blonde stood up and sauntered off into the background. The entire scene faded to black static.  
Gabriel slipped off the headpiece, removed the crystal, and put the locket back in his pocket. A week till they arrived; till the end of the world. So his own days, maybe his hours, were numbered. But he would play it out. Hundreds before him had died in the silent war that had endured nine centuries. In the fifteenth century Sentinels had gained the upper hand, but not for long. And now, trained Sentinels were few and far between, living on the run.
            He smoked a cheroot he bought from a street trader in a darkened alleyway, watching the few people who dared the mildly acid shower scurry past. He leaned over a railing, his eyes following the cascade of rain plunging to ground level two hundred meters below. He remembered his real, non-Alician Master teaching him that life was like a drop of water in a waterfall. Each drop felt alone, confused, tumbling in chaos. But when it hit the water below, it rejoined the river and was at peace again. Gabriel let go of the cheroot, and watched its red ember blaze as it fell amongst the drops of rain.


Back in his apartment, he waited until midnight, then opened a psy-locked suitcase – letting the locking mechanism scan his EID signature. He thought of his dead sister, his emotional password. The carbo-titanium composite lock buzzed, then cracked open. He fished out his favoured S&W plasma-bullet pistol, night lenses, navcon, and a pulse grenade. He fixed the locket around his neck, tucking it under a tight-fitting Chorazin vest.

Descending from his apartment, he took a service elevator down to ground level, entered a disused building, and forced open the rusted door. Broken glass crunched under his boots, sending several dinner-sized rodents scampering away.  He continued down a metal spiral staircase until he reached a lead-lined storm door in the basement. Prying it open, he entered the stinking sewer that ran between the still-radioactive ruins of old Los Angeles, and the rad-free cave cities deeper below ground. He headed for the Eden Mission complex in New LA, five kilometers away. He knew why they couldn’t find Sandy anywhere in the city – she’d never left the Eden Mission building.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Where it all started... Episode 8

Episode 8 from The Eden Paradox. Still inside the Ulysses, Blake and the others take on the Ghoster.

Code Red (continued)
Inside the compartment, Pierre spoke, his voice unsteady. "Zack, why doesn’t it have eyes?"
Zack lodged his flashlight on the floor, not taking his eyes off the grey-skinned scaly head and neck. He grimaced as he met the dark sockets where its eyes should have been. His mouth felt dry as sandpaper, but he tried to reassure Pierre. "It has eyes; they’re permanently open underneath a protective membrane. They have no weak spots. Makes people hesitate, too, because it looks blind – got many a soldier killed in the War – not to mention the scream when they attack. If – when it moves, just aim for its trunk – don’t look at the face."
            "What’s it waiting for?"
            He felt sorry for Pierre – his first real battle experience, and encountering a ghoster was a supernova of a baptism. He knew Pierre’s instincts would be playing push-me-pull-you between fight and flight; waiting wasn’t instinctive at all. But if they moved now, they’d have little chance. He tried to appeal to Pierre’s intellectual side, to help him keep his nerve.
"Its higher cortical functions are suppressed; you can’t negotiate with it, and it’ll never question its instructions. A ghoster’s reptile-brain fighting instincts have been heightened. But it still has basic tactical abilities. It has a mission, a goal, and is fucking adaptable. Its goal is to destroy the Ulysses, probably by activating the ND. But it knows if it tries now, it might fail, because we’ll have clear line of fire. But if we move first, it’ll strike in fast random attacks. We’ve got weapons trained on it, so it’s waiting for an advantage."
            "Waiting for us to blink?"
            "Yeah, you could say that." But a chill ran down hid spine as he recalled what he’d said earlier – a ghoster’s eyes were always open behind the membrane – they never, ever blinked.

*          *          *

Blake primed the mine. Him and the ghoster. That’s how it was always going to be. Now he’d accepted it he felt calmer, the tremors had vanished.
Kat defied protocol. "Not exactly regulation issue." 
            He glanced toward the camera and offered a bare smile. He picked up two pulse rifles and shook them into readiness. "You’re in charge of the ship now, Kat. Auto-lock the hatch when I’ve gone through. If I fail…"
            "Don’t you worry about me, I have my pistol." She tried to laugh.
For a moment he wished he’d gotten to know his crew better. Like all captains, he’d been trained to keep a distance.
"Okay, Zack, Pierre, get ready. I’m coming in. When the inner hatch opens on your side, the ghoster will see it as an advantage or a threat. Either way it will attack. Each of you break to your respective sides and open fire. Leave a pathway open between it and me. No discussion. I have a little surprise for our guest."
He spun the wheel.

*          *          *

Through the comms system, Kat heard the hiss of air as the outer hatch opened. Sitting alone in the cockpit, she pulled up her knees and locked her wrists around them, the pistol resting on her console. They’d all probably be dead in the next few minutes, and no one would even know what happened to them. Silently, she saluted Blake. But even as she did so, the Minotaur virus reached environmental system control. Lights all over the ship started to fade.


Decompression

The outer airlock door hissed closed and clunked into its locked position. Blake peered through the porthole into the fourth compartment. In the dimming light he could just make out the helmeted outlines of Zack and Pierre. Even in the near darkness, he could tell both men were stressed, shoulders tensed inside their suits. They were immobile, like statues from the New Smithsonian. He secured his lanyard to the airlock eyebolt, and strained to see the ghoster.
"Pierre, very slowly, lower your flashlight to the floor, point it to the ceiling like an uplighter – it has good night vision, we don’t."
As Pierre obeyed, Blake caught his first glimpse of the creature – still basically human in shape. It crouched behind the neutralino detonator. The last time he had seen one… he skipped over the memory. He glanced down through his visor to check the self-rigged short-range land-mine lashed onto his chest. The push-button actuator protruded two centimeters. It would kill him and the ghoster, but the others should survive.
He circled his tongue inside his mouth a few times to generate some saliva, and then swallowed, angling his two pulse rifles forwards at rib height. "Okay, everyone listen up. This is what’ll happen. I’ll count down in one second intervals from five to one. On 'Two', Zack go short to the left, Pierre, go three meters to the right, so you don’t shoot each other in crossfire. On 'One' I’ll open the door, and that creature will do one of two things – it’ll either come straight at me, or go for you, Pierre. I know you have the pulse rifle, but at close quarters Zack is a better shot. Reel out your lanyards so they don’t auto-stop when you jump. Kat – stay sharp and speak only if urgent. Any questions?"
"Just one, Skip," Zack said. "What’s the surprise you have in store?"
"Then it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?" He couldn’t tell Zack, or else he’d try to save him, and they’d all end up dead.
Blake took the silence that followed as assent. He drew in a breath.

"Five."
Pierre reeled out several meters of lanyard, not taking his eyes off the ghoster, nor lowering his weapon. He couldn’t help but wonder if he was being used as bait because of the friendship between Blake and Zack. But there was logic in the plan. Even though he had the rifle, he’d never been in a real battle, and might freeze up. Zack wouldn’t.

"Four."
A trickle of cold sweat rolled down Zack’s spine. He’d been in too many battles to worry anymore about whether he would survive. He just wanted to get as many shots into the ghoster as possible. He wasn’t too sure of the "surprise" – especially after Blake’s once-only hesitation to kill the last one in Kurana Bay. He flexed his knees, shifting his weight onto his thighs, ready to spring.

"Three."
Thirty meters away, Kat sat in the cockpit, wondering how long it would take after the others were dead for the ghoster to make it to her, if it bothered at all. The landmine was a noble gesture, but she’d heard how indestructible these genetically re-engineered soldiers were, having been morphed with reptile genomes to make them fast and very, very tough. She chewed on a knuckle as she watched the screens, oblivious of how hard she bit down.

"Two."
Blake watched Zack and Pierre dive to left and right, and open fire. The ghoster leapt faster and higher than seemed possible, ricocheting off the ceiling, heading straight towards Pierre. Its head bobbed lizard-like to left and right, making it a tempting but elusive target.    
"One!" He rammed the "open" button with the rifle muzzle. The airlock door stayed closed. Christ! Not now! "Kat! Power!" He smashed a glass panel with the butt of his rifle to gain access to the manual lever, knowing it could take thirty seconds to open the hatch by hand. He cursed again, as he had to put both weapons down to try and get the door open.
He watched helplessly as Pierre got five rounds off into its chest before the creature smashed the firearm out of his arms, almost dislocating Pierre’s shoulder, and lunged forward with a claw-like hand to break his neck. Zack fired successive shots into the creature’s knee, causing it to lose its balance. Pierre kicked hard at its left side, trying to knock it over, as he dived out of range. A swipe from the ghoster’s claw-like hand hammered onto the floor where Pierre’s head had been a split second earlier, denting the metal deck.  
The ghoster sprang backward off its good leg and spun in mid-air, hit the front of the neutralino detonator, and then rebounded off, colliding with Zack, knocking his pistol out of his gloved hand. Zack dodged the ghoster’s gnarled fist just in time as it pistoned into the hull, sending a deafening echo around the room.
"Got it!" shouted Kat, re-energizing the relays. "Captain, it’s armed the detonator! Fifty-seven seconds!"
The hatch slid open. Blake snatched up both rifles in one fluid motion and began firing, just as it stamped its good leg down on Zack’s knee. Zack yelled with pain, while Pierre got to his feet and loosened his lanyard, his shattered pulse rifle lying next to him. Six shots from Blake pounded into the ghoster’s right side, enough to make it turn. Zack, his faceplate close to the ghoster’s eyeless head, rammed his knife into its stomach, between ribs that criss-crossed its torso, twisting the serrated blade between the scales. The ghoster’s scream intensified as it leapt off Zack towards Blake.
He fired both weapons at the ghoster in synchrony. Each double-pulse shot shoved it back, but still it closed on him. The ghoster’s mottled scales glowed red where the pulse charges hit. It leapt forward and swept Blake’s arms aside, spinning his pulse rifles against the walls. Then it saw the landmine on his chest and recoiled. For a fraction of a second, Blake could discern the features of the human face that had once been there, and almost faltered, but then he seized the ghoster’s wrists and tugged it towards him, pushing his own chest outward.
With a strangled shriek, the ghoster was yanked backwards, breaking Blake’s grip. Pierre’s lanyard was taut around the ghoster’s neck, like a lasso. After a moment of disbelief that he wasn’t dead, Blake dived for one of his rifles, rolled and came up firing again, this time aiming at its head. It was losing strength, but it yanked Zack’s knife out from its ribs. With its double-jointed shoulders it slashed the lanyard behind its neck and once again went for Blake, raising the knife high.
            Zack, his voice choked in agony, shouted. "Pierre, hang on to something fast!" Zack fired his pistol at the escape hatch panel. Pierre threw himself towards two large crate straps and locked his arms around them. The ghoster saw where Zack was aiming and moved to grab a harness. At that moment, a shrill ghoster-like wailing erupted from the comms system, causing the ghoster to spin around to see where it was coming from. Blake fired twice hitting it straight in the face, knocking it off-balance. At Zack’s third shot, the hatch flew open.
The room depressurised with a thunderclap and a howling wind. Zack had already anchored himself. Pierre clung on for his life as his legs lifted off the ground.
Blake was whisked off his feet, suspended in mid-air by the decompression, tethered by his waist lanyard, but he kept firing at the creature. The ghoster hit the man-sized hole and almost passed through it, but clung on to the edges with its claws digging into the metal, trying to pull its body back inside the ship.
            Blake knew that if it hung on for a few seconds longer, the room would fully depressurise, and then it would enter the room and once again attack.
Kat shouted "No!" as he retrieved his own knife and in one smooth cut slashed through his lanyard. The suction propelled him head-first into the ghoster. He spread his arms wide and smashed into the ghoster full-on, head-butting its chest like a human cannonball. With one last gurgling scream, the creature lost its grip and reeled into space. Blake’s shoulders tore at him as he fought to prevent himself being dragged out too. With his head poking through the hull, he watched the ghoster flail wildly, spinning away from the ship. When it reached the invisible warp shell, it blazed bright as a meteorite for a second, then was gone. The depressurization ceased, and the artificial gravity pulled Blake back inside.
            Kat came on-line, desperate. "Pierre, the detonator!"
            Pierre sprang over to the ND console. For a moment he stared at it. He hit several keys, his left hand steadying his right wrist. The counter stopped at two seconds. He slumped down with his back to the ND, raised his knees, and rested his helmeted head on his knees.
            Blake had landed hard on the floor, where he crouched, panting, sweat streaming past his ears inside his helmet. He lifted his wrist console and checked the heart rate indicator: 192, descending.
Zack spoke first. "Sweet Jesus! I just aged … ten years. Nothin’ to do … with relativity. Kat. Trimorph. Please… Leg ..." The rest was mumbled expletives.
Blake helped Pierre upright while he flicked a few more ND switches. The counter reset to zero and three green lights glowed.
            "It’ll take 30 minutes to shutdown fully, Sir, but it’s safe now. I’ll come back later. I can seal the escape hole, but to save on air, I suggest we transfer the three remaining oxygen cylinders out of here and leave this room depressurised."
            Blake was still catching his own breath. "Agreed. And thanks Pierre, that was a pretty unorthodox move back there."
Pierre was visibly shaken, but a smile cracked across his face. "Just came to me. My mother once sent me to a ranch in the Pyrenees, to get me away from equations. I spent the summer working with wild horses. They usually broke me rather than the other way round, but I learned a few rope tricks."
Blake nodded, and then looked to one of the internal cameras. "I assume that was you, Kat, distracting the ghoster."
She laughed nervously. "Felt pretty helpless up here – had to do something. I figured the one thing it wouldn’t expect to hear was another ghoster. I recorded one of its screams and played it back over the speaker."
"Good work, Kat."
            Blake moved over to Zack, squatting next to him. "How are you, buddy?" He stared down at his mutilated leg. The word "ugly" didn’t cover it.
            "Shattered. Cracked rib, too. You gonna… take off… your surprise?"
            Blake tilted his head downward. The actuator had been pushed half-way in. Gingerly, he eased it back out, then twisted it clockwise, locking it into safe mode. He unhooked it and set it down on the floor.
            Zack tried to laugh, grimacing. "That was… your whole… fucking plan?"
            He shrugged. "Kat, meet us outside the hatch with the trimorph. He watched Zack’s face contort with pain. "Double-dose."  


 
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