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Also, check out Station151 for the other half of the story.

Back from the Dead

THEMPing. Under the optics headgear, my earbud link-com came to life. “Maxim, can you hear me?”

It was Parker. Again. I heard him. I maintained my silence. The line on Parker’s end was open. I could hear him breathing.

Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping.

That’s annoying.

“He’s there. I know he’s there,” Parker said. “Freezing’ his face off, staring through those ridiculous goggles at what? At what? This op is bust.”

Parker was partially right. It was cold. Still, I held my tongue. In the blowing snow, high in the black sky above, the LMOs could be running any kind of aerial sensors. I wasn’t about to give them anything to lock in on while I was exposed. If I was under a blanket of snow and ice, all the better for camouflage. I stared though the optics at the target area. If my finger was still on the trigger, I didn’t know. I’d stopped shivering over an hour ago. Maybe two. I had become a thing of ice: patient, silent, waiting. I needed to see it again. To make sure.

Parker ran at the mouth over the link-com. “They’re gonna pick him up, you know. They’ll probably have to pry him up out of the ice on the rooftop, but you can bet they’ll have no trouble hauling his frozen shit back to wherever it is they want to interrogate him.”

Someone in the room with Parker said something. I couldn’t make it out.

“No,” Parker said. “This is not the same thing. This is bullshit. I don’t even know why we’re doing this. How many nights has he been out there looking at whatever? Five? Six?”

It was six. But it seemed like more.

As with everything in Bellingshausen, the rooftop of the building was frozen over. I lay flat behind the soundwave rifle that poked out through a drainage scupper in the wall at the edge of the roof. Like a murder hole in a castle wall that allowed defenders to shoot arrows at their attackers, the scupper hole was useful – I could shoot through the hole if I needed, yet I was completely protected from view. I returned to the same hole night after night. My vantage point was overlooking one of the few access gates that led from the Fifth Ring to the grounds outside the city. Around the gate, the landscape was hard-packed snow and wind-sculpted ridges of ice.

The earbuds crackled. I heard Parker’s voice again. “Maxim, are you there or not?” The signal degraded before I could reply, spitting and popping. A whistling sound began. It rose quickly into a high shriek, tearing into my eardrum. I shut my eyes, wincing, but I didn’t move. When I opened them, I’d lost the picture of the target area. The optics headgear that I’d been working on for days was a blur of visual noise. Again. I blinked at the green static and waited for the picture to clear.

It was six days ago when I first saw it. It was the beginning of my surveillance mission. I had the Fifth Ring gate in focus and two LMOs in my sights. They were standing near a patrol vehicle at their post. The gate was the way out – to the forbidden region outside the city. If we wanted a tactical advantage, we needed to access the secured facility that housed the wreckage of the SM5. It was out there beyond the walls.

Technology in Bellingshausen was limited. Against the LMOs, we were poorly equipped. Now we were faced with the prospect of a dangerous run at the facility holding the SM5. It wasn’t a bad idea. The ship had tech. Even in bits and pieces, it was something to begin with. I told the team that I could fashion advanced communications, power up our weapons, get us ahead of the game. It was true.

My plan was to steal all the tech we could salvage and get back in to the Fifth Ring without incident. We’d have to go through the LMOs to get through the gate. Back at the underground storeroom, where we’d set up our temporary base of operations, Dada was working on a bypass that would let us out of the gate and back in again without setting off every red light in the city. If it worked, we’d only have the two dead LMOs on our hands. Unfortunately, that meant a city-wide security scramble. The sky would be filled with patrols in Skuas. And everything in the streets would be trampled by boots. We needed something. A diversion. Anything.

During my first round of surveillance, I scanned the sky for patrol units in Skua hover crafts. I also watched the LMOs on patrol. I marked their every move. It was then that I saw it. It was slinking around behind a low ridge of serrated ice. The LMOs standing at the gate never saw the damned thing. But I did. And it made me curious.

A voice came through the earbuds again. “Hey, pendejo.”

It was Ghia.

“What the hell – ” The sound degraded to shrieking and popping. The optics headgear was still fuzzy. The cold had everything on the fritz. Garbled noise. Cluttered vision. I waited. After a minute or so, the signal flattened out once again and I could hear her voice once more.

“Goddammit, Maxim. Can you hear me?”

“Five by five,” I said. My voice was barely a whisper.

“This is bullshit, Maxim. You’ve been out there too long. What the hell?”

“No longer than I have to.”

“Really?” Ghia said.

The optics headgear came to life in a flurry of colors and readouts. Once again, I could see the gate and the patrol vehicle and the LMOs standing guard. I scanned the area around the ridge of serrated ice. And there it was.

“Hush,” I said.

I saw a movement, a shadow slipping from one ridge to the next. It hid itself well from the light. But, for an instant, I caught sight of a face – deformed and ugly, with a gaping mouth and black eyes.

“You did not just hush me,” Ghia said.

“Shut up,” I said. “I saw something.”

Ghia said nothing for a moment. I could picture her standing there with a furrow in her brow. She had a habit of clenching her jaw when she was pissed. And her eyes narrowed until they were little more than slits with black pupils peeking through.

“What did you see?” she said.

“I don’t know. Something – ”

Ghia let out a long huff. “Que aperidá.

I twisted to get a better view. “It was ugly,” I said.

“Everything in Bellingshausen is ugly,” she said. “So what?”

That wasn’t true, but I kept those thoughts to myself.

“What if I told you that it was whitish like a pale human, but creeping around in the ice like an animal?”

I heard nothing on her end of the link-com.

“What if I said it looked like it was stalking the LMO guards – like it was hungry?”

When Ghia spoke, her voice was soft, almost sad. “No,” she said. “Los Biembiens.”

I wasn’t sure what she had said. “What?”

“A body without soul.”

[Communication Relay: 25MAR2087 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Tactical Advantages

tactical-advantage“There,” I said, stabbing my finger at a dark circle on the landscape just outside the city. “That’s where they’re keeping the SM5.”

The map on the holographic display over the workstation shuddered. Colors flared and then smoothed out again.

Dada leaned in and squinted at the detail on the display – it was no more than a black spot on a white plain, but he appeared to need to get a closer look.

“You think that’s where they’re housing the remains of your ship?” he said.

I nodded. “They certainly didn’t bring something of that size into the city. They had to house it in an external storage facility. There’s no communication line running into that position, yet there is a large, regular security detail posted there at all times. The data we’ve been able to pull from their feeds show that Sar himself controls all access. No one gets in without Sar leading them.”

Parker spoke up from the workstation next to us. As Ghia was sleeping in the corner, he and Pili had been quietly dismantling all of our weapons. They were cleaning and making much-needed repairs. “What makes you so sure they didn’t bring it in to some Central Ring lab and start tearing it apart? It’s what I would do,” he said.

Dada raised and eyebrow to me.

“They didn’t need it,” said Marianne’s voice from below.

I stepped back from the massive stone head that I’d been using at a work table. Marianne was sitting with her back against the base of the carving, drawing a picture on a scrap of paper.

“That’s right,” I said. “They didn’t need it.”

Marianne held up what she was working on. The drawing was of two figures standing together before the entrance to a strange stone temple. The edifice of the temple was engulfed in thick branches that crawled across the surface, as if held firm by some greedy wood spirit. I nodded, impressed.

Dada didn’t get it. “They don’t need the spaceship from the future?”

“No, they don’t,” I said. “Look around. This whole city – and everything in it – was engineered with advanced technology. I have to assume that Spegg came back much the same way I did – in a ship. He probably arrived in a survival pod that was jettisoned from the SM5 itself.”

“A life pod does not a city make,” said Parker.

“True,” I said quickly. “But Spegg had access to a precious piece of technology – an immensely potent, gold-film, lightweight, computing system with an advanced holographic display. When it’s inactive, it usually takes the shape of a scroll. Ever seen him with something like that in hand?”

Parker let out a huff. “What are you talking about? We’ve never seen Spegg at all. That little monster stays hidden at all times.”

I thought back to the SM5 crash site outside the far city gates. The nose of the ship – all that was left after re-entry – collided with a massive bronze statue of Spegg and his accomplices. Spegg was probably pretty upset about that offense.

“Hold on,” said Dada. “What’s in this computer scroll?”

I thought about it for a moment. “It’s fairly comprehensive. Two-hundred years of history, science, technology, medicine, space travel, engineering, weaponry… everything.”

“So, we need to break out of the Fifth Ring gates and get into the highly-secured facility that houses your ship?” said Dada eagerly.

“Yes. This is one of the reasons we cut into their fiber lines. Initially, I wanted to see where the LMO activity was clustered so that we could predict their movements.”

“So we know where they’re patrolling,” Dada said.

“Exactly. But I also wanted to see what they were protecting.”

“There’s nothing out in the Fifth Ring to protect,” said Parker.

“You’d think not.”

Parker gave me a dumbfounded stare.

“Because, after all this time, there are only three things in the Fifth Ring that are worth safeguarding.”

“Maxim, the remains of Maxim’s ship, and me,” said Marianne in a voice that was strangely animated.

Parker let his jaw hang open. He looked at Pili – and the big man only gave him a confused shrug of the shoulders.

“Okay,” said Dada slowly. He appeared to be letting an idea play around in his head. “What do we expect to salvage from your old, crashed-up wreck of a ship – one of these golden computers, right?”

“No. I doubt very seriously that they’ve left anything that significant in Sar’s hands. What I expect to find in the SM5 is no more than raw materials, components, perhaps some minor technology.”

Parker was nodding already. “You think you can put together something of significance from odds and ends, yes?”

“Yeah, I do. You first have to understand that all of the technology components from my era have a symbiotic relationship with each other. A handful of advanced components may allow us to reach out to some openly-receptive systems, go around their fortifications, tap a little deeper.”

Dada was lost in thought. “Maxim, this idea of yours may give us a tactical advantage, but the notion that we can leave the city and break into a secure location without tripping every boundary sensor is fatally flawed,” he said.

“Then the only solution –” I began.

“Is to have them bring what we want directly to us,” said Marianne, completing my thought.

“You may have something there,” I said.

Dada gave us both a bewildered stare. He twitched and shook his head. “Remind me again, please. Which of you two is the brilliant savior for our little team?”

Parker burst out laughing. Even Pili managed a soft chuckle.

Ghia, who had been curled up in her sleeping gear after a long night watch, rustled out with a groan.

“Why can’t you people keep the noise down?” she said. When she was tired, her accent was warm and murky.

“Sorry,” Dada said. “We’re working through an opportunity for a tactical advantage. Marianne is helping.”

Ghia put one hand on her hip and worked some fingers through her hair. “I’ll bet she is.” She kneeled down to Marianne. “When was the last time you got any sleep?”

“I don’t really have to.”

Ghia groaned. “Maybe I should give you a rifle and let you stand watch all night.”

“Okay by me.” Marianne smiled and went back to work on her drawing.

Ghia cocked her head and gave the strange picture a puzzled stare. “I’ve never seen this place before. Who are these people supposed to be?”

“It’s Maxim and you,” Marianne said with a smile, handing the drawing over to her aunt.

Ghia held the drawing away from her and strained to make sense of the scene. “That’s impossible.”

“Why is that impossible?” Marianne said, scrunching up her nose.

I lifted my head and leaned over for the reply.

“Because we look happy with each other,” Ghia said.

Marianne replied with only a muted giggle and went back to drawing.

[Communication Relay:  13MAR2087 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

In the Company of False Gods

head-of-medusaStaring up from the floor, the serpent-crowned head of Medusa regarded me with cold indifference. Her guarded smile spoke of cunning and secrets. A daughter of a sea god, she was tragically cursed by Athena for defiling a temple to the resentful war goddess. In her later life, Medusa was both beautiful and terrifying. She was a villain, a guardian, a Gorgon, a monster.

But down here, below the depths of the Bellingshausen underground, with tangles of living modified enemies dragging the streets and corridors above, what protection could we expect from the Supreme Talisman?

“She’d be pretty pissed off to know that you were using her head as a workstation,” Ghia said, as she brushed past with an armload of equipment. “Whoever she is.”

I took a step back and looked down into the eyes of the stone figure. “She’s a character from Greek mythology,” I said. “They call her Medusa.”

Ghia stopped and gave me an incredulous stare. “How could you possibly know that?” she asked.

I smiled. “They conceal that kind of information in books.”

“She’s horrible,” Ghia said, shaking her head. “And here you’ve set up your workplace on top of her. Aren’t you afraid of offending?”

The massive stone-carved head sat in the center of the floor, surrounded by dozens of carvings and sculptures and statues of long-forgotten gods and demons – created by the original stone workers who carved the underground structure that supported Bellingshausen. Abolished by Spegg and the other founders of this miserable place, the old gods were hidden away in this deep recess and lost to memory over the generations that followed.

Curiously, as it lay on its side, the head of Medusa was flat on both top and bottom, perhaps as a support for a column or another figure. It was a perfect table top.

“No,” I said in reply. “I’m sure she’s just as surprised to see me as I am to see her.”

Ghia dropped the gear on the floor near a wall carving of a polar bear with a triangular head and long claws locked in mortal combat with a massive raven. It was probably part of a story from Inuit folklore.

Ghia rubbed her arms and looked around nervously. “This is a den of monsters. I never liked it here.”

I stifled the urge to chuckle. “You brought us, Ghia. This is your place. Not mine.”

Ghia leaned against console workspace next to me. She pulled a gleaming eight-inch blade from the sheath on her hip. She twirled the knife through her fingers in a show of dexterity. I gave her no more than a glance and a nod.

“This place exists out of necessity. My father was a superstitious man,” she said. “He didn’t approve of these things but once they were brought to life, he wouldn’t dream of destroying them. Bad things happen.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. It wasn’t.

“My father once said that those who keep company with false gods will always be afflicted with their madness and fall prey to their treachery.”

“That’s a bit ironic.”

“You’re not superstitious at all, are you?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Spegg is the only false god here,” I said. “And I’ve killed his kind before.”

Ghia gave me a stern eye and bit her lip. At a quick glance, I couldn’t tell if she was deeply curious – or doubtful.

Voices came from outside the entrance to the underground storeroom. Ghia turned her attention to the door – a thick wooden construct with a stone façade on the outside. It was nearly invisible to any external examination. I looked over my shoulder and cocked an ear. Dada and Parker had passed by Pili standing guard in the passageway outside.

The depth of the room and the thick stone walls muffled much of the sound coming from inside. Outside sensors – in the underground and above – were useless to the LMOs. We could breathe easy here. The rough-hewn passageway did, however, allow outside noises and voices to echo as they came down from the unused sewer channel above. We would hear stalkers and crawlers long before they’d find any evidence of our new base of operations.

Dada entered with two large duffle bags of supplies. “We have food and water for the week,” he said. “Parker and Marianne are bringing down some heat and some sleeping gear.”

“Good news,” I said.

“Who could sleep in this place,” Ghia whispered.

Dada ignored Ghia, approached the workstation, and leaned over my shoulder.

I worked the signal probe that bit into the fiber lines pulled from the piping above. The short holographic display over the workstation lit up with signal information. I probed further and selected a line. The signal was open enough. I could jack in and pump the line full of data – more than we could ever need at any location in the Fifth Ring.

“Tell me what you’re doing again,” Dada said.

“We’re going to make some noise through a series of their non-primary communications lines. It’s going to sound like a low crackle and hum – if they ever manage to tune it up.”

“And you’re going to hide a signal inside that noise?”

“The signal is the noise – but that’s my intention, yes.”

Dada bent his brow. “How does a live signal – of any type or quality – keep any of our transmission safe?”

“On this end, it’s broken signal without consistency or rhythm – a murmur, a rattle, a series of clicks. Any receiver we set up will have a sort of decryption key that I’ve altered to make content out of the clatter and translate that content into a working signal again.”

Dada shook his head in mild disbelief. “That’s highly adept.”

“In my previous life, I was the guy they sent in to find these kinds of signal degradations and fix them. At a Hyperdrive Assist Station, that kind of line noise interfered with guest-ship communications…” I trailed off. I noticed Dada nodding slowly. His eyes told me that he had absolutely no grasp of what I was suggesting.

“Bad things happen,” I said, eyeing Ghia.

Dada appeared satisfied.

“Now I’m creating the same line noise from scratch,” I continued. “The fishheads and anyone at Central Ring Command and Control are going to need a guy like me to un-clutter this line – if they can even find the signal.”

Dada smiled and clapped me on the back. “One step closer to the goal. Thank you, Maxim.”

“My pleasure,” I replied. “Once we have outgoing communications set up, we can bite into any of their primary lines. From there, we can clone and mask their signals as collateral line noise and push it all the way back to this location.”

Dada got it. “We can copy their transmissions, turn it into useless junk noise, and reassemble it here to use as we please,” he said.

“Exactly.”

“Then what?” asked Ghia.

I stepped back from the workstation and leaned on my palms. From that angle looking down, it appeared that Medusa was giving me the side-eye – disapproval or scorn. I ignored her. I thought of how access to their communications and movements would allow us to work in relative secrecy. I nodded approvingly to myself. I looked up at Dada and Ghia. “We’ll have them then,” I said. “We can skirt their every move – come and go as we please. We may even be able to punch through to the Fourth Ring and move in closer.”

Ghia made a grunting noise. “What makes you sure than you can pull this off?” she asked. “Those fishheads in their tall tower think they’re pretty smart.”

“A hundred-plus years of experience tells me I can.”

Ghia narrowed her eyes and threw a glance at Dada. “How old are you again?” Ghia asked.

I let out a breath. “Why does that question keep coming up?”

[Communication Relay:  15JAN2087 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Shoot, Move, and Communicate

Parker-in-HallwayParker and I stood out in the hall. The air was cold but still. Our warm breath hung in the dead space between us. I leaned back against the entry door to the small safe room where the team had Marianne and Ghia stashed. My head ached and my temples throbbed like a bass drum. Moments earlier, Parker had to lift me up off the floor and physically drag me outside. My legs were weak but once we were alone I stood as tall as I could.

The aural attack that Marianne unleashed upon Ghia and me was not something I ever wanted to endure again. The kid was merely trying to put an end to the scuffle – I get that – but hammering sonic nails into our ears was overkill to say the least. Marianne clearly didn’t know the extent of her unique affliction.

Earlier, while we were rolling around on the floor, Ghia painted a bleak picture of life in Bellingshausen under LMO rule and I didn’t get the impression that her team was fit to hatch a plan to create any semblance of change. Fortunately for me, Ghia was inside still rolling around the floor. Pili was watching over her recovery and preventing her from getting loose and coming out here to finish kicking my ass. Parker and I needed to talk.

I had one shot at stepping in and pulling them together.

When the door was shut, I told Parker to give me a few minutes to collect my thoughts and he nodded in agreement. He stood before me – almost at attention – which I thought was strangely subordinate. He had his feet together and his hands behind his back. He still had his rifle slung over his shoulder and he looked every bit like the professional soldier. I wondered where he got his training. Surely there was never a human army in Bellingshausen.

I rubbed my ears with a rag that Parker had given me. It came away bloody. The ringing in my ears sounded like mad symphony of mistuned violins. “This isn’t working,” I said, still barely able to even hear the sound of my own voice.

Parker nodded ever so slightly and raised his eyebrows, urging me to continue.

“All this hiding and running and picking up the occasional skirmish with the LMOs is setting us up for a massive failure. We’re not seeing any progress and it’s eventually going to get us all killed.”

“Yeah,” Parker replied. “Right now, I don’t know who’s running a worse game. Clearly, our ability to capture and hold valuable assets is worth exactly shit – and your marksmanship is terrible.”

“And I fell into the hands of the enemy.”

Parker laughed. “Members of Central Ring Command and Control are not people you shack up with – even if they do look like maintenance men.”

“Evidently, I have a lot to learn.”

Parker smirked and nodded again. I got the impression that he was being as respectful as he could. I appreciated the gesture, given that it was Parker himself that threatened to kill me in their little interrogation room not too long ago. They didn’t know me then. And even though I’ve earned some of their trust, they still don’t know me now.

“But – there’s one thing that I have learned. Out of the four members of the team, you’re the disciplined one in the group, Parker. And you know as well as anyone here that Spegg, Robertson, and this Director guy are committing unjustifiable offenses against our entire species.”

Parker shook his head and let out a frustrated sigh. “You’ll have to remember that this place was last stop on the road to extinction for most people. They’ve never known anything other than life in Bellingshausen, rule by authority from the Central Ring, and LMO soldiers in the streets.”

I stared at Parker in silent disbelief. I couldn’t even begin to grasp that level of personal helplessness.

“With no place to go, they’ve learned to live in these conditions,” he added.

My jaw dropped. “What?” I asked.

“Life as we know it, Max.”

“That’s not good enough for me, Parker!” I shouted. The ringing in my ears escalated. Parker’s eyes widened. “Until I see it with my own eyes, I’ll never be convinced that Bellingshausen is the last human settlement on the planet. Pockets exist. People survive.”

“Maybe–” he started.

“And we’re going to find out soon enough.” I interrupted. “But first things first – I say that we have a job to do here. And I think you’re with me on that.”

“Okay. We can agree on that,” Parker replied quietly.

“And I’m tired of running blind and throwing stones at our captors. So, I need a strategic plan that will allow us to make significant gains against the local LMO forces. And I want to see if we can gather any available assets here in the outer ring – weapons, tech, people, whatever. On top of all that, we also need a separate strategy for taking the fight all the way to the center.”

Parker smiled. “Sounds like you’re hatching a crazy large-scale plan, Max.”

It’s Maxim,” I replied quickly, tired of correcting them. “And I am hatching something big. We can pull this off, Parker. But I need everyone onboard.”

“I’m still listening.”

“Once we hammer out some strategies, I’m going to rely on your expertise and – hopefully – Ghia’s knowledge to develop tactics that will get our plans up and working.”

“I’m in for that,” Parker started. “Ghia is a tough nut to crack but she’s reliable. If you bring something significant to the table, I think she’ll see the wisdom in the plan.”

“I have a few things to say and a couple of questions for you. I want straight answers here and now – or we’re not going to get anywhere fast. Understood?”

Parker furrowed his brow, only for a second, as if he were momentarily conflicted by my tone. “Understood,” he replied.

“Your former leader, Quinn, is dead and your group is running about without any semblance of leadership. Isn’t that correct?”

“You could say that, yes.”

“No offense here, Parker. I’m just taking an inventory.”

None taken.”

“Good. Let’s move on. Prior to Quinn’s death, your team received intel and direction from somewhere higher up in this mess, didn’t you?”

Parker paused for quite some time before answering, instantly telling me that this was a guarded secret. He looked away briefly and his eyes shifted both left and right. I began to think that he knew something but he didn’t know it all.

“That is correct. We received intelligence updates, mission directives and some occasional tech gear from someone inside one of the central rings, but the link was severed when Quinn was killed.”

“What can you tell me?”

“Not much at all. I know that information comes from within one of the central rings – how high up is a mystery to me. I know that information is dropped or delivered with some regularity – but it’s not any given day or date. Quinn was the connection and that’s a secret he took to the grave.”

“What does Dada know about the inside contact?”

“Even less than me.”

“Okay. At some point I want to hear about anything and everything you can remember. But for right now, I understand that Quinn died dragging me from Sar’s LMO patrol vehicle. This was also the event that cut your ties to the inside source. It’s no wonder that Ghia is so pissed at me. She blames me for–”

“Ghia is a strange twist,” Parker said, jumping in. “She’s loyal as she can be to the team but she has her own personal agenda too. She’s fighting two battles each and every day. It takes its toll on her ability to reason sometimes.”

“No kidding.”

“It’s a long story – has to do with her family, her father and brother. Let’s save it for another day, okay?”

“Fine by me. Thank you for helping me out with all this.”

“It’s my job. Any time.”

I was glad to hear that. Parker was, above all things, a committed member of the team. Even though I came in late to the action, Parker, Dada, Pili, and Ghia ran a shifty operation. When merely moving from location to location, it was clear that lack of direction – married with bouts of infighting – lead the team to make hasty decisions. Any group works best under capable command. Quinn was the Alpha in this outfit. With Quinn dead, the team was loose and running ragged. For strategy and tactics, Parker was probably the go-to guy under Quinn. To get the team back in line, all I had to do was step in and put Parker in play. From my time with the Academy, I knew that guys like Parker loved their marching orders. I suspected that I could keep him on point, actively engaged, and off my back if I just laid out a plan that he could get behind. The rest of the insurgents would fall in behind Parker – and me.

I continued. “So, as I gather it, we’re in need of a series of strategic planning sessions, a dialogue on tactics, and a bit of reconnaissance to gather any available assistance from the immediate resources in the outer ring.”

Parker shifted his eyes back and forth. I could see the wheels turning.

I continued. “There has to be a few others that have some valuable skills and a natural dislike of the entire LMO program.”

“We’re in agreement there,” Parker replied. “Whether it works or not, it sounds like start.”

“I think so. And on top of all that, we need a new place to call home base – something with multiple entries and exits. I also think that we need to find a place that’s close to the action, a place the LMOs won’t think to search through on a routine sweep.”

“Keep our enemies close?”

“Exactly.” I smiled.

Parker rubbed his chin as he thought it through. “Ghia will know best there. This is her little circle of Hell.”

“Yeah, I heard,” I said with a huff. “You think we can count on her?”

“With Marianne in tow, I certainly believe so.”

“We also need a way to re-establish our connection with the inside source that has been feeding you your intelligence and directives.”

“I don’t know how we’re going to accomplish that, as Quinn was–”

“I’ll wrap my head around that for the time,” I interrupted. “I may have an idea.”

Again with the furrowed brow. “Okay,” Parker replied. There was a hint of confusion in his tone.

“I also think that we need something that will give us a significant tactical advantage – something big. We’ll discuss this as a team as soon as we get safe.”

A faint thud came from inside the safe room, followed by a flurry of heated words in Spanish. Ghia was coming around and probably making some trouble for Pili. Parker shifted his gaze to the safe room door and back again. “Have you thought about what happens if we run into Makabe again?”

“Yes, I have. And if everything I’ve heard from Ghia and you has any truth to it, Makabe is best off giving me a lot of space for now. He won’t enjoy our next encounter.”

“That works for me,” Parker replied. “If you know what you’re doing, I’m looking forward to the next moves.”

I paused for a few moments and looked Parker over. Here and now, he wasn’t the stubbornly-unconvinced reactionary I knew from the interrogation room. He wasn’t pushing back against my every word or making wild assumptions about my nature and motivation. I wanted to know why.

“A few weeks ago, you would have dropped me to the floor in an instant – and left me for dead.”

“True,” he replied.

“What changed?” I asked.

Parker didn’t hesitate. “Oh, I’m still skeptical about your whole spaceman from the future back-story. But for the time being, you have my support. The main reason is that Marianne believes in you and I’ve come to see that she knows things before they happen. She tells us things we can’t even begin to understand. Sometimes she’s clear as can be and sometimes she babbles in riddles. She’s a highly-specialized, albeit weird and cryptic, little girl. But she knows something important is about to happen – and she says that it begins with you.”

I was puzzled but in no position to argue. “Fair enough,” I said. “I’ll take it.”

“And, from a more personal perspective, I saw your modifications to the sound wave rifle and the optics headgear. You’re a lousy shot but you’ve got some serious tech skills. We need that.”

“A hundred-plus years of technology experience gives me a bit of an edge, yeah.”

Parker screwed up his face into a wildly-confused twist. “How the hell old are you, by the way?”

I didn’t want to get into it. “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“There’s a surprise.”

“Tell you all about that some other time,” I said.

“Yeah, please,” he replied.

“So, this is how it’s going to work from now on,” I started, getting Parker back on track. He straightened up, almost as if he was snapping to attention. “We’re out of this place – now. We’re going to grab Dada – wherever the hell he is – and get on the move.”

“Can do,” he said with enthusiasm.

“When we move, you’re on me and Pili is on you and Dada. I’ll keep one eye on Ghia. We’ll keep Ghia on Marianne. And as we go, Marianne never leaves our sight. We’re a tight circle. Everyone watches the man in front and guards the man in back. Got me?”

“Shoot, move, and communicate – I know the drill.”

“Exactly,” I replied. I was beginning to feel some relief. With Parker and the team, I no longer had enemies in front and in back of me.

“Where to?” Parker asked.

“Away from here. I expect that this place is going to be crawling with LMOs in no time.”

“That’s probably true. They can’t track Marianne normally but she makes a helluva signature when she goes off.”

“Okay then. I need you to go back inside, take control of that crew, and tell them that we’re on the move to some other safe location. Tell Ghia that she can lead us. Make her take point. Put Pili at her back and make sure that everyone knows that further personal squabbles will only get Marianne captured and the rest of us dead. You’re the authority here, Parker. They’ll take it best from you, especially if you sound personally convinced and committed. I’ll be behind you in a minute.”

Parker gave me a broad smile. “Yes, sir,” came the reply. He turned and went back through to door into the safe room.

Inside, I felt a warm twinge up and down my spine. It was the first time in months that I’d felt anything but cold and anxious. However, Parker said something that I couldn’t get out of my head. He told me that Marianne knew something important was about to happen – and she told him that it begins with me.

Who was this strange little girl? What else did she know?

[Communication Relay:  21OCT2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

The Fifth Circle of Hell

fifth_circle_of_HellI woke with a headache that made my eyes water, my stomach turn, and my hands shake. It felt as if someone had pounded a handful of hot railroad spikes into my skull with a brick. I didn’t want to open my eyes. I didn’t want to move.

“Maxim!” a voice shouted. The brick returned and hammered the iron spikes deeper into my skull. Unbelievable agony. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear anything ever again.

Something struck my cheek with a rough slap. I winced and groaned.

“You alive, Maxim?”

I knew the voice. I opened my eyes. They stung with sweat. I blinked a few times. My vision cleared. Parker was kneeling over me. I didn’t know if I was out of trouble or in for more. His know-it-all smile made me cringe.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” he asked. The sound of his voice was like a dozen taiko drums pounding in my head.

“Shut up,” I whispered.

Parker nodded, still grinning. I glared at him. He didn’t seem to care.

It was the mother of all headaches. I rubbed my ears and came away with blood on my fingertips. I turned my head and saw Ghia face down on the floor next to me, gripping her head in her hands, and moaning into the floorboards.

“Quiet,” I groaned. I rolled over on my elbows and tried to get up. I thought I had a pretty good handle on things as I got to my feet, but my body had other plans. The room bobbed, then weaved. I tried to brace myself against the wall, but the damn thing feigned left, took a sharp right turn, and the floor snuck up from behind to crack me in the skull.

I howled in pain and covered my ears. My own voice sent a torrent of pain through my head.

I gave it a minute – just breathing, eyes closed.

“You shouldn’t move,” Parker said with a chuckle. “The dizziness will pass in a few minutes.”

“Uh huh,” I replied. “Thanks for the late advice.”

“Just trying to help where I can, spaceman. You know me –”

“I’m not done with him yet,” Ghia interrupted.

“The hell you aren’t,” Parker snapped. “Marianne says that he may be the one we’ve been waiting for. No one touches him – especially you.”

“Fuck you, Parker.”

“Shut up, both of you,” I hissed.

Parker leaned down over me again. “That little girl packs quite a wallop, doesn’t she?”

I reached out for Parker’s face but couldn’t judge the distance correctly. Parker stood and laughed at my wasted effort.

“What the hell is going on here, Parker?” I groaned. “Who invited you to the party? Where’s Marianne?”

“Well, aren’t you full of questions now.” Parker replied. “Ghia set off an alert when Marianne didn’t return home on time. So, I’m here as back-up.”

“You’re a valuable asset, Parker.”

“I do try.”

“And Marianne?”

“She’s with Pili, recovering.”

“She okay?”

“She will be, yeah.” Parker said. “In an hour or two she’ll be bouncing around again like nothing ever happened. You and Ghia, however, will feel like shit for days.”

“Good to know.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and reopened them, trying to ward off the spins. “And – what exactly happened? One moment this acrobatic assassin,” I said, jerking my thumb toward Ghia, “and I are having a lively disagreement, and the next I’ve got an eleven year-old screaming hammers into my ears. Then I wake up staring at you?”

Parker knelt down and looked me in the eye. “Marianne is a special girl. But I think you already knew that before she blasted you two.”

“Special may be understating it.”

“Yes, well, she has a few extra… talents. Something bestowed upon her by Dr. Robertson and your buddy Spegg.”

I hated Spegg. The mere mention of his name filled my head with visions of many deaths for that sorry creature.

“Marianne was enhanced?” I asked, confused. “I’ve never see that kind of –”

“They didn’t enhance the girl.”

“Ah.” I paused, then raised an eyebrow. “Then what the –”

“They made her.”

I chuckled quietly. “Like an LMO? That’s impossible. Pumping fish and reptiles with snippets of synthetic human DNA, sure, you can do that. But you can’t cross a human. There are laws, regulations, ethics –”

Ghia broke in. “Mierda. Your orderly little future is gone, shithead. There’s no such law in Bellingshausen. The fishheads do what they damn-well please.”

I shook my head.

“It’s true,” said Parker. “Marianne was one of the first models to roll off the line.”

“Don’t fucking call her a model,” Ghia spat. “She’s a kid.”

Parker exhaled. “Kid.”

“So how many more of these kids do they have?”

“A few. An army. Who knows? Marianne said that she saw groups of twenty, thirty kids in various parts of the genetics annex. But that information is over five years old. By now there could be thousands of Evols running around.”

“You can’t say that,” said Ghia. “We don’t have any hard numbers.”

Parker gave her a sidelong glance. “But if you ask me, Marianne may be the only Evol that matters. The fishheads want her back real bad.”

“Evols?”

“That’s what they call them. The brand name, I guess.”

“Sick bastards,” Ghia spat.

“Where the hell do they get the kids from? I mean, you said the water makes you sterile, and Marianne is the only kid I’ve seen in all of Bellingshausen. Surely they’re not growing them.”

“We don’t know. No one has been out of the Fifth Ring for half a century.”

“I don’t get it. Makabe never mentioned anything about this.”

Ghia sat up, wobbled for a moment, and then fell back to the floor. She turned her head and stared at me. Her mouth hung open. “Who the fuck did you just say?”

I scooted back a few feet from her. “I said Makabe never mentioned anything about this.”

“Makabe! Where the hell did you hear that name?”

“I didn’t hear it from anywhere. That’s who I’ve been working with for the last two weeks.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” Ghia screamed.

“Oh God,” Parker said, rubbing his eyes.

I couldn’t have been more puzzled. “What?” I asked.

“Makabe is Three-C,” said Parker, shaking his head.

“He’s what?”

“He’s a fucking enforcer from the Central Ring. The ranks don’t go higher than Three-C. It’s those pricks, then the Director, Spegg, and Wayne-motherfucking-Robertson. And you say you lived with him?”

“Worked with him, actually. I was staying in his little maintenance shack.”

“Oh, that’s rich,” Ghia laughed. “Makabe – posing as a janitor in the Fifth Ring. No wonder your little attack on the security post went to shit.”

“What? He set me up? No, that’s not possible. That was my idea.”

“Ha!” barked Parker, walking away. I saw him shaking his head as he turned through the doorway into the room where Marianne was recovering with Pili. I looked back at Ghia. Her expression was a mixture of disgust and – maybe – sympathy.

Your idea? Sure it was.” Ghia grumbled. “What the hell were you thinking trying to take out an LMO security post? I know you’re stupid, but that’s fucking suicide.”

“I got bored,” I said, smirking. “And I guess I was sick of seeing innocent people slaughtered, apparently by my hand, if you believe the news.”

“Yeah, the fishheads do love a good smear campaign,” Ghia snorted. “And the Fifth Ringers are about as gullible as they come. It doesn’t make sense. There’s no one of use out here at all. Drug addicts and thieves, the whole lot of ‘em.”

“I’m confused. Aren’t these the same people you and the others are fighting to save?”

“Oh, hell no,” Ghia blurted. She stared at me. “God, you’re stupid. You really don’t know anything do you?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Enlighten me.”

“Oh, you’re well past that point. Why should I even try?”

“I thought that I was here to help, Ghia. But all I get from you and your people is push-back.”

“Some help, yeah.” Ghia turned her head toward me. “Where are you from again?”

“Earth.”

Moron.”

I stared at her for a moment. “I grew up in Japan.”

“Right. And you came here from some kind of alternate future time zone.”

“I, uh… ” I began, but quickly realized that the story was a little long and involved. “Yeah, that’s right.”

“In a spaceship.”

“Yeah.”

“And how exactly did you do that? By flying’ into a black hole?”

“A wormhole, actually. Entering a black hole is not a good idea.”

“Whatever.” Ghia interrupted. “I’ll never know for sure if you’re telling me the truth, and you can’t prove it by predicting the future because you come from an alternate future where none of this exists, right?”

I scratched my chin. “Pretty much.”

Ghia set her jaw. “Um hm.”

“Look, Ghia –”

She cut me short. “So there are three possibilities here, she said. “You’re telling the truth. You’re completely bat-shit insane. Or you’re an LMO plant, here to root out and destroy our little pocket of resistance.”

I nodded and smiled. “Those are three possibilities, yes.”

“Well, whatever the case, once I can pick myself off this goddamn floor, I’m going to beat your ass until I get the answers I want. So we might as well try to enlighten you.”

“Might as well.”

“You read much, Max?”

“It’s Maxim. And, of course. Whenever I can.”

“Alright, Max. Well, I don’t. Very few books came to Bellingshausen. And I’ve only seen half a dozen in my entire life. But after my father died I found a book that he had stashed away in an old crate. Something called The Inferno.”

“So you can read?”

“Are you going to listen to me, pendejo?”

“Yes. The Inferno. Sounds remotely familiar. But we’re not big on gods and mythology in the future.”

Whatever. Many believe that we’ve been abandoned here. Fate – or whatever – dropped us off in the coldest, most dangerous shithole on Earth, and left us to wither away without any just cause. Here we all are. The weak go first.”

“You really believe that?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Ghia frowned. “In the book, Dante, the author, describes a journey through the Nine Circles of Hell. In each circle, he encounters the souls of the dead, suffering specific kinds of torture based on the wrongs they committed in life.”

I closed my eyes and shook my head. This was the kind of archaic thinking that led to so many centuries of human atrocity.

Ghia continued. “The Fifth Circle of Hell was where the wrathful fought each other on the surface, and the sullen remained beneath, withdrawn into a black sulkiness which could find no joy in God or man or the universe.”

“Sounds like Dante had some issues.”

“Be that as it may, Max, this is exactly where you are today. The Fifth Ring of Bellingshausen is the Fifth Circle of Hell – the place where all the rejects, the malcontents, the murderers, the thieves, the scum of the city are dumped, neutered, and forever imprisoned and tormented by the fishheads until the day they die.”

“And that’s your outlook on life, Ghia? This is your little circle of Hell. You’re fighting for lack of anything better to do and the future only offers you death?”

“Now you’re getting it.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. There’s a whole continent outside of the city. You picked me up outside the city. Why not just scale a wall and walk away?”

“Sure. Brilliant idea.” Ghia laughed to herself. “It’s the coldest place on Earth. Ninety eight percent of the land is covered in ice. There’s no food or water. No shelter from the elements. You can’t make a fire or dig a hole, Max.”

“Do the LMOs patrol outside the city?”

“Yes they do. They also have advanced-technology organisms patrolling the outside perimeter.”

I thought about the bugs crawling through the depths underground. I remembered the robotic insect the LMOs sent into the ship when I crashed.

“There are worse ways to die here, Max.”

“And this vision of Hell defines your day-to-day existence? This is it?”

“There’s no place to go and nobody to save here, Max. We are all damned. Yes, we fight because that is what you do in the Fifth Ring. You fight until you are beaten. And after that, some poor bastard takes your place until he is eventually cut down.”

“A race to see who can be the last man standing.”

“You got it now. Feel enlightened yet?”

I let out a long breath. My little grudge with Spegg and his group escalated tenfold. It was time to get up off the floor.

“Parker,” I shouted. “Get in here!”

[Communication Relay:  11SEPT2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Sawgrass

sawgrassIt was near dark and I was racing toward the old dojo where my uncle lived and taught Japanese swordsmanship. I was a young man in my fourth year at the deep space training academy at JAXA. I was headed to the dojo because I had received word that my uncle was going to be arrested. A special operations patrol had already landed to collect him.

My breath came in ragged gasps. I leapt over a barrier to the side of the footpath and cut through the tall grass that separated an ancient nature preserve from the land that my uncle’s family had owned for centuries.

Eamon, another JAXA Academy cadet, was trailing behind me by ten or twelve paces. Razor-sharp fen-sedge sawgrass blades brushed past the sleeves of my uniform. Through the thicket, I saw lights in the distance. The whole property was lit up. I leaped over a small brook and pushed through a denser mass of grass. The rooftop of my uncle’s dojo appeared just over the tips of the blades. I pushed aside the tall grass with some effort. The sawgrass was unrelenting. My hands were cut to ribbons. Some of the blades sliced into my neck and face. As we neared the edge of the grass field, I heard shouting from the lawn of the dojo. I shoved forward. Eamon had fallen behind. I could hear him complaining about the sharp cuts from the dense grass. I ignored him.

As I neared the edge of the preserve, I burst from the grass field and quickly came to a stop on the lawn in front of the old dojo. My uncle was on his knees, surrounded by a dozen patrolmen carrying stunner rifles. A huge tandem-rotor patrol copter sat on the lawn. It was an extended-cargo model, long and wide, meant for rescue – or capture. The great silver body of the copter sat on a series of three segmented legs. The forelegs dug deep into the rock garden, destroying the peaceful design. Lights from the copter lit the grounds around the dojo in crimson and amber. The quiet swoosh of the duo-fan propellers swirled the grasses and kicked up dust around the armed patrolmen on the lawn.

The patrolmen stood in a tight ring around my uncle, arms at ready. I heard garbled radio chatter coming from a number of them. A few shouted questions at my uncle, as they prodded him with their rifles and the toes of their boots. My uncle tried to calm them. They shouted and shoved him around, making a game of his captivity. They accused him of harboring an illegal armory of dangerous weapons and of teaching deadly secrets to his students. They claimed that his knowledge and his dojo belonged to the state. None of this was true.

Uncle was in his evening robe, un-armed and calm. His hands above his head, he shook his head at them and spoke firmly.

“You are here because I refused to train those who are professional criminals,” I heard him say. “I have done nothing wrong. These are not police matters. Your actions are illegally guided by the gokudō.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, old man,” shouted one of the senior patrolmen.

“Yes you do,” my uncle replied defiantly. “The Yakuza have many names. You know them all.”

The rifle butt came swiftly down and connected with my uncle’s jaw with an audible crack. He fell to the ground on his side.

I shouted as I began my approach. “This dojo is the property of sensei Setsuo Akihiko Musashi. He is a law-abiding citizen. You are here illegally!”

Two of the patrol officers rushed forward, stunner rifles held high. I raised my hands so quickly that ribbons of blood from the cuts on my palms spattered them both.

Setsuo rolled on to his back and waved at me to stand down. Eamon grabbed my shoulder. I shrugged it off.

One of the officers stepped forward. His stunner rifle was only inches from my chest. He and the other officers were tall, armored. I was a young man then, but highly-trained, strong and quick. If I had to, I could take all of them to the ground, armed only with a stick of wood.

I was about to take a step forward. Eamon reached out again and held me in place.

“No, Maxim.” Eamon said. “Leave this alone.”

“What do you have there, Hotaka?” called out one of the senior patrolman standing over my uncle.

“A kid,” he replied with a sneer. “A kid wearing an Academy uniform with JAXA and IDSA emblems.”

“Uh, oh,” added the senior patrolman. “Future of the space program right here in front of us.”

The other patrolmen around my uncle chuckled. I felt my blood boil.

The patrolman they called Hotaka stepped into my space and looked me over. “He’s going to fly to the stars and solve all the world’s problems,” he shouted back to his amused patrol. “Aren’t you, cadet?”

I stood my ground.

“Must take a lot of courage to pilot one of those crazy new ships to the ends of space,” Hotaka said.

I stood silent, taking slow, deep breaths, feeling my heart beat in my chest.

“Or maybe just a lot of misguided faith and natural stupidity. Eh, cadet?”

My fists clenched tighter. My fingertips dug into the cuts on my palms. My fists and forearms ached.

Hotaka leaned in toward me – even closer. I carefully eyed the barrel of the stunner he carried. It was well within reach.

He followed my eyes and gave me a knowing smirk.

“That uniform is hard to come by, kid. Be a shame to have a run in with the authorities and see all you’ve worked for – gone in seconds. Wouldn’t it, kid?”

Eamon put his hand on my shoulder again. “Let it be, Maxim,” he said. “Let them do what they have to do.”

Without taking my eyes off Hotaka and the barrel of his stunner, I turned my head toward Eamon. “These authorities take their marching orders from the Supreme Godfather of the Yamaguchi.”

Hotaka replied to that with a sneer.

“I don’t know anything about them, Maxim,” Eamon replied. “You’re a cadet in the Academy. You’ll be a fourth-year student leader in a few weeks. You graduate in the spring. Your career with JAXA is almost set in stone. None of this should matter to you anymore. Don’t blow this thing.”

I knew Eamon didn’t get it. He wasn’t Japanese. He came from a wealthy family in Ireland.

“You’d better listen to Jingai there,” said the patrolman, pointing at Eamon.

I knew that Eamon understood the insult but he remained composed and shook his head at me.

“Besides,” Hotaka started. “If you two borrowed a personnel transport from the Academy and flew it all the way out here, I’m pretty sure they won’t look kindly on that trespass.”

Eamon gave me a grave look.

“I sure would hate to have to write that report and transmit it to the security commander at the Academy.”

Hotaka was grinning wide. I stared back at him and thought him through. He was a low-level grunt in any capacity. He was having his fun. He would meet his bitter end someday.

“What you’re doing is wrong,” I said calmly. “But you’re not even a criminal of purpose.”

Hotaka was instantly enraged. “You think you know what the Supreme Godfather wants?” he shouted. “What makes you think that the kumicho cares anything about your uncle’s family line or this miserable old school?”

I steadied myself, took a deep breath, and let it out.

“You are nothing to him, cadet.” Hotaka spat.

I looked at my uncle. The patrolmen had pulled him up to his knees again and were securing his hands behind his back. Blood ran from the corner of his mouth. He didn’t speak. His jaw was broken.

In all my years of training under my uncle Setsuo, I had never seen the man powerless in any situation. He was a master of martial arts. His very presence was a weapon. He could defeat a room full of opponents with a wooden sword carved from an oar.

I couldn’t believe what was happening – and I didn’t know how to react.

Uncle Setsuo looked up at me. His eyes were soft, sad maybe. I felt pain in my chest welling up and pushing its way into my throat.

“What’s it going to be, kid?” the patrolman asked.

Eamon looked at me. I looked at my uncle. I stared down at my uniform. I felt the weight of countless years of study and preparation on my shoulders. Over the years, uncle Setsuo pushed me to excel in every human capacity. Eamon was right. If I stood my ground and took issue with the authorities, my time at the Academy would end before I could make it back to the barracks. All would be lost.

The patrolmen pushed my uncle toward the open prisoner bay of the copter.

I lowered my fists and stepped back. Eamon threw an arm across my shoulders.

Hotaka smiled and spoke into his radio as he turned to walk away. “We’re done here. Move out.”

My uncle, the man who worked so diligently to teach a haafu like me what it truly meant to be Japanese – and to live each day with honor, was seated and locked down for lift-off.  He was in the hands of patrolman on the payroll of professional criminals. I stood there and just watched.

As they lifted from the ground, uncle Setsuo looked at me one last time. His eyes narrowed.

Was it understanding or disappointment?

I stood there in the cool night air. My uncle was in custody. His future – and the future of the dojo – was now uncertain.

I looked away. The sawgrass cuts on my hands and face stung, burned. The roar of the copter disappeared into the night and I was left with only the noise of the crickets buzzing loudly. I was more confused and angry than I had ever been before. It made my head hurt.

The noise from the crickets grew louder. I reached up to rub my temples but my arms wouldn’t move. The sound swelled even louder. It was a terrible noise, like the echo of an awful, piercing scream. The lights around the dojo faded and I was consumed by the blackness around me. The noise grew louder still. My whole body grew heavy. The noise was unbearable. My skull was splitting apart.

I woke with an unbelievable headache and a terrible ringing in my ears.

[Communication Relay:  10AUG2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Shrill

Marianne_shrillGhia pushed Marianne behind her and took a step forward. In her eyes, a smoldering fire crackled and spit.

I took step back and held up a hand.

“Now, wait a minute,” I started.

Ghia launched herself at me and threw a sharp elbow at my temple. She was quick. I turned my head and heard the whisper of her sleeve within a centimeter of my ear. She leaned back on her heel and cocked her arm again. I brought up the butt of the rifle and shoved it forward. Her forehead bounced off the end of the stock with a crack. Ghia stumbled backward, covering her face with both hands.

Guay mi Mai!” she shouted into her hands. A trickle of blood seeped between her fingers.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked, backing away a few steps further. I wanted distance between the two of us – as much as I could get.

Marianne rushed to her side. “Aunt G, are you okay?”

Ghia mumbled something in Spanish and dropped her hands. Blood ran from a gash above her left eyebrow. Without taking her eyes off me, she shoved Marianne behind her again.

“Ghia, calm down,” I said. “We’re all on the same side here.” I lowered the rifle and put up my free hand again.

Ghia’s hands curled into tight fists. “Liar!”

“At least I thought we were,” I added.

“Auntie, please,” Marianne pleaded from behind her. Ghia ignored her. The quality of natural intensity in this woman was hard to believe.

“What were you doing with my girl?” Ghia spat, slowly advancing toward me again.

I kept my hand out between us and spoke in a calm tone. “It was a chance encounter. That’s all.”

“Bullshit!” she shouted.

The blood from Ghia’s wound had run the length of her face and curled around the edge of her mouth. It gave her an even more menacing appearance.

I raised my voice. “I was on a mission to take out an LMO security post when Marianne appeared out of nowhere. Things got out of hand and she kind of saved my ass.”

Ghia raised an eyebrow. Marianne peered out from behind her aunt and gave me a skeptical look. I rolled it over in my mind.

“Uh, okay, she totally saved my ass,” I confessed.

Marianne nodded, satisfied. Ghia’s expression didn’t change.

“Of course she saved your sorry ass,” she growled. “At only eleven years old, Marianne is one of the finest soldiers in the Fifth Ring.”

Soldiers? I wondered what that could possibly mean.

“But you – ” She paused to wipe her mouth. Blood came away on her fingers. “You are just damned lucky.” She moved forward and raised her clenched fists.

“Auntie, please,” Marianne said, tugging on her jacket. “Don’t do this. We need him.”

Ghia pushed one hand back and shoved the girl away.

Marianne protested loudly. “He may be the one we’re waiting for!”

“This piece of crap is not our savior, Marianne” Ghia shouted back.

“Don’t hurt him!” Marianne screamed.

“Keep quiet,” Ghia spat back.

Marianne scowled. Instinctively, I readied my stance.

“We’ve wasted enough time on this pendejo,” Ghia growled, as she charged me again, her fingers high in the air and curled into claws. I tried to sidestep, but Ghia stepped into the space next to me, changed her attack, and drove a knee into my gut. The breath burst out of me and I began to double over. Ghia threw a palm strike to my chest, sending me back upward. The rifle was caught between us and Ghia stripped it from my hand with a quick swipe.

In the background, Marianne began shouting, howling.

Her elbow came at me again. I shrugged a shoulder forward and took the brunt of the impact there. Caught up in a tangle, I pounded the side of her ribcage with the edge of my hand and followed up with a hammer blow to her wounded eyebrow. Ghia didn’t flinch this time. I felt her sharp finger tips gouge into my side with punishing force. Something in my gut went numb and I backed against the door behind me.

Ghia was relentless. She growled and cursed as she tangled up my every move and continued to strike out at my every weakness. Marianne continued screeching like an animal and shouting at the both of us.

My head began to hurt.

Ghia ignored Marianne’s cries and focused on working me over. A fist to my chest. An elbow to my collarbone. A knee to my side. I pushed back against the wall and covered up. She was a street fighter with a lifetime of experience. I was out of my depth here and could do little more than protect my vital points.

Marianne was shrieking louder. It was difficult to concentrate. Ghia tried to bring a fist up under my chin. With both arms up, protecting my face, I gave a quick shove back. Ghia came at me again.

My ears rang.

Ghia glared at me and stepped in again for a new round of blows. She had madness in her eyes – and blood running from her ears.

The world grew painfully loud and dizzying.

Ghia drew back an arm, tight against her chest but didn’t follow through. Her eyes glazed over and she winced in pain. One of my ankles went weak. I focused on Ghia, putting a hand out to steady us both.

I tried to speak but nothing came out. All I could hear was Marianne. At the end of the hall, the young girl was doubled over in a fit of rage, her mouth open, shrieking. It was an ear-splitting wail. But the noise in my head was twenty-times more intense. Ghia was stopped dead in her tracks. My skull pounded and my arms grew heavy and dropped to my side. Ghia’s knee gave out and she fell against the wall and slid to the floor.

I pressed myself against the wall behind me and tried to stay on my feet. I couldn’t think straight. The noise. It was inhuman – far too loud for any normal scream, even from an eleven year-old girl. But now I only heard the noise in my head. And my head was about to explode.

I hit the floor and flopped around in an uncontrollable seizure. I tried to raise a hand toward Marianne but she had grown hazy and dim. Her mouth hung open; her eyes shut tight, her face twisted up in anger.

As I rolled on the ground, weak and writhing in agony, I saw Ghia limp and twitching. Marianne’s scream was a shrill knife edge in my skull. Daggers twisted and turned. It was searing heat and freezing cold at the same time. THE NOISE!

In my head, the pounding was horrible. I squinted against the noise and the pain. I tried to cover my ears but the sound was inside my head.

I wanted it to end. But Marianne wouldn’t stop. She was frozen in place, locked in, unleashing it all.

I saw bright flashes before my eyes. I thought I smelled something electric in the air. The hallway tilted to one side and my stomach turned. I couldn’t make use of my hands anymore. My head rolled to one side and I looked up at the young girl assaulting us both. She stared blankly back at me. Her lips were bluish-white. Her every muscle was tense. Her face was ashen. Her dark hair hung in tangles over her shoulders. And blood ran red over her pale cheeks from the corners of her… huge, black, unblinking eyes.

I couldn’t move or think. I gave in. The noise in my head grew sharp in intensity and everything suddenly turned perfectly dark… and silent.

[Communication Relay:  01AUG2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Big Things Come in Small Packages

cold_bore_shot_triggerPing. Under the optics headgear, my earbud link-com came to life.

“Take your shot and get out,” Makabe warned. “The ring is going to be crawling with fish as soon as that thing goes off.”

I grumbled as I wiggled into a better position on the rooftop and sighted in. “Relax, Makabe. It’s not like I’m going to nuke the place. Point and click, and I’ll be home for dinner. ”

Makabe made a small grunt of frustration.

“Seriously, I got this.”

“That’s what worries me,” Makabe said.

I smirked, peering at the acoustic images of the two LMOs through the outpost walls. “Glad to know I have your vote of confidence. Perhaps now would be a good time for an inspirational Japanese proverb.”

Makabe was silent for a few moments. I shook my head, waiting for the inevitable.

He made a small noise of amusement. “Alright. How about Saru mo ki kara ochiru”.

“Uh huh. Great,” I said, edging the rifle forward onto a mound of packed snow.

“Even monkeys fall out of trees.”

“Yeah, I know the meaning,” I said. “Not exactly what I was looking for.”

The rifle shuddered in the gusty wind. I tried to keep it still by laying my free arm over the barrel and watched as one of the LMOs crossed the room and took a seat at a terminal near the far wall. For a first-time trial with this weapon, I thought that picking him off should be somewhat easy.

Ni usagi wo ou mono wa ichi usagi wo mo ezu?” Makabe interrupted. “One who chases after two hares won’t catch even one.”

“That’s even worse,” I said in a whisper.

I activated the power cell on the rifle and a dim red targeting reticle appeared in my field of view. At the bottom the readout flashed: Connecting… Connection established.

“Come on, this is good stuff, Maxim,” Makabe joked. “You should pay attention.”

“My attention is a little divided at this moment.”

A numbered meter on the right side of the optical display ticked off the height of the building, ran a few calculations on the construction of the outer surface, the mass of the objects in the room, and then conveyed the information to the rifle.

A message flashed in the optical display: Target area resolved.

“Well I don’t know what to tell you,” Makabe replied. “You’re not a very good listener.”

I narrowed the focus of the reticle and snapped the charging handle forward. Six knuckle-sized diaphragms along the side of barrel responded in kind, inflating to the appropriate volume necessary to discharge the acoustic pulse at the exact frequency required to pass through the brick wall, travel a short distance through the room, and deliver a wakeup call to the two fishheads inside.

“No? Okay, I’ve got one for you. How about… abura o uru.”

There was a pause on the line. “Heh? You want to sell oil? That’s not a Japanese proverb.”

“It’s from the Edo period. Perhaps you’re a little too young to remember,” I quipped. “Nevertheless, the idiom refers to oil salesmen who waste too much time chatting up the customers instead of focusing on the sale.”

“Ha!” Makabe replied. “Fine. I’ll leave you to your little game. See you at the morgue, Maxim.”

“Hilarious,” I said, and dropped the connection. I focused on the seated LMO at the terminal. The other LMO was busy pacing the room – a moving target. Apparently he was highly upset about something. His big fat lips were flapping wildly and he was flailing his arms about while his friend sat and stared at the screen in front of him, bored, or unconcerned. I tightened my grip on the rifle and lightly ran my index finger across the grooves on the trigger. “Just like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Suddenly the top left corner of my visual field brightened. I hastily disengaged the targeting display. A gleaming white Skua was rotating out of the sky, its bright landing lights shattering the darkness. I cursed and re-checked my target. The seated LMO was up.

“Dammit!” I said aloud, and quickly activated the targeting system once more. The dim red reticle snapped into view. I lined up the cross hairs on the room, centering them between the two LMOs, and took a quick breath. I let it out slowly, and halfway through, squeezed the trigger. The reticle flashed twice and the rifle made a brassy thrum. In the distance, a snow bank on the ground in front of the building burst noiselessly into a large cloud of ice vapor.

The display lit up: Target area impact failure.

“What? Impossible.” I leaned in and gripped the rifle as tightly as I could. A strong wind kicked up and I patiently waited for it to pass. When it did I squeezed off another shot. A nearby streetlight exploded into a shower of sparks.

Target area impact failure.

“Shit!” I pounded my fist into the snow, and glanced back at the rooftop. The oblong, smooth, egg-like Skua had landed on top of the outpost building. Eight pools of yellow light drifted up and out from the craft, illuminating a wide sphere around the transport. Seconds later, the hatch opened and two LMOs stepped out. They were talking casually, which meant they hadn’t noticed my little fireworks display.

“Fine,” I whispered to myself. “Easier shot up on top anyway.” I pivoted the rifle on the mound of snow and the computer sighted in on the rooftop targets. When its new calculations were complete the display flashed: Target area resolved.

I pulled the trigger. The rifle sent forth another shot with the same brassy thrum. In the distance a little patch of air over the rooftop swirled innocuously.

Target area impact failure.

I closed my eyes and dropped my head in disbelief.

A childish giggle came from directly behind me.

“What the…?” I jerked my head around to find the young girl from the hallway, Marianne, standing upright and perfectly still in the eighty-kilometer-per-hour wind. Unbelievably, she stood in the blistering cold, dressed in her faded blue jumper and over-sized workman’s cap. Her hair wasn’t even blowing.

I rolled over and trained the rifle on the girl. The genuine impossibility of what I was seeing before me stunned me silent.

She stared at me as if I were an idiot and gave me a wide smile. “Old man, have you ever fired a rifle before tonight?”

I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. “What are you doing up here?” I shouted. “How do you—”

Marianne interrupted. “Why are you so angry at the snow bank over there?”

I raised my eyebrows under the optics headgear. “What?”

“You keep shooting at the snow,” she said with a giggle. “What did it ever do to you?”

So, Marianne was both creepy and sarcastic. “Gosh you’re funny,” I said. “But, seriously, little girl, you better start talking. I am the one with rifle, you know.”

“And you clearly know how to use it,” Marianne quipped, stepping forward.

“Stop!” I barked, throwing out a hand. “I’m not such a bad shot at two meters.”

“Prove it!” the girl chuckled, and moved closer.

“I’m not kidding!”

“Oooooooooooooh! I’m scared,” she said, refusing to stop.

“Alright, then.” I switched the rifle to a short-range burst mode. It wouldn’t harm her, but she’d certainly learn to listen. “I warned you,” I added, and lowered the barrel to her feet.

“This will be fun.”

I pulled the trigger and a dull thrum issued from the end. Marianne didn’t flinch. I gasped as a sphere of charged plasma sprang to life, emitted a soft blue light that bubbled completely around her body and vanished.

Marianne giggled. She put her left hand out and rotated it slowly, showing me the shimmering silver and blue band around her left wrist.

“You like my bracelet?” she asked with a smile.

The band around her wrist flickered with energy. “Never seen one before,” I said. “Looks like it throws out a decent particle barrier.”

“Yes, it’s very handy,” Marianne replied.

“That’s a lot of tech for a little girl. Where did you get that?”

“Probably the same place you got that fancy muddler,” Marianne replied, gesturing toward my rifle. “Hey, I got an idea! Why don’t you let me show you how to actually use that!” she added, reaching out and deftly yanking the rifle out of my hands.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”

Marianne smirked, unplugged the optics link from the rifle, and dropped it at my feet. I stared in amazement. She shouldered the rifle, eyeballed the outpost, and twisted a number of dials underneath the barrel.

“Everybody knows that the headgear targeting optics are crap,” she said, sliding open a hidden chamber on the rifle’s stock. She removed a small pump from the hole and gave it a few squeezes. The diaphragms on the barrel inflated just as they had when the computer downloaded the targeting data.

“Hey, I didn’t know that was there.”

“That’s not surprising,” Marianne replied with a grin, and lifted the rifle to her eye.  ”Were you aiming for the fishheads in the outpost or the two on the roof?”

I turned and squinted at the building. “Well, I started with the two inside, but I think there’s something wrong with—”

Marianne pulled the trigger. BOOM.

The outpost exploded into a hail of brick and mortar, as if an invisible giant had punched a hole through the building, from the inside out. No fire, no smoke, just devastation. My jaw dropped open.

Smiling, Marianne lowered the rifle and cocked an eye at me. “You were saying?”

“Uh, nothing.”

“Thought so.” She brushed a strand of curled brown hair from in front of her eyes and raised the weapon again. “Probably don’t want to leave those two on the roof, do we?”

Now stranded on the rooftop, the two LMOs from the Skua ran from edge to edge looking down at the damage to the building. The shouted at each other and appeared to be trying to raise assistance over their link-coms. I grinned to myself.

I looked back at Marianne who was already readying another shot. “Uh, no. I don’t think—”

She pulled the trigger again. BOOM.

The Skua on the rooftop burst into a shower of lethal fragments, many of which sliced right through the two LMOs who had been attempting to run for cover. Marianne lowered the rifle, eyeballed the area, and raised the weapon again. “Ooh… We got a straggler.”

I jerked my head around, searching. “What? Where?”

Marianne plucked the trigger. On the street below, there was a quiet little splat that turned the surrounding snow blood red.

“Wow,” I gasped.

Marianne yawned. “Anything else you want dead?”

I was about to reply when the city’s ear-splitting alarms suddenly screamed to life.

“Uh, maybe later. We should probably get out of here.”

The girl grinned and pointed my rifle at the horizon. “Here come the guppies.”

I spun around. Throughout the ring dozens of Skua were launching from rooftops, their red and yellow emergency strobes flashing through the snow clogged streets. Near the center of the ring a harsh, thin column of white light shot upward into the sky. An instant later, something deep in the atmosphere caught the beam and reflected it back into the city. And as if day had just broken, Bellingshausen surged to life.

“That’s disturbing,” I said fighting the wind to get into a crouch. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“No? That’s the so-called ‘Eye of Spegg’,” Marianne said, grimacing.

“The Eye of Spegg?” I groaned. “That’s the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”

“Tell me about it,” Marianne replied. “But whatever it’s called, it’s not good.” Marianne leveled the rifle at an oncoming Skua and fingered the trigger. The windows exploded outward in a hail of glass and body parts, and the craft instantly dropped out of view.

I shook my head in disbelief. “How in the world did you learn to shoot like that?”

“Weapons were really the only toys I had when I was growing up,” Marianne said, stroking the barrel of the rifle.

When you were growing up?”

Marianne grabbed me by the wrist and pulled. “Yeah. Let’s go. This barrier won’t protect the both of us very long.” When her hand touched mine, the force of the wind and the blistering cold abruptly vanished, and a haze of dim blue light briefly clouded my vision. When it cleared, everything was awash in bright, flickering yellow and red light, as a half dozen Skua swarmed over the rooftop.

“Stop or die, scum!” came a voice from a loudspeaker.

“Ha, right!” Marianne said under her breath.

We ran for the door as the distinct blat blat of the Skua’s pulse weapon pierced the air. The blasts slammed into our shield and shoved us down into the snow. The shield sparkled and bubbled in hazy blue hues, absorbing the blast that would have easily vaporized the both of us. Marianne growled, turned, and fired the rifle over her shoulder, but the shot strayed wide and dissipated into the artificially bright sky.

Mierda!” Marianne fumed, looking down at the bracelet on her wrist. The blue light fluttered. “My aunt is going to kill me if I fry her bracelet.” She sneered and fired again, shearing off the engine of another Skua vying for a shot. The burning aircraft veered left, caught the edge of the building and burst into flames as its energy core tore open. Marianne grinned wide.

In response, another Skua sent a blast of energy that slammed us both violently into the door. A sharp pain tore through my back. “Son of a bitch!” I screamed.

Marianne howled in pain, staggered backward and dropped the rifle to the rooftop.

“Alight, I’ve had it,” I shouted. I grabbed the weapon and turned, firing a shot at the bastard who had knocked us down. The acoustic bullet penetrated the cockpit cleanly and instantly liquefied the pilot, spraying a shower of blood all over the glass. The air car pitched violently upward, and dropped like a rock onto the rooftop with an anti-climactic thud.

“Nice kill.” Marianne groaned.

“Told you I wasn’t a bad shot at two meters,” I said with a haughty smirk.

“More like lucky.”

“Whatever.” I slid door open and the two of us bolted down the stairs. Another blast ripped through the entryway above and rained debris on our heads. Marianne outpaced me down the stairs, taking two and three steps at a time, and vaulting around the corners on the handrails.

We busted out of the stairwell onto the ground floor. The bright light from the artificial sun raged through the lobby’s massive windows. Outside, small crowds of LMOs were closing in from every direction.

“Here they come!” I shouted. “Which way are we going now?”

“Hold on a sec,” Marianne said, reaching into one of the pockets of her cargo pants. Finding nothing, she tried another. “Where in the world did I put that thing?”

I glanced at the door. Dozens of transgenics were sprinting toward the building. I stuck my thumb out, indicating the oncoming mob. ”Hey you know the bad guys are almost here, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, just a sec.” Marianne twisted her mouth pensively as she patted down her pockets. “I thought I had…. Oh! Right.” She bent over and pulled up her pant leg. There in her sock was a glass vile, capped with a scrap of paper and a rubber band. She held it up to the light. Scores of tiny metallic pellets rattled around inside the container.

For a moment, I stared in disbelief. “What is that?”

Marianne looked at me flatly and said, “The welcome wagon.”

Marianne placed her thumb over the top and shook the vial vigorously. As she did, the little pellets inside began to glow bright red.

A chill shot up my spine. “Pretty,” I remarked.

“Yeah, well, I was planning to use these on you.”

“Oh?” I felt my fingers squeeze my rifle a little tighter.

“That is, until I saw you trying to take down that outpost. Though, it was kind of cute.”

“Thanks. And I’m all for hanging around and reminiscing about the good ol’ days, but,” and I stabbed my finger toward the front doors where the mob of LMOs were just about to bust in, “we’re about to become fish bait.”

Marianne nodded, almost annoyed. She drew back her arm, and heaved the vial toward the front door. The glass smashed on impact, scattering the glowing red pellets across the floor. Excited, I waited for an explosion, maybe a bolt of lightning, or even wormhole to pop open…but nothing happened. Nothing.

“What? That’s it?”

Marianne rolled her eyes. “Wait for it.”

I tapped my finger on the rifle as a crowd of fish soldiers crashed through the door. And suddenly, as if exploding from a projectile weapon, the bright crimson pellets shot up from the floor, and perforated the first wave of LMOs with a high pitched zip-zip-zip, like a swarm of angry wasps buzzing your ear. Every single one of them was dead before they hit floor.

“Interesting,” I said, and gave Marianne a sidelong glance.

“Motion sensitive. Pretty simple to make, actually. I’ll show you sometime.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but the girl was already off and running.

“Come on!” she yelled, halfway down the hall.

I followed her down into the basement of the old building, and though several well hidden hatches that led to floor after floor of rat infested filth. We were much, much deeper underground than I had ever imagined Bellingshausen could possibly go. We entered a maze of tunnels carved out of the ancient ice itself. I shivered as we walked for what seemed like the better part of a dozen city blocks, until we finally reached what appeared to be a dead end in front of a solid wall of ice.

Marianne waved her hand past the wall of ice, and instantly the illusion vanished, revealing a thick, metallic door behind. A dull crimson light, barely visible, illuminated a small access pad. Marianne whispered her name and the light switched to green. The door swung open noiselessly and warm air blew out into the hallway with a gush.

“Come in already,” she said, waving me in after her.

I tightened my grip on the rifle and tapped the trigger. Cautiously, I stepped inside, into a narrow and dimly-lit hallway.

Marianne disappeared around a corner, calling out “Auntie! I’m home!”

A woman’s shout split the silence. “Sweetie?” The voice called from around the corner and deep in the structure. I stopped moving, lowered the rifle and stood in the dim hallway, quietly waiting.

Quick, oncoming footsteps clomped against the floor. The sound was heavy. Boots.

Marianne appeared again from around the corner, backing into the hallway. She was staring at whoever was rushing toward her. Without a glance in my direction, she raised an arm and pointed toward me. A nervous twitch started in my stomach.

The boots hit the entrance to the hallway and stopped. A loud voice rang out. “You’re in big trouble, young lady. Where have you… ”

The girl’s aunt appeared in the hallway. Tall, thin, toned, and dressed to kill. She had pointy fingers and a swath of short black hair. Her eyes, dark and deeply impatient, moved from her niece to me, and her face instantly flushed with rage.

My heart jumped when I caught her gaze. I took an instinctive step backward.

Her mouth grew ugly and twisted as she shouted. “Marianne, where the fuck did you find this pendejo prick!”

Oh shit. Ghia.

[Communication Relay:  14JUNE2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Strange Encounters

Marianne_in_the_darkBellingshausen at night: The snow-streaked winds rushed through the streets and alleys, howling like an angry phantom searching frantically for warm, live bodies to consume.

I poked my head out from a recess in a building front and looked up into the sky. There were no signs of patrol traffic. Looking up and down the street, I saw no ground movement in either direction. I stepped out and darted to the adjacent side. The motion-sensitive street lamps caught my movement and brightened. Shadows immediately leapt in every direction. I ducked inside the opening to an alley, stopped moving and waited. Through the thermal facemask, my every exhale was a huge cloud of white vapor. I covered my mouth and tried to stifle my breathing. A minute passed. No sounds. No movement. The lamps dimmed again, returning the street to darkness.

I slipped out of the alleyway and slowly edged toward the entryway of a four-story tenement building. If I stayed out of the center of the streets, the motion detectors would not catch my movement, allowing me to slink through the shadows toward my target. The wind blew across my chest and face, pushing me forward through the snow drifts. I skidded to a stop at the doorway and momentarily lost my balance on the icy walk. My knee bashed against the ice-covered step and the thick barrel of the sound wave rifle I carried on my back banged against the door with a loud clang. The impact on my knee sent a river of pain up my thigh. Once again, I stopped still, not breathing, just looking and listening. No noise. No lights from above. I stood up, rubbed my knee with a gloved hand and pulled Makabe’s flexible map from my jacket. As I unrolled the map, the display flickered to life and rotated to center on my location. A small red dot blinked next to a highlighted rectangle among a dense clutter of other buildings. I reached up to a snow and ice covered plate above the keypad next to the door. I brushed it clear enough to read.

Number 426. The Bimson Building.

This was the location.   

I found the building earlier, while Makabe and I were looking over a series of regional planning maps of the outer ring. For hours, I had listened to the eccentric maintenance man ramble on about the purpose and history of various buildings in the region. This building was special not for its history or its current purpose, but for its proximity to another building. The roof offered a clear vantage point over one of the LMO outposts for the area, making the rooftop a tactically-advantageous perch. It was then that I decided to take the sound wave rifle and recently-modified optics headgear out for a field test. Makabe made a lot of aggravating noise about “ill-conceived forays” and “dangerous territory” during the hours leading up to my departure. I ignored him. No part of Bellingshausen was safe at any time for anyone. He stomped around for a bit and then went to work on one of his little projects. I went out as planned.

Now, I stood in the entryway, holding myself up against the persistent wind and struggling to focus on the code sequence that would open the door. Makabe had given me a full-body thermal suit meant for outside work in hostile temperatures. But my whole body shivered; my muscles cramped into agonizing knots. I stabbed at the keypad with a gloved finger. My hands shook and my thick-gloved fingertip danced erratically over the keys. The keypad flickered red and buzzed harshly at me. The door remained closed. I wanted to scream.

I reached up and pulled my facemask down, put the end of the frozen glove between my teeth and bit down hard. With a quick jerk, the glove came off. My bare hand burned in the freezing wind and my fingers stiffened. I punched the key sequence into the pad again. The light turned green. The door opened. I rushed in and palmed the ‘close’ button hard, shutting out the cold and wind.

The sound of the door closing echoed off the walls of the dark first-floor entryway chamber. At first, I could see nothing. Through the silence, I heard water dripping in the distance. I pulled the hood of the jacket back and stripped off my facemask.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness and I saw a low amber light that illuminated the secondary door to the lobby. I crouched down and took a few deep breaths of warm air. The shaking in my limbs subsided. I flexed my fist a few times, pulled off my other glove and shook the numbing cold from my arms.

The floor was wet. The smell was unpleasant. Like the underground, a musty mix of age-old dampness, moldering rubbish, and peculiar food odors.

I tapped the earbud link-com once and heard a soft ping. “I’m in the building,” I whispered.

Makabe’s gruff voice came through on the other end. “How did the thermal suit work?”

“I’m freezing. I can’t stop shaking.”

“Impressive,” Makabe replied. “If it didn’t work, you would be dead in a snow drift by now.”

“Can you see me?” I asked. “Am I showing up on screen?”

I heard Makabe make a few grunting noises. “No. I see nothing more than a small, wavering blip, like that of an animal.”

I opened my jacket and looked down at the blue-lit buzzer that I had fashioned to fit over an asset tag unit hidden beneath a dermal patch. I tapped the device and the light dimmed.

“How about now?” I asked.

“I see you clearly – big red blotch. Turn that back on. You don’t want to attract attention in there.”

I tapped the buzzer and the light brightened once again. “It’s sending out enough interference to keep me cloaked from any local scanning units. You’ll still be able to guide me, now that you have my indicator marked. If I have any kind of encounter with the fishheads on patrol, I can strip the buzzer and the asset tag will display me as nothing more than an outer-ring maintenance apprentice.”

“Ha!” Makabe exclaimed. A wave of static swelled and the earbud squealed.

“Makabe… ? Come again.”

More static, then a voice. “I do not enjoy wearing this device.”

“Understood. For now, you’re my eyes. Keep watching. I’m going up.”

I got to my feet, un-slung the sound wave rifle from my shoulder, and stripped the weapon of its cover. I pulled the power cell from my jacket pocket and snapped it in place. I released the charging handle and the rifle made a high whine. The digital readout on the cell reservoir blinked to life. Full charge. The light on the firing mechanism glowed red. With the companion optics headgear in place, I could have enhanced vision that included thermal and acoustic imaging. This made for a perfect nighttime sniper combination. But the headgear interfered with normal sight and hearing enough that I decided not to don the mask until I reached the roof level of the building.

I checked that my knife was still tucked into an inverted sheath between my shoulder and collar for quick access by either hand. Good to go.

I heard the low pulse of a Skua passing by the building overhead. I sat motionless until the sound faded into the distance. I stood and switched on my torch. A thin beam of white light shot across the dark entryway. I passed through the secondary doorway that led to the lobby of the main floor. The building was a run-down human tenement, converted decades ago from a medical building. I waded through a swamp of trash and standing water on the lobby floor. A series of dim amber pathway lamps lit a corridor leading off into the heart of the building.

I shone the light around. There was gang-related graffiti across the walls. There were a few propaganda ads for the LMO project; all were shredded. My breath hung cold in the air. I crossed the lobby and found the personnel lift. There was a door to the right of the lift marked stairwell. The lift appeared functional enough. Not knowing what kind of noise and commotion the old lift would create, I chose the stairs instead.

The old building was four stories in height. I activated the earbud and allowed Makabe to talk me up the first two floors to the third.

“Cross the third floor to the far end,” Makabe directed. “There is a stairwell on the opposite side that will lead you to the roof access point.”

“Acknowledged.”

Quietly, I stole across the third floor, traversing its winding hallways and darkened common areas. This, according to the signs still mounted by the stairwell, was a maternity ward. The tiled floor squeaked under the soles of my wet boots. I moved quickly but cautiously until something moved ahead in the darkness. It was a small outline of a figure that passed before an opening to a side hallway, barely visible in the periphery of the torchlight.

I switched the rifle to my shoulder and pulled the knife free. I switched off the torch and hugged the wall. I moved slowly on, feeling my way through the darkness, one hand on the wall, one hand with the knife at ready.

I tapped the earbud. “Any threats?” I asked in a whisper.

Makabe’s voice came back. “I see nothing. The floor is empty. Move on.”

I peered into the darkness. Another movement. A dark shape on a black background. A breath, barely audible. Knifepoint high and forward.

“Who are you?” asked a small voice at the end of the hallway.

I stopped moving. My heart thumped. I switched the torch on and carefully let the light move up the hallway, illuminating a girl no more than ten years old. She had dark eyes, a dark face, and a tangle of long brown hair that spilled over her narrow shoulders. She wore a faded jumper that might have been blue at one time. An over-sized workman’s cap sat low on her head. She put one hand out to shield her face from the light. Her other hand fidgeted with something behind her back. Her dark eyes narrowed.

“This corridor is to be unoccupied at this hour,” I said in a low voice. “Move along.”

The girl cocked her head to one side, as if she was unsure of what she was seeing and hearing. An uneasy feeling crept through my guts. “No,” she said. “I don’t think I have to.” Her voice was eerily soft and confident. It had a subtly menacing effect.

“You’re not supposed to be here.” I said.

The girl gave me a puzzled look. “But I’ve always been here,” she replied.

Her words were cold but certain. Had I not just come from the blizzard outside the building, I would have detected a shiver along my spine.

I flicked the light at her and stepped forward a few paces, letting my heavy boots clunk against the flooring. The ruse didn’t work. The strange girl straightened up and held her ground.

“What’s your name, citizen?”

She let out an odd snort and cupped her free hand over her mouth. Her dark eyes stared through the light with great intensity.

“Your name,” I asked again. I was growing uneasy and impatient.

“No,” she replied with an impertinent tone. “I asked you first.”

“Report,” I said sharply, stepping forward again and letting the full light beam shine in her eyes.

As the light illuminated her face, she hissed, squinted and shielded her eyes with her free hand. I pushed the light forward. She took a step back.

“Marianne!” she exclaimed. “They call me Marianne.”

I let the light beam drop to the floor. Marianne put her hand down. Her eyes narrowed again. She leaned forward, staring hard at me through the darkness again. The hand behind her back moved, as if she was trying to keep something concealed from the light. It made me nervous.

“Where is your home, Marianne?” I asked.

The girl smiled at me. It was a wide and eager smile. I shifted my feet. My growing discomfort brought up a prickly sweat on the back of my neck. I flicked the light at her again. She shifted her body and cocked her head to the side.

“I know you,” she said with an oddly-warm tone.

I dropped the knife to my side and flicked the light up to her face. She smiled again.

“Who are you? Where do you live?” I asked. My patience was growing thin. “What are you carrying behind…”

Her wide smile quickly faded into a hostile sneer.

I drew my knife up with a quick motion. The girl spun and ran off down the hallway in the opposite direction. I stood still, following her with the light beam until she rounded the corner and disappeared. Her footsteps echoed off the walls until a door activated and closed somewhere out of sight.

I let out a breath, switched off the torch and stood in the darkness. What just happened?

I tapped the earbud. Makabe answered. “I’ve been seen,” I told him.

Makabe’s reply was panicked. “Who saw you? What happened?”

“A very strange young girl. Nothing happened. She ran off.”

The link was silent on Makabe’s end. I waited a few moments and tapped the earbud. Ping.

Makabe cleared his throat. “You would be well-advised to abort and leave that building,” he said. His voice was firm.

I flicked on the torch again and waved the light beam around, searching. She was long gone. “Negative,” I replied. “I’m still going to have a look from the topside.”

“Listen!” he shouted. A wave of prolonged feedback from the link-com squealed and hissed in my ear. I winced. Makabe continued to bellow but I couldn’t understand him through the interference.

When he stopped shouting, the line chirped a few times and cleared. “Come again,” I asked.

Makabe let out an annoyed huff. “You said you saw a young girl? A child, a human child?”

“Yes. Just a girl. No more than ten or twelve years old. She ran off. She was a little eccentric but she’s no threat.”

“Maxim, listen to me carefully,” Makabe began in a serious tone. “There is no such thing in Bellingshausen. Human reproduction is outlawed. There are no children here. What you’re describing is not possible. You are in danger. Leave immediately.”

I raised the light beam to illuminate the end of the hallway where Marianne had disappeared. I thumbed the knife blade nervously. During all my time in Bellingshausen, I had not seen a single child or even a young adult under the age of thirty. But that didn’t mean much in this case.  Anything was possible in this bizarre place.

“Maxim…?” said Makabe impatiently.

“I know what I saw, Makabe. Call the patrols if you like. Tell them about it. In the meantime, direct me to the roof access point.”

Makabe grumbled and cursed in Japanese. “Forward from your present location,” he said. “Next right turn. Stairwell up. Two flights. There’s your door.”

“I’m on the move. Maintain your connection but keep it silent.”

“Maxim, if you see that girl again… avoid her at all costs.

“Acknowledged.”

Crazy old man. I shook my head, slid the knife back into its sheath, shouldered the rifle again and got moving.

It was a short two flights up. At the top was a doorway with an access keypad and a broken security camera that hung loose from a tangle of frayed wires.

I punched up the same access code that gave me entrance to the building and stepped out. The wind caught me by surprise, twisting my body around and sending me skidding across the surface of the roof. I reached out for the edge of the doorway. My fingers slipped away. I twisted in the wind again and my feet shot out. Before I could tumble and pitch off the edge, I dropped flat to the roof and spread myself out. The wind blew over me, turning my body slowly on the slick rooftop toward the retaining wall at the edge.

With my eyes closed tight against the snow and ice blasting across my body, I pulled the optics headgear out and down over my face. I fingered the raised activation node at the jaw line and the advanced-vision headgear came to life in a flurry of colors and readouts. The enhanced vision feature created a binocular-wide field-of-view. The information and color streaks confused my eyes. A dull throb began at the base of my skull. I raised my head and looked around at the buildings that surrounded me. Under the thermal imaging, the landscape was predominantly lit in dark purples and deep blues, indicating sub-zero temperatures. Each building was punctuated by small flares of orange and red where some heat was provided for living quarters. In the distance, the tall spires that made up the city center burned with bright yellow light. The Central Ring Complex.

A few bright red embers in the sky flitted around the central towers. Skua patrol hovercrafts. As I focused on the objects in the distance, the optical display gave readings in meters. The off-axis targeting feature kept objects highlighted even when not in direct line of sight. It was a strange experience. It felt like my head was untethered, floating out there somewhere in the distance.

Under the thermal display, the city was truly beautiful in the night. But for all the light and heat and energy at the center of the city, the outer-most ring remained dark, a testament to the deplorable conditions. I remembered my mission.

Fighting the push of the wind at my back and feet, I crawled prone over the rooftop to an adjacent edge and raised my head to look at the target building across the street. The thermal showed me a dark green structure, also four stories in height. Square-ish, red blotches marked the heat signature for each of the rooms within. I focused and tuned the optics for a sharper image and watched in amazement as the depth and structure came into sharp relief. The top floor was well heated and the physical shapes of two LMOs stood in view through the solid outside wall. I shouldered the rifle and switched on the acoustic imaging. I could see them clearly: a couple of tall, muscular fishheads with wide mouths, and large eyes.

I tapped the earbud through the headgear. Ping. “Targets acquired.”

[Communication Relay:  28MAY2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Undone

Maxim_undoneUnder the soft glow of the work lamp, I labored through the night on a set of earbuds, picking them apart with a simple multi-tool. The earbuds were from the LMO I killed in the alley days ago. Makabe had earlier shown me the communications feeds that ran through the systems in the maintenance room. I wanted to modify the earbuds and tune them to a signal I could hide among the other feeds. I almost had it working. Makabe interrupted.

He came to me with a grave look on his face and dropped his data scroll on the worktable. The flexible scroll unraveled, stiffened, and flickered to life with a bright red headline.

“This announcement was broadcast across all systems in the rings,” he said in a raspy voice. “Read it.”

I put the partially-reassembled earbuds down on the table and pushed the small work lamp away. I looked at the data scroll. Underneath a red, flashing headline was a short statement. I read it aloud.

“Bellingshausen security patrols are looking for an intruder in the outer rings wanted for acts of terrorism and an attack on a patrol unit that killed a special operations lead. He is violent and unpredictable. The public is at risk.”

I pushed the data scroll back across the table to Makabe. He raised an eyebrow.

“Alarms have finally sounded from the Central Ring Complex,” he said.

“Sounds like frustration and panic,” I replied.

“Yes,” he groaned, lowering himself into the seat across from me. “No time for irrational acts.”

“How’s that?”

“An LMO security patrol has been unleashed to hunt you down in the streets and the underground. All eyes are looking for you.”

I was prepared for this eventuality. “It was only a matter of time before the LMOs retaliated,” I said. “I expected as much.”

Makabe appeared disturbed by my lack of alarm. “They are on a hunting mission to find the one who killed Q’Roth in the city streets.”

“It’s a ploy – nothing more.”

Makabe screwed up his face. “It’s terror for terror, the beginning of the end for these foolish games,” he shouted. “They want to reclaim their prize and they will not rest until they see you in the clutches of their interrogation team. They are frustrated. There will be violence.”

Makabe was right. I was a wanted man. The LMOs would use the opportunity to take their frustrations out on the city. But by creating a panic among the citizens, they would also ensure that there was no place to hide. I had to face it head-on. I had to go into the heart of it.

“I want to go in, see this for myself,” I said, rising from the worktable.

Makabe let out a huff. “You are either fearless or stupid,” he said with a chuckle and a disapproving shake of his head. “You are putting yourself directly into their hands. If you do not fall to them in the marketplace, you will certainly bring them back with you.”

“I’ll find my way in and I’ll find my way out,” I replied gruffly.

Makabe rubbed his weathered face with his hands. He pushed himself back in his chair and let out a deep breath. “Only a fool… ” he began.

“Wrong,” I interrupted, as I tucked my blade into the sleeve of the coat. “I am not the kind of man to hide here in this place. I will not shrink away, Makabe. People are being terrorized for my actions.”

I turned away to grab my coat. Makabe leapt from his chair with a shout. “Stupid haafu!”

I turned back slowly and glared in disbelief at the old man. My expression gave him a start.

“You…” he started, his voice tainted by a slight tremble. “You dishonor your upbringing.”

“Why would you say that?” I asked sternly.

“Here, in this place, you are inexperienced, untrained. I can accept this. But proper Japanese youth have been taught to seek the respect and the advice of elders.”

I did not reply at first. I leaned in close and stared at the old man. He remained quiet but unbowed.

“Then you would do well to listen to me,” I said in a firm voice.

Makabe’s brow furrowed. He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. I fastened the front of the coat, slipped the multi-tool in the pocket, and let myself out the door into the blasting wind and ice.

The lamps over the city streets had once again turned hauntingly crimson. I moved from building to building, with eyes upward, cautiously watching the sky for patrol units in Skua hover crafts above. In the distance, I heard their distinctly mechanical, pulsing sound. They were moving away. The cold wind cut through my clothing and lashed at my exposed skin. I took cover in an alley and flattened myself against a wall.

My hands shivering, I pulled Makabe’s map from my coat pocket. The display on the map flickered, brightened, and rotated to center on my location and heading. Against the background of streets and buildings, I saw the entrance and exit points that Makabe had highlighted for just this kind of surreptitious movement in and out of the underground areas below the city streets.

I chose a mechanical room that had a ventilation intake and an access ladder visible from the street. I punched Makabe’s maintenance access code into the panel to the side of the door and entered. The room was dark and smelled damp. I pulled a small torch from my pocket and flicked on the light. The room was a tight snarl of hot steam pipes and ventilation ductwork. Leaking steam filled the air with the smell of rust and mildew. A sweat broke out under my heavy coat. In the center of the floor was the down hatch that Makabe’s map had identified. I spun the operating wheel and the hatch came up with a hiss. Tucking the map back into my coat, I let myself down and followed the central ladder system to the substructure below.

Once again, I entered the Bellingshausen underground – dim lights, damp walls, human smells. Throngs of people milled about the stalls, begging and bartering for everything, anything.

A stimulant peddler wrestled with a crush of humans at his stall. He swapped injectors for food, water rations, and favors. People clawed and shouted and begged. Enforcers – probably gang members – beat them back from the stalls when there was no more left to trade.

All too familiar. In my own time, I had personally witnessed the vaccination shortage riots that broke out across Southeast Asia in the mid-2030s. I was astounded and horrified in the same. I kept out of it and maintained a low profile. I wandered and watched for a while, sticking to the shadows feigning a slow, slumping walk. I kept my hood down and my eyes up. I passed easily for one of their own. I was just another ghost wandering through the tunnels and passageways. I was no one. I was invisible.

The dim interior lights shifted from yellow to a cautionary red hue. Alarms rang out with a guttural blat, blat, blat noise that made the skin crawl. An LMO security patrol, black-clad and bearing anti-riot weapons, scrambled through a swarm of human citizens in front of me. I stood back in the darkness, flat against the wall. Boots splashed through the wet and the muck underneath. Truncheons swung back and forth, clearing a path through frightened citizens. Over the grunts and the snorts, shouts rang out. “Search them out. Over there! Consult your data feed. Identify and round them up.”

Them? Aren’t they looking for me?

Three LMO sentries took their positions across the corridor from my place in the shadows. Bright view screens on forearm cuffs lit up their faces. Transgenics. Living modified organisms… fishheads. In all my years, I’ve never grown accustomed to their green sinewy skin, wide mouths, and large, black, unblinking eyes. A few other sentries stopped to consult the data with the other three. The screens swarmed with data, illuminating their ghastly faces. A red pulse indicated a target direction. An intermittent ping began. Heads snapped up and forward. They pointed into a group of individuals, barked commands and waved around their weapons.

Patrol groups swarmed around groups of humans, separating them from the rest. I pressed my back hard against the wall. There was light between the guards and me. They could not see through the light into the darkness beyond. They were close, very close. I was one with the wall. I could see their eyes, hear them breathing. My knife slid from the sleeve of my coat. My fingers wrapped around the hilt.

Two sentries stood over a cowering man. One of them consulted his forearm cuff. “This is one of them,” he said. “He goes with us.”

“I did nothing,” shouted the man, looking up at the sentries. “What did I do?”

A senior LMO stepped forward and raised a charged staff over the man’s head. The knob end crackled and sputtered with electricity. “Shut up, you outer ring filth!” he shouted. He grabbed the frightened man by the collar and jerked him savagely to his feet. “I’ll ask the questions around here,” he growled. “Don’t make me personally drag your body from here.”

The man bowed his head in terror. His body shook. My grip on the knife tightened, but I did not move.

The senior sentry with the staff ordered the man secured with wrist cuffs. The security patrol crew escorted the man hurriedly from the location. The man complied. Smart move… for now.

The patrol unit pushed past, moving quickly through the crowds. I leaned in far enough to brush a shoulder with one of the escorting patrols.

“Watch it, scumbag,” he growled. “We can take you out of here too.”

I backed up and they moved on, eyeing onlookers with vile scrutiny. The crowds parted to the periphery and allowed the patrol to push past without a glance in their direction.

I kept my head down and shuffled with a crowd further down the corridor. The threat was far from eliminated with this one arrest. The security patrols moved quickly and decisively from one location to another, asking questions, making demands, hunting citizens.

I followed the flow until the passageway narrowed and the crowd began to fold back on itself. A river of panicked humans began pushing past, heading the opposite direction. Expecting that something was happening further up, I pushed through the crowd, walking with a steady clip. I rounded a corner and entered a dark, unfinished section of the market. I splashed through the water pooled up in the center of the floor. The sound echoed off the walls. The noise made me wince. I moved quietly to the edge near the wall and felt my way along the corridor. Condensation dripped from the ceiling and spattered my face. I stepped around a few wooden and metal beams that held up crumbling sections of the structure.

Ahead, I saw a flickering light coming from around a corner to the right. I heard an angry electrical sizzling and popping. A voice shouted over the noise. I quickened my pace.

The light grew brighter as I approached the final turn. I crept quietly to the edge and and peered past the corner. A withered Asian man stood against a rocky outcropping in the shadow of a massive LMO sentry. His eyes were tightly closed. He was in agony. The LMO wore a pair of charged gloves, standard issue for riot police in 2186. But they were never used for this kind of senseless torture. The man was weak, defenseless.

When the gloves were fully charged, the sentry raised an open, glowing palm and struck the man across the face, casting a shower of sparks over his body and down to the floor below. The man’s back arched then collapsed as the energy dissipated. He moaned feebly. A few more of those and he would be dead for sure.

The LMO shouted over his communications link. “Patrol leader, this is Khorl. Come in.”

There was no response. The sentry was too dumb to realize that the electrical discharge was disrupting the signal to the earbuds. He was cut off from his team… alone. I slipped around the corner, moving in slowly and quietly, hoping the sentry wouldn’t sense my approach until I was close. My fingers wrapped tightly around the knife.

“Patrol leader, this is Khorl. Respond.”

The gloves sparked and snapped as they charged up again. He reached out and struck his victim once more. The man shuddered violently and slid to the ground in a pool of filthy water. The next strike would kill him. I stepped closer and raised my blade to eye level.

“Patrol leader… ” The LMO broke off and spun around. His large black eyes went wide with surprise and rage. “You!” he shouted, thrusting his gloved hand out toward me.

The double-layer electrode coil in the palm of the glove glowed brightly as it charged. The LMO leapt forward, swinging his open palm at my head.

I side-stepped and threw my body weight behind my shoulder, knocking his arm away. The LMO staggered. I slashed up and down with the knife edge, cutting deeply through the skin and muscle of the forearm. The creature snarled with pain and pulled its wounded arm close to its chest.

“I will gut you with that knife!” it screamed.

I raised the blade and thrust forward. The LMO dodged and slapped my shoulder with the glove, setting off a blinding flash and a loud pop. I hit the wall with a jarring smack and slid to the wet floor. Stunned, my muscles buzzed and tightened.

The LMO roared in delight and shook its fist at me. “Amateur,” he growled.

I tried to push myself up off the ground but my legs wouldn’t move. I was weakened, trapped. Wait for the tingling to subside, Maxim. Wait…

The creature sniffed loudly and stepped toward me. It looked down at its injured arm. The deep wounds poured blood into the water on the floor. It raised its head to the ceiling and roared again. “Sar has many plans for you, chikushou!” it shouted. “I hope he won’t mind if I kill you first!”

It stepped cautiously toward me. I pushed out with my legs but couldn’t find the strength to get to my feet. The creature moved closer, palm glowing and crackling. My heart pounded. The electrode coil in the center of his glove turned bright orange and hummed with increasing intensity. The beast was charging up for a killing blow, taking its time. As the electrode coil reached maximum charge, it popped and sputtered.

The LMO peeled back its fat lips into a twisted smile, revealing two rows of sharp, black teeth. It lunged with a guttural scream. I pushed my shoulders back against the wall and drove a high kick to its midsection. It barked in surprise as my heel connected. It toppled backward into the standing water on the floor.

There was an explosion of electricity as the charged gloves shorted out in the puddle. The creature’s body tensed, arching its back, going completely rigid. I pushed off the wall, slid across the wet floor to the side of the beast, and punched the knife into its heart. I twisted the knife. The LMO shuddered, gurgled, and fell silent. Its dead, black eyes continued to stare up at me in disbelief. It was over quickly. I stood up, breathing heavy. I was covered in blood and muck. I spat at the foul thing.

I stepped over the body of the dead sentry and rushed to the man on the ground. I shook him. He was unconscious. His pulse was weak but he was alive. I would have to move him, get him away from the scene, otherwise he would surely be blamed for this attack.

I looked back at the LMO. Blood pooled up around its head and spread quickly through the water on the floor. I tucked my knife away and pulled the charged gloves from its hands. I stripped the earbuds and went to work removing the forearm cuffs.

I heard a gasp. A woman, older, dressed in black, stood in the entrance to the alcove. She had one gnarled hand raised to her lips and her eyes were wide with alarm. She did not move.

Cautiously, I raised an open hand. She continued to stare back, frozen in place.

“I am not what you believe me to be,” I said in a reassuring voice.

The hand at her mouth trembled. I stood up, raising both hands into the air. She dropped her quivering hand and pointed at me.

“Wait…” I started.

She let out a scream.

I leapt over the body of the beast and ran past the wailing old woman, back through the passageways. The water and muck underneath made the footing difficult. I slid around the corners, slipping and falling once, hitting a shoulder and knee hard against the floor and soaking most of my clothing. This is not good.

As I ran, I pulled Makabe’s map from my pocket and unrolled it. The map’s digital readout spun, locked, narrowed, and finally pinpointed my location. I was nearing the far end of a tunnel with no place to go but back. I came to a dead end where the overhead system of pipes and ducts converged and disappeared through the wall. I looked at the map again. My fingers played across the screen, zooming in on the duct works and the ventilation system. I traced a route from the overhead shaft to what looked like a kitchen in a ground-level shop. I tucked the map away and climbed up on the pipes in the wall. When I was high enough to reach the vent shaft cover, I pulled the multi-tool from my pocket, selected a driver, and quickly went to work. In a minute or two, I was in and pulling the cover closed behind me.

It was a long crawl, made only possible by the map Makabe had given me. I exited in the kitchen of a noodle shop. Lights out, the establishment was vacant. Consulting the map again, I saw that I was only a few blocks down from my initial entry point.

I found the exit and ran through the snow and wind with my wet outer-layers and sweat-soaked clothing quickly freezing to my skin. My legs and back ached from the cold. When I reached the maintenance room entry, my fingers could not work the keypad on the access panel. The wind kicked up. I felt solidly frozen. As I breathed in, my throat and lungs were assaulted by super-chilled air. I leaned on the door and threw an elbow hard against its surface. The door opened and I collapsed at Makabe’s feet.

The little maintenance man pulled my nearly frozen body in and closed the door. I struggled for breath and shivered. Makabe leaned over me and shook his head.

“You’ve managed to return,” he said with a curious smile.

Out of breath, I nodded.

“What did you see?”

“Patrol groups. Rounding citizens up.”

“Your troubles are just beginning, my old friend.”

I gave him a puzzled look.

Makabe stood and put his hands on his hips. “Bad things are happening. You’ve now been blamed for the attack on the two human citizens in the marketplace days ago.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “We witnessed that attack. It was two LMO patrolmen.”

“There’s more.”

I sat up, with a little help from the old man. “What is it?” I asked, still gasping.

“Three more deaths have been attributed to you.”

My heart thumped.

“Another LMO patrol officer was slain.”

I nodded. “I found him torturing…”

“And,” Makabe cut me short, “they discovered a human citizen electrocuted at the same scene.”

“It wasn’t me.”

Makabe held up his hand and nodded slowly, as if he understood. “Maxim…” he said in a serious tone. “An old woman was slashed to death as well, cut open from her throat to her belly.”

I stopped breathing.

“She was gutted like a fish. The patrols are calling you a deranged assassin.”

I stared at Makabe’s face. His eyes lowered. He shook his head.

“The LMOs are making sure that all of Bellingshausen is fearful of you. They are killing in your name – and rounding up witnesses to cover their actions.”

I let out a long, exhausted breath and leaned my head back against the door. A bitter wind howled just outside. My heart thumped steadily in my chest. Blood and ice covered my frozen hands. I made a tight fist and watched a trickle of icy pink water run down my wrist.

“Maybe Bellingshausen needs a deranged assassin,” I whispered.

[Communication Relay:  08MAY2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Weapons Check

weapons_checkIt was an atrocity exhibition in the underground marketplace. I saw LMO patrol units brutalizing and terrorizing the human citizens over mere food and water. The last human refuge on Earth was under attack by LMOs in the service of the man they called the Director and his associate Dr. Robertson. Unforgivable.

And although I had neither seen nor heard evidence that Spegg was involved in this criminal act, I could easily imagine him whispering just this kind of madness into the ears of all who would listen.

Makabe lead me back to the maintenance room and left me. He told me that he needed to go to another maintenance access point in the vicinity and re-route some feeds. I didn’t know if that was truth or lies and I didn’t care. The incident with the LMO thugs in the marketplace left me broiling in hateful thoughts and impulsive ideas. I set to work.

The maintenance room reminded me of the ShinkaiMaru5. It was uncomfortably cold and dark. A low hum came from the walls, the floor, the ceiling, everywhere. Once again, nothing was working out right. Just like my months stranded on the SM5, I was tasked with overcoming the insurmountable. I was battling against crazed LMOs. I was pulling together scraps of resources, trying to make a plan. I am no better off here than I was out there.

I spent the better part of the day and evening laboring under a small work lamp. I examined the pulse rifle that I had recovered from the dead LMO in the alleyway. The rifle was damaged. I could see the available charge but I couldn’t get the power to transfer from the cell reservoir to the receiver and the firing mechanism. I began pulling it apart.

I struggled to work with the few tools available for doing detailed repairs. My brow furrowed and dripped sweat. As I worked, the memory of the brutalized couple in the marketplace played again and again, making me more angry and frustrated with every passing moment.

One of the tools I was using to detach part of the receiver housing snapped in half. I threw the broken implement across the room, cursed at it, and swept the table clear with my forearm, sending tools and parts clanging and clattering to the floor. The dark carbon blade I had also stripped from the LMO spun in a circle on the ground. I watched the spinning slow and then stop. I stood and snatched the blade from the floor.

The knife was dense but lightweight. The cutting edge was thinner than a human hair. Some laboratory bladesmith engineered this weapon down to the nanometer. I imagined that a motivated person could carve their way through a wall with this knife, without incurring so much as a nick or a scratch in its finish. I paced for a while, flicking the point of the blade with my thumb.

As darkness returned to Bellingshausen, Makabe came back to the maintenance room. He banged on the door three times with his toolbox. Old codes still work well.

I punched his access key numbers into the panel, unlocked the door, and stood back as it slid open to reveal a screaming torrent of ice and snow. The little maintenance man, covered in frozen drift, stepped out of the storm and the door slid shut behind him. The howling wind was again silenced. He began stamping his feet.

“It’s dark in here,” Makabe said with a huff.

“I was busy; I didn’t notice.”

Makabe activated the florescent lights. With a clink clink and a low hum, the overheads flickered to life. The room was cast in greenish light. Makabe dropped his blue toolbox on a table and stood staring at me.

“You are bleeding,” he said, pointing at my hand.

I looked down. Unbeknownst to me, I had carved a gash in my thumb with the blade of the knife. “Like I said, I was busy.” I pressed my thumb and forefinger together to staunch the blood flow.

Makabe approached the table and looked over my work. He made a low grunt in his throat. “And what do you plan to do with all this?” he asked, pointing to the partially-dismantled rifle and the scattered parts on the floor.

“A bit of a repair project,” I replied. I bent down and began gathering the parts off the floor and lining them up on the worktable again. “I have to get it working. After that, maybe I can modify it a bit.”

“Hmm,” Makabe replied. “That sounds like the beginning of a larger plan. You are prepared for this?”

“Yes. I’d like to select a few targets for a… field test.”

Makabe murmured to himself. He shed his gloves and began opening his heavy coat.

I sat at the worktable and began re-assembling the rifle.

Makabe placed his hands on the edge of the table and leaned over his fingertips. As I fit the pieces of the rifle together, he hovered over my work. It reminded me of my examination periods at the academy. Makabe cleared his throat.

“Maxim…” he started, his voice full of grave concern. “Through violence, you may solve one problem, but you sow the seeds for another. What do you think you’re going to accomplish here in Bellingshausen?”

“This city is sick with genetically-modified madness. I’m planning to correct a few problems, see if I can work my way to the heart of the disease.”

“What will this do for the people here?”

“Maybe, if I’m successful enough, I can save some of these people from hostilities. Give them a fighting chance.”

Makabe eyed me for a bit. He let out a deep breath. “You are not a trained warrior, are you?”

“No, not entirely.”

“Some of your anger is precipitated by guilt, yes?”

I made no reply. I sat in silence. I took it.

“Losing your history, your country, and your people fills you with anger and shame.”

The words stung. Don’t make this personal, old man. I snapped together the remaining pieces of the rifle, fed the actuator back into the firing mechanism and let the charging handle slide into place. The rifle made a high whine. The digital readout on the cell reservoir reported the charge level. The light on the firing mechanism glowed bright red. The weapon activated. Makabe raised an eyebrow and stepped back from the table. I smiled.

“Someone once told me that I needed to help save these people. That message cost him his life. We weren’t close, but I knew him just the same. I’m keeping up my end of the bargain, Makabe. Let’s discuss something else.”

Makabe made a low grumble. He slid a chair to the worktable and eased himself in with a groan. “We can change the subject if you wish,” Makabe said, drawing out the last word. “But you should know that you are woefully unprepared to meet these challenges. If you continue on this fool’s errand, I cannot help you.”

“I disagree. I know the enemy, the resources, and the weather. After I examine the layout of the land, I can begin to make some changes for the better.”

“Ha! All theory,” Makabe shot back. “You are convinced that you are making a rational tactical plan.”

I nodded.

“What you do not know is that Bellingshausen is a city designed with rings within rings. In these outer rings, there is a limited presence of authority by the LMO patrols and limited risk to you. But the fist grows tighter as you near the central ring areas. Bellingshausen is built from the inside-out, with the tightly-secured Central Ring Complex housing the entire ongoing LMO development program.”

“What will I find as I near the central ring?”

“You will find nothing. You will not come close enough to the Central Ring Complex to see anything but an army of LMOs appearing from every direction. Their shouts will drown out the howling wind and their fists and their weapons will blot out the meager light over your body. You will not survive an attack on the heart of the city.”

“Every enemy has its weakness, Makabe.”

“And a poorly-planned battle has its casualties,” he replied. “Be smart, Maxim. You are a valuable asset to either side of this conflict. If you truly wish to come to the aid of our people, do not rush off and throw yourself carelessly into the heart of the battle.”

“I was sent here for a purpose.”

“And you will fulfill that purpose,” Makabe began. I cut him short, slamming my fist down on the table.

“I failed already, Makabe!” I shouted, my words echoing off the walls.

The old maintenance man didn’t flinch. He just looked at me. He sniffed and rubbed his nose.

I let out a deep breath and calmed myself. “I had the data and all the records I needed to set things straight here, Makabe.”

He nodded.

“It’s all gone now, taken by Sar and his thugs.” The memory infuriated me. “I must do something to help these people. If Sar is keeping the data and records to himself, then I should try to get it back.”

Makabe nodded again.

I put the rifle down on the table between the two of us. “If there’s a chance that I can alleviate some of the suffering out here, then I have to take that shot. You of all people should understand this.”

“Me?” Makabe said with a chuckle. “I am a maintenance man. I put my faith in well-honed tools. I only understand that you are one man. You are alone in a city you hardly understand. You have a single rifle and a short knife.”

“Every battle, great and small, began with one or the other, Makabe. I have to try.”

“You could easily find yourself dead, your cause lost entirely.”

“It happens to the best of us, I suppose.”

“Well, Maxim,” Makabe said, standing up from his chair. “Clearly you are a man of great principle. I am glad to have met you. If you survive the first day, it will be… interesting to mark your progress going forward.”

“At least I’m doing something,” I replied with a sneer.

“Gah!” he exclaimed, raising his hands. He began to shout. “Bellingshausen has already seen its fair share of ideological madmen and blunt instruments. If you truly intend to correct some great wrong that you help put into motion, then you will need more than an angry heart and a handful of steel.”

Makabe turned his back to me and shook his head. I could hear his heavy breathing.

“I don’t believe that I have a choice in the matter, Makabe,” I said firmly.

The old maintenance man turned to face me again. He made no attempt to hide his displeasure. He took a long breath and let it out. “I understand,” he said. “But, before you go out into the cold and stalk unfamiliar territory with your unproven weapon, I have something to show you.”

Makabe turned to a bank of monitors and activated them. One by one, the bank of systems sprang to life. I stood up. I was amazed. Makabe gave me a slight grin.

The maintenance room clearly monitored much more than ducts and pipes and tubes and the like. I saw city-wide operations details, readouts, data streams, systems mapping, fluctuation reports, and bottleneck alerts. I saw communications systems and data for basic city exchanges. There were separate systems that monitored water, power, and waste management. I also saw private communications, secured and unsecured data streams. I stared at it in disbelief.

“This is an amazing amount of data. Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?”

“I know little about you, Maxim. I wanted to make certain that you were a man of high integrity. By aiding you, my life is forfeit.”

“Understood.”

“I also thought that I could possibly dissuade you from making a foolish run at the heart of the city by giving you something to help coordinate your efforts.”

I stared at the screens. Makabe accessed security data for the region and I saw reports on LMO patrol movements. I leaned in. Each report detailed activity and response from LMO units in the area.

“The Director and Dr. Robertson have linked the Central Ring Complex computer systems with all automated systems in the city. They use this cybernated system technology to coordinate all of the technology, machinery and equipment that serves the entire city. They also use their systems and their power to dictate and monitor individual’s lives.”

“This is just a historical record?”

“Yes. There is no access to data on planned future movements. But you can see where they’ve been. Much can be monitored from these terminals, like tapping into an electronic autonomic central nervous system that extends into all areas of the city. If you are technically adept, you may be able to make a few tactically-advantageous predictions from this maintenance node and others like it.”

“And if I want to find the LMOs from the market, the ones who terrorized and attacked that man and woman?”

“You don’t need this information for that,” he said with a wide grin. “You can pick up your rifle and wander out into the city. They will find you.”

“Help me, Makabe,” I asked firmly.

He let out an agitated huff. “The LMO with the live mace is called Khlorr. He’s a soldier working for Sar. But he is nothing more than a dumb brute. The other LMO is unknown to me, a new conscript, perhaps.”

“Bad luck for him, I suppose. Guilty by association.”

Makabe turned back to the worktable and pointed at the rifle. “Your rifle, is it a distance weapon after all?” Makabe asked.

“I suppose. I’ve never seen one like it. Initially, I thought it was a short-range energy or pulse rifle of some sort.”

“Not the case?”

“No. It’s composed of a series of highly-focused acoustic lenses that serve to deliver a compact but high-energy acoustic pulse.”

Makabe furrowed his brow.

“It creates a solitary wave, like a sound bullet. And it’s tunable to a degree, with orders of magnitude and power. In theory, it may even work through layers of media.”

“Meaning…?”

“It shoots through walls without creating a disruption and detonates within the target on the other side.”

Makabe stared at me for a moment. I continued. “If it works, it would be like having a sound explosion tear open a target from the inside-out, even if that target is behind a solid wall.”

“Impossible,” he blurted.

“Not at all. In fact, the headgear I pulled off the LMO confirms it.” I held up the enhanced vision goggles the LMO wore that night. “Thermal and acoustic imaging. See what you are shooting at through walls and see the damage the weapon creates. Evidently, Q’Roth didn’t have the optics activated, when I met him in the alley, otherwise he could have seen me from hundreds of meters away.”

“What does that tell you.” he replied with a snort.

“It tells me that this is probably new technology and Q’Roth was too reliant on his muscle and bravado to treat the weapon with respect. In the end, it got him killed.”

I pulled the goggles on over my head and the optics came to life. Inside, the room was awash with a red glow from all the pipes and ducts and wiring. The goggles were wide. They fit an LMO’s skull type, with ocular cavities set apart further than those of a human. It hurt my eyes. I slipped them off and looked the goggles over. There would have to be some adjustments.

Makabe eyed the goggles with blatant skepticism.

“One of the optics is the sighting mechanism. The other allows for either an unassisted view of the forward environment or a focus on the target area. In here, all I can see is red.”

“You cannot see through the maintenance room,” said Makabe. “We are completely surrounded by heat and energy.”

I was surprised that he knew this. I tucked that thought away. “I plan to take this outside, give it a field test, see if I can track Khlorr and the other LMO from the marketplace.”

Makabe stood back and brushed the remaining snowmelt from his coat. “Well, if you believe that you are equipped to jump into this battle, you certainly don’t need the further advice of an old maintenance man.”

“That’s not true.”

“Yes, well, people like you only experience success through superior strength and aptitude. You clearly believe that you have plenty of both, I can see.”

I was quiet for a few moments, staring at the old man as he pulled a cloth from his pocket and rubbed his nose with it.

“I’m no fool, Makabe. I can use all the help I can get. These are the last of our people out there. We owe them everything we can give.”

“And I can give you all the help I am afforded. You are a man of great honor, I can see, but your wits are sometimes held captive by your heart.”

I’ve heard this before.

Makabe stepped closer. He looked me up and down, sizing me up, gauging my preparedness. It was a gesture I had seen a thousand times from my uncle Setsuo.

“I’m ready,” I stated.

“We shall see,” he replied.

[Communication Relay:  26APR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Hidden Among Stones

patienceThe cloth blindfold wrapped around my head and covered my eyes. I could only hear and feel his presence in the dojo. I was anxious. I drew a long, quiet breath and steadied myself. The smoke from the candles in the room tainted the air. I thought that I could feel their warmth on my cheek.

My uncle Setsuo crossed the mat, advancing toward me from the front. I heard him step. The floor creaked. I tuned my ear. His breath was shallow and his moves almost silent. I sat, enshrouded in darkness, trying to count his steps, feel his movement. He took another step and the mat below my knee moved. He was close. My grip on the handle of the wooden katana tightened and my fingers twitched.

I would strike only when I was certain. I focused on the sounds and waited. I thought I heard a breath. The flame from a nearby candle shuddered. I waited a moment longer. With a swift and practiced movement, I pulled the wooden sword from its sheath, swung out at a forty-five degree angle, and struck… nothing.

I felt his staff tap me in the center of my chest. I turned my katana and swung backwards across the space in front of me. Nothing… again. The staff tapped my chest once more. I was baffled.

“Your heart is strong, Maxim,” my uncle said. He was leaning over me from behind.

I let out a frustrated sigh.

“Impatience and hesitation both come from the heart,” he said. “If your mind and your senses are unfocused, your heart will always betray you. Remember this.”

“Yes, uncle.”

I pulled the blindfold from my eyes and…

I was awakened.

Blinding light streamed into the maintenance room through the open door. A cold blast of air shocked the room. Squinting, I scrambled to get to my feet. A figure stood in the light. I held up my hand to shield my eyes. The knife I’d been clutching while I slept fell to the floor with a clatter.

Through the light, I saw a figure of a man in outline alone. He had a slight frame, too small in stature for an LMO. He stood perfectly still.

“Who’s there?” I asked, stepping backward from the entryway and the excruciating light.

There was a pause. The man let out a “humph” in a low voice and turned and shut the door. Darkness enveloped the room. I took a step back, snatched up the fallen blade from the floor and held it in front of me.

“I am Makabe,” he said with a gruff and distinctly Japanese accent. “I am maintenance for this sector.”

Overhead, a series of fluorescent lights flickered to life with a soft metallic clinking sound. I squinted again. He was an older man, naturally aged, probably eighty years or so, with deep wrinkles in his face. He carried a large blue toolbox in one hand. He wore an old leather coat with a deep, fur-lined hood. Thick, dark goggles wrapped around his head. Atop his wrinkled brow, he had a tuft of short, thick gray hair. His heavy gloves and boots were covered in ice and snow.

He pulled the dark goggles off, showing narrow, black eyes and dark, thick eyebrows. He stepped from the entryway into the room, set his toolbox down on the worktable, and began pulling off his gloves by the fingertips. “I don’t receive many visitors here,” he said with an irritated tone.

“I was lost in the storm last night,” I lied. “I needed shelter.”

“I believe you are the one they’re looking for, the one that attacked and killed Q’Roth.”

The abruptness of the statement caught me off-guard. I hesitated and sized him up. Makabe the maintenance man appeared genuine enough. He was too old to be a sentry or a patrolman, too dirty to be a professional hire of any kind. Something didn’t add up. I kept my guard.

“I suppose,” I replied in a whisper.

Makabe gave me a long look. “You are haafu. Half-Japanese, yes?”

His mention of Japan made me feel more at ease. “Yes,” I replied. “My father was a US Naval Officer stationed at Atsugi. Japan is my country, my home.”

“Nothing lives there anymore,” Makabe said, shaking his head. “Our people are gone. They are no more than sparks within smoke.”

Makabe eyed the knife blade. He put out his hand and waved it down with a cautious gesture. “I am just an old man. Your weapon… please.”

I lowered the knife to my side, keeping my stance and distance. “Nothing here is as it appears to be.”

“Yes. Still though, your attack on Q’Roth was desperate and foolish. You are obviously not from here, not from Bellingshausen.”

“Why do you say this?”

“Killing him was not a wise move on your part. Q’Roth was a special operations lead and a high-ranking sergeant in a criminal faction called the Aryū.”

“I don’t know anything about that. He and another LMO were hunting for me. They had an animal.”

“Yes, the Madrai. Ill-tempered, vicious creatures. But they are reliable. An excellent hunting crossbreed, I would suppose.”

“I also saw a vehicle hovering above, searching.”

“It was a Skua, a personal transport vehicle used by patrols to track down human citizens from overhead. Although there are many ways to move through the city, the sky belongs to the LMO security forces.”

“The dead LMO in the alleyway…” I began.

“Q’Roth,” he added.

“Yes. Who did Q’Roth report to?”

“He reported to an LMO called Sar. He is in charge of many of the security forces here in the city. It is also known that he runs the Aryū. He will come looking for you personally.”

Sar was alive?

I remembered the incident at the crash site. Sar was in charge. His LMO forces took me from the crashed ship and tore the M-patch data storage device from my skin. The data patch contained the alternate historical record and files from the original SM5. It was the one thing I was told to deliver to the insurgents working here against the LMOs. When the insurgent team attacked Sar’s vehicle, I presumed that he and his escorting officer had been slain. We never regained the data patch. If Sar was involved in a criminal faction of the LMO forces here in Bellingshausen, he might still have the patch in his possession. He probably knew that the M-patch contained valuable data.

Makabe stepped forward and squinted up into my face. He put his hand into his breast pocket and produced a pair of spectacles. With a tan cloth he fished from his hip pocket, he began to rub the lenses.

“Sar,” I said. “I thought he was killed in an attack recently.”

The old maintenance man stared me for a few moments. His eyes narrowed. He put his on glasses and shoved the cloth back into his pocket.

“So… that was you at the crash site.”

“Yes.”

“Hmm,” he murmured. “You’re the one who fell from the sky… so to speak.”

I gave Makabe a slow nod in reply.

“And destroyed their great monument.”

Again, I nodded.

Makabe showed me a thin smile. “You must tell me your name now,” he said with a chuckle. “I want to remember you.”

“My name is Maxim Akihiko Broussad.”

The little man chuckled again. It was a warm and disarming sound. He turned to a locker next to the doorway and began rummaging through. “Well, Maxim, let’s see if they have a coat for you here, something less conspicuous.”

“I don’t need a coat…”

“You will if you expect to walk the city without the Madrai nipping at your heels and LMO sentries training their weapons on you.” He pulled a set of dirty gray work covers from the locker and handed them out to me. “What you are currently wearing has already betrayed you.”

“Where are we going?”

“There’s something you should see, my monument-crushing friend. We’re going into the city.”

I tucked the black knife into my belt and took the clothes from the maintenance man.

“You won’t need that,” he said, pointing at the blade.

“I certainly hope not,” I replied. “But, I’ll bring it anyway.”

Makabe gave me his toolbox to carry and lead me outside. The city was barely moving. Darkness prevailed. Makabe said that the sunlight only lit the city for six hours per day, beginning at thirteen-hundred hours. The wind blew steady but not nearly as fiercely as the night before. In the dark, I saw human shapes scurrying through the streets. I assumed they were human. There were no LMOs in sight.

As we wound through the streets, I found that the work covers provided little heat. Makabe informed me that heat and energy and signals were easily tracked by LMO patrols. The thin clothing and large toolkit were a quick disguise for my protection, he told me. “Now you look like a proper apprentice to an old man. You’re no longer a threat.”

An old man, he called himself. If he only knew.

I trudged through the snow and ice, following along with the large toolbox. Makabe walked at a hurried pace through the cold. He hummed and murmured to himself, as he consulted an active map on a flexible display that he had pulled from inside his coat and unrolled to activate. Occasionally, he looked back to see that I was following closely enough. He moved quickly for an old man. I stayed close in step. I switched the box from one hand to the other. The cold air stung my bare fingers.

We crossed a main street and entered the lower level of a building through an open doorway covered in a lightweight, reflective thermal barrier fabric.

The entryway took us into the interior of Bellingshausen’s architectural chaos. It was a gruesome den of struggling humanity. Makabe introduced it as a marketplace. All I saw was human sorrow and deteriorating conditions. If Bellingshausen was ever a human city, it was well forgotten.

We worked our way down into a muggy labyrinth of dim spaces and dark passageways. Florescent lights flickered overhead, lending an eerie glow to an already dismal scene. The ground underfoot was damp with standing water that smelled like sewage and sulfur. The spaces overhead were a tangle of heating ducts, vacuum tubes, and steam pipes that hissed and dripped.

There was a clamor of calls and shouts, as vendors in makeshift stalls sold foodstuffs and products of all types. People scurried from vendor to vendor in a rush to secure goods while they lasted. Scarcity was the order of the day. There was a complete lack of anything organic. No plants, no fruits or vegetables. Anything edible here was processed and packaged. I thought back to my many months stranded aboard the SM5 with only IDSA-approved nutrition packs to eat. It was a distasteful memory.

As we walked, dark eyes looked up from sallow faces. Malnourishment abounded. A young man sat on a box, working on the repair of a handheld scanner. One of his hands was wrapped in a filthy bandage. A woman, clad in a purple plastic tube dress stood by a shop front selling stimulants. She clutched a small foil pouch and was sucking from it through a straw. One of her eyes was swollen shut.

I saw more and more of the same. Around each corner was a new vision of misery or horror. I was appalled and angry. “There’s no standard medical treatment, no food program?” I asked Makabe.

“Not here. Not for most of the human population in the outer rings of the city,” he replied. “Here it is beg, borrow, and steal.”

“These conditions are unforgivable, Makabe.”

“Yes, well… this area is now populated by the families of the labor that originally built the city. They were spared a short life of disease and starvation in the war-torn areas of the world. They were given a chance here. But at this point, their services are rarely required by the city and the LMO program. This is their severance.”

Nearly every vertical surface in the marketplace was plastered with advertising. I saw a curious number of banners promoting organizations and efforts in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, and Russian. Makabe told me that most of these signs represented calls for membership in gangs that operated in the deep underground.

“Dangerous work. Highly illegal,” he said.

Although crumbling from age and defiled with graffiti, the prevailing propaganda was from The Director and Dr. Robertson.

“Your labor is Our Strength,” said one notice.

“Rebuild civilization in Our Image,” said another.

Each advert showed The Director and Dr. Robertson, smiling, standing arm-in-arm together over a miniature representation of the city. Beams of white light erupted from behind them. It was a glorious fabrication. Curiously, I saw nothing of Spegg. I wondered where he fit in to all this vile mistreatment of humanity.

I saw a few surveillance cameras pointing down the hallways. I immediately lowered my head and let the hood of the work coat cover my face. Makabe detected my pretense and pointed out that most of the cameras were damaged or destroyed.

Shouts came from a corridor ahead and to the right. Makabe urged me along. As we rounded the corner, I saw two large LMOs accosting a man and a woman. Both of the humans were down on their knees. The man held on to the woman, protecting her. The woman was quietly sobbing. The LMOs towered over them.

Makabe pushed me back into a tight corner near the scene and stood in front of me. A few other onlookers gathered. All kept their distance. The LMOs didn’t seem to care.

One of the LMOs held a long metal rod with a rubber handle. At the end of the rod were a series of flanges that crackled and sputtered with electricity. He waved the device menacingly at the man on the ground.

“A live mace,” Makabe whispered to me.

The other LMO rifled through a bag obviously belonging to either the man or the woman. Food items and drink pouches fell out and mixed with the filth covering the floor. The cowering man spoke with a Russian accent. He was frightened and pleaded with the LMOs. They did not listen.

“How did you acquire this food?” asked the LMO with the mace. “These are unprocessed contraband items, part of a shipment that was raided this week.”

The man put his hands up. “Please. We were hungry,” he started, in a trembling voice. “I didn’t know…”

The LMO cut him short.

“Do not lie to me, chikushou!” the LMO shouted, as the mace crackled through the air and landed a savage blow to the man’s head.

A shower of sparks lit the scene. The man hit the floor hard, convulsing. A deep gash opened up on his forehead and began to bleed profusely. The crowd gasped. The woman burst into a loud wail and threw herself over the man.

The LMO turned to the crowd. “This goes for all of you here,” he shouted. “No one eats contraband food. If you can’t find processed and approved food items, you can go without.”

The LMO raised the weapon again and held it aloft over the woman. She screamed. He pushed the crackling mace toward her. Her screams turned to gasps. She tried to back away but the LMO dropped his boot on her foot with savage force and held her in place. She howled once more before the mace connected with her body.

This is madness. I thought.

The LMO prodded her chest and midsection with the end of the mace. Her body shuddered and vibrated. She held her mouth open in silent agony. Her face contorted and showed more terror than I had seen on any one human in all my years.

I dropped the box I was carrying.

The LMOs laughed loudly. The crackling, sputtering mace filled the air with the smell of electricity and singed fabric and hair.

I reached for the blade at my waist and put my hand on Makabe’s shoulder. He pushed back hard with a sharp elbow.

“You brought me here,” I spat. “Let me go.”

“No,” he replied, turning to hold me back. “I only brought you here to see.”

“I can help, Makabe.”

“You are hidden from them, Maxim. This is your strength. Now is not the right time. Do not be impatient.”

My anger swelled. My heart pounded. I looked at the woman on the floor. She was unconscious. Her male counterpart lay in a pool of blood. The LMOs threw the empty bag at them and ground the contraband into the muck on the floor under their boots. As they chuckled to themselves, reveling in their dirty work, I felt more disgust and hatred than I had ever known before.

This must end.

After the LMOs were satisfied with their little display of authority and terror, they left, taunting the trembling masses and shouting at passersby.

Now is not the time. I thought. But soon it will be. Very soon.

[Communication Relay:  18APR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

City of the Red Night

alleyway_attackerThe city had retreated indoors. In the lonesome alleyway, I stumbled around in the snow and ice, battered by the wind. It was a red night. The sky was black and the lamps overhead shone a dark crimson light – a warning sign, perhaps. Stay off the streets.

The red-tinted lamps gave the snow and ice that covered the ground and building sides a bloody, criminal appearance. In the sinister half-light of the red lamps, the door I emerged from was barely visible, nothing more than a rough shape cut into the wall. Fearful of perishing on the frozen red landscape, I panicked and jammed my fingers into the outline of the door, straining, pulling, and trying to find a way back in, until my fingertips tore and bled. No re-entry.

As the wind howled past, I pushed my back into a shallow alcove and let out a huge breath. In the red light, it looked like a cloud of blood vapor. The wind blew the cloud down the alleyway. My face and hands were already numb from exposure, my fingers felt like blunt icicles. I began to shake uncontrollably.

My cold, leaden hands could barely work the collar and the fasteners to the jacket, as I tried to pull it tight around my shivering frame. My thumb found the cuff of my jacket and the embedded thermologic controls that activated the heating elements. I pressed the activator until the coat came alive. I pulled the hood over my head and jammed my hands into the coat pockets. Warmth. For the time, I would survive. In these elements, however, continued exposure meant death.

For the first time, I was able to look up and around at the city that had consumed me. I scanned the dark red landscape and architecture. Bellingshausen.

The city stood tallest at the center and cascaded downward as the buildings spread out into regions of concentric circles to the furthest border. I saw all manner of concrete and stone, wood, glass, metal, and strange composite materials. The buildings were laid out with unexpected twists and turns. There were sharp angles and rounded corners. This was an ill-planned collision of architectural styles and forms and materials. No sane planning, designing, and construction process would have given rise to this architectural madness.

From my location the tall towers at the center looked like a soaring ice sculpture, with shooting spires and jagged edges that towered impossibly into the sky and loomed ominously over the lower regions. Around the central towers were organic glass and metal shapes that appeared to bubble up from the ground. In the outer regions, no two buildings were alike. The entire city was an abnormality, strange but beautiful.

I tried to imagine myself living in this place, under the greenish-gray thumb of the LMOs. Unacceptable. This was Antarctica, no place to be. If the LMOs wanted it, they could have it. But before I left this place, I had a small score to settle with one LMO in particular.

In the distance, a faint thrumming noise came from above the howling wind. I peeked out of the alcove and looked up. The sky was anguished. White torrents and leaden streaks blew rapidly above the sanguine confines of the red lamps. I drew a slow breath and pulled the heated coat tighter around me. The noise grew louder. As it neared, it became a distinctly mechanical, pulsing sound. I squinted against the wind-swept snow and ice particles and saw six electric-blue spots descending from the sky. They crackled with power. I drew back. From the size and formation, they could only be part of an anti-grav vehicle, skimming the rooftops of the city. A patrol vehicle.

The pulsing and crackling noise erupted into a high, whining blast from above, as a small transport craft dropped into a slow course over the tops of the buildings above me.

I made myself small, pushing deep into the alcove. I watched as the craft came to a hovering position over the alleyway fifty or sixty meters away, kicking up a whirling flurry of snow and ice on the ground below. A powerful beam of light erupted from the bottom of the vehicle and prowled across the ground, searching. My heart thumped. A nervous churn started in my guts.

I heard a confusion of voices and shouting. The craft continued to hover and the beam of light centered on the ground directly below. A series of quick mechanical barks sounded. An alarm. From the bottom of the craft, a line with three figures descended to the street level. Two of the figures were big, human shaped – LMO sentries. They carried rifles. The third figure was four-legged, an animal – large, muscular, and dark.

Fear seized me. Only sixty meters away were two large LMOs and one hunting animal. I buried my mouth in the coat collar and fought to control my breathing, for fear that the cloudy vapor would give away my position. In this lonely stretch of the city, at this time of night, the only person of interest was me. I watched them, sizing them up, listening.

The two LMOs stood in the light. I could see that they wore much the same tight-fitting tactical gear as the LMO squad that pulled me from the ship. They also wore headgear. In this environment, they probably had enhanced communications, audio and vision. They stood for a time, holding on to the line from the ship for support against wind. They appeared to be speaking, coordinating movements. They pointed up and down the alleyway. I shuddered with anxiety. I could not fight all three without a weapon.

Overhead, mechanical barks sounded again and the light beam from the craft flickered out. The hovering vehicle cycled up the propulsion engines with a whine and streaked off into the dark sky. One of the LMOs let the animal loose. The creature made a series of throaty, guttural cackling noises followed by a high-pitched scream and began dashing from one side of the alleyway to the other, oblivious to the punishing blizzard around it. It made my skin crawl. One LMO took off after the beast, tracking its movements, walking away from my location.

The other lone LMO raised a rifle to its shoulder and began scanning the alleyway with long sweeps as it advanced down the alley toward my hiding spot in the alcove. The hunt was on.

I pushed into the alcove as tightly as I could manage and turned off the heating elements in the jacket. I pulled back the hood and unfastened the front, allowing the cold air to rush in and envelop my body. I fought the urge to shiver. If the hunter came for me, I wanted to be cold, dark, and invisible until the last moment.

The LMO swept the alleyway cautiously and I marked his pattern. The sweep he was using would bring him within a few meters of the shallow alcove. When he saw the darkened space, he would have to treat the recessed area as a potential threat. I slid to the ground. Just inside the shadows, I made myself into a tight ball and waited. If trained well, the LMO would approach the side of the alcove “rifle first” and sweep from the far end to just over my head. From that vantage point, I would be quick and lethal.

I heard the footsteps. I heard his breathing. The sound grew both nearer and softer. The LMO was cautious. I took a long quiet breath. The barrel of the rifle appeared and I flew into action.

From my crouched position, I sprung out, left hand pushing the rifle barrel up and away. The rifle came loose and tumbled through the air. The LMO instinctively looked up, showing me his throat. Mistake.

With fingers curled under, I twisted my upper body forward and delivered a brutal knuckle strike to the front of the throat, crushing the windpipe. The LMO bent forward, and let out a sharp gurgle. Without hesitation, I stepped in and slid my hand underneath his jaw up to the crook of my arm. I locked my arm into a tight hold with my free hand, jerked savagely upward and fell backwards into the alcove. The weight of the LMO’s body snapped its neck as we hit the ground.

The LMO shuddered once and a breath escaped its mouth with a low wheeze. I held on tightly, squeezing as firmly as I could. The body stopped moving, beating, breathing. It was done. Dead.

I released my grip, pushed the body to the side of the alcove, and got to my feet. My heart pounded and I took a few deep breaths. Cold as I was, I could feel the perspiration beading up under my clothes. The LMO’s head rested at an unnatural angle to the shoulders.

Disgusted, I spat at it.

After a moment to breathe and gather my wits, I pulled the LMO’s body to rest tightly against the back wall of the alcove. The remaining hunting party would return soon. Dressed as they were, this could be no prolonged sweep and the patrol transport craft would also be back for a coordinated pick-up. I had to leave this area.

I ran into the alley and seized the fallen rifle. I had never seen one like it. It was a short-range energy or pulse rifle of some sort. I slung the weapon over my shoulder and went back to the alcove. The dead LMO carried communications, enhanced vision technology, and a set of earbuds. I pulled everything of tactical value off the creature. I stripped it of the blade it carried as well.

In the distance, I heard the beast returning. The guttural cackling noises followed by the high-pitched scream gave me a prickly sensation up and down my spine. My fear began to swell again. The body would be discovered. I couldn’t outrun the animal. I scanned the dark alleyway for anything, anywhere.

In the distance, up the alley from the advancing hunting animal, was a flickering light that caught my eye.  It was a dim bulb, pale green, pulsing softly in the dark. It was maybe twenty or thirty meters away. It wasn’t there before.

As I stared at the green light in the distance, I heard more noise from the beast. Closer. I took my chance, moving swiftly across the alleyway to the far wall. The wind gusted suddenly, tearing through the alley. The last fifteen meters were a struggle against the blowing wind and shards of ice. As I moved toward the flickering light, the wind changed directions and I was blasted into a rolling, tumbling scramble, almost overshooting the target. I slammed against a short barrier in front of the entryway. My ribs took a beating but the hot pain felt oddly comforting. I grabbed the top of the barrier and flipped over. I could now hear the animal and the shouts of the LMO behind it. They were too close.

I looked up and saw that the green bulb was part of an access panel outside a small rounded doorway. The pale green light shone steady. Unlocked.

Getting to my knees, I pressed myself against the wall and put my hand out to the pale green light. It was round and warm. I pushed the bulb into the face of the panel and a door in the wall slid open with a long grinding sound. Beyond, there was nothing but darkness. I crawled through and the door shut automatically behind me. A light on the interior access panel turned from dim green to red. Locked.

Was I safe? Or was I trapped?

I got to my feet and put my ear to the door. The walls were thick. I couldn’t even hear the howling of the wind. If the hunting party moved past the doorway, I heard nothing. If the discovery of the body elicited shouts or gunfire, I still heard nothing.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness illuminated only by the dim red light from the access panel. I could see that the room was a maintenance facility. Pipes and ducts and wiring emerged from dozens of areas across the ceiling and walls. There were numerous terminals and panels and instruments. All were dark. The air smelled of dust and electricity. A low hum came from seemingly everywhere. The unlocked room was a mystery… but it was warm and dry and seemingly safe. I flexed my fingers and felt sensation return as sharp tingling.

I felt my way across the room to a far wall, put my back against a warm pipe, and slid to the floor. Physically and mentally exhausted, I wanted to keep my eyes open and focused on the door and any further danger that might appear. I shook my head and blinked several times.

To stay alert, I played through the new knowledge I had gained since landing at Bellingshausen. A world gone strange. People enslaved. Spegg in charge. Anger swelled. Frustration.

Unbelievable.

I had been told that Bellingshausen was the last habitable place on Earth. My home, Japan, and all that I knew… was gone. Here, the crawlers chasing us through the underground were biologically-engineered horrors. The city above was a hostile environment, patrolled by armed LMOs and hunting animals. The people here, perhaps the last of the humans, groveled and cowered under the vile machinations of Spegg and all his filthy transgenic conspirators.

Spegg – that deranged creature – helped devise and construct this horrible place. The madness that covers the plains, fills the city, and crawls deep below is all part of his disturbed mind. But Spegg, crafty and crazy as he may be, had help with all this.

I looked at the dead LMO’s blade and turned it over in my hands. Dark, dense carbon… fantastically sharp. Perfect.

Whoever the Director and Wayne Robertson were… they too shared in the blame. Along with Spegg, they too would soon be called to a harsh reckoning. This, I decided, was to be true.

Soon, the exhaustion overwhelmed the anger and I slept… the dark blade gripped tightly in my hand.

[Communication Relay: 10APR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Underground Nightmare

underground_crawler_bugOut from the shadows, the purplish-black insect-like crawlers advanced toward us.

The clicking of sharp claws punctuated each step. I watched them emerge in complete disbelief. They were huge, nearly two meters in length. It was a creeping madness, a nightmare brought to light, slowly crawling across the ceiling. The ceiling! My mind seized and I froze.

From behind the team, I watched them swivel their aim from one crawler to another. Dada turned quickly to glance at me. Sweat on his brow. Fear in his eyes. He turned to Parker. “What is this?” he whispered, taking a few steps backward. The rest of the team followed in step.

“Don’t know,” Parker responded brusquely. You make a wrong turn for us again, Ghia?” Parker asked.

Ghia took a side glance in my direction. She curled her lip. “Wrong cargo, is more like it,” she responded, her Spanish accent giving much more weight to the sneer. “He’s the bait. Let them have him.”

“Hey, hey…” Dada started.

“Shut up and keep it together, both of you,” Parker interrupted. The sound of clicking claws increased. More were coming from behind the first wave. Parker spat. “The Director sent a lot of bugs for you, Maxim. What is going on?”

I was fearful but instantly angry. “You people brought me down here,” I responded.

“And now we’ll get you out,” Parker replied hotly.

We backed away with increasing speed, as the crawlers advanced from the darkness. They had large compound eyes that shone blue-gray in the light. Chattering mouths opened wide and snapped closed, showing a tangle of mandibles and fangs. Three pairs of spindly legs and two twitching antennae preceded each long, segmented body.

“They’ll eat us alive,” said Ghia, with a slight tremble to her voice. “He’s going to get us killed.”

“I don’t need this bullshit, Ghia. Not today,” Parker replied, harshly. He snapped his fingers and pointed everyone back down the passageway. “All of you keep moving back. Let them follow us. I want them all out in the light. Pili, you’re in front.”

“You got it, boss,” replied the big man, as he moved his big frame front and center.

The bugs kept coming. All eyes watch their movement. One bug at the front of the pack dropped from the ceiling and began to scurry across the floor toward Pili.

The bug stopped only a few meters away from Pili’s massive form. It raised its head. It looked at us and began shrieking. Pili jumped and fumbled his rifle.

“Shit! Let ‘em have it!” Parker shouted and all four of the insurgents let loose with their weapons.

Pili and Dada shot first, piercing the insect-like body with a volley of flechette rounds. The close-knit passageway was filled with the airy pop pop sound of gas-propelled flechettes. The crawlers screeched and began writhing on the floor as the flechette venom attacked their nervous system.  The crawlers behind the first wave advanced more quickly, chattering excitedly, jumping and hissing.

We hurried backward, tripping over refuse and cursing. The rifles aimed and fired rapidly. Parker stumbled and fell. A crawler jumped for him. Parker screamed.

Vete al carajo!” Ghia shouted, stepping between Parker and the bug and firing her high-power EMD pulse rifle into the body of the insect at close range. There was a loud crackle. The fried creature convulsed on the floor, all six legs trembling.

“What are these things?” I shouted to Dada over the screeching and chattering and gunfire.

“We don’t know, damn it!” he shouted back. “Keep moving!”

Ghia fired at another crawler on the ceiling. The discharge from the EMD caught part of the electrical system and burst open part of the ceiling. The lights flickered. A storm of dust and sparks rained down on our heads. I looked up. More bugs came crawling out of the darkness after us. The flickering light only added to the horror.

I fell over a pile of waste construction materials. My foot kicked loose a length of heavy pipe that clattered across the floor. I scrambled for the pipe. It was long and sturdy, with a pinched end that came to a point. I raised it to my shoulder, and took a defensive position.

Dada saw me coming up from behind with the pipe in my hands. “Maxim, back off. Keep running!” he shouted.

“Move your ass, damn it,” Parker added. “Move, move, move!”

We retreated from the creeping horrors. They jumped after us. Ghia fried another bug with the EMD, punching a scorched hole in its shellback and sending it skittering across the floor. Smoke rose from the body and filled the air with a burning chemical stink that reminded me of hot bile.

The crawlers advanced relentlessly in quick waves. They crawled over the refuse, the writhing bodies, and the smoking carcasses strewn across the floor. One crawler jumped toward Ghia, opened its mouth and spat out a stringy brown liquid. Ghia dove to the side to avoid the stream but the spittle caught her across the legs and stuck to her, sending her tumbling to the floor.

Mierda!” Ghia shouted, shaking herself off and scrambling to get to her feet.

“Damn it, Ghia, what are you doing!” Parker shouted, pulling her up and dragging her back by the collar. “Come on!”

“Get your hands off of me, pendejo!” Ghia spat back.

“Then move your shit, Ghia!”

Parker released her with a toss and Ghia made a stumbling return to a running retreat.

“You gotta run, people!” shouted Parker.

As we ran, the flechettes continued to fly. The EMD blasts filled the air with the smell of scorched bugs, electricity, and choking dust. I kept low to avoid fragments of concrete and metal that burst forth from the walls and ceiling.

One of the bugs shot past the line, with five or six flechettes stuck through its shell. Pili stood his ground with the creature, reaching out with one of his huge hands and swiping it down from above. The crawler landed on the big man, hissing and thrashing. He fell back, with a loud groan, struggling with the huge creature. It bit into his arm with its mandibles and tore at his legs with hind claws.

“Get off, me!” Pili grunted, as he swung around and threw the thrashing creature to the floor between the two of us.

The bug jumped to its feet, raised its head, hissed, and made a leap for me. The pipe I was carrying came down with a vicious swing, connecting with the head with a loud ping and breaking it free of the thorax. A spray of noxious yellow fluid burst into the air and sprayed Parker.

“Damn it, Maxim!” Parker bellowed, wiping the vile yellow fluid from his face. He reached out and gave me a shove. “Move your ass, spaceman! I’m not gonna tell you again!”

Dada grabbed my arm and pulled me free of Parker’s reach, screaming. “Get back through the passageway, Maxim. Get to cover. Go! Now!”

I looked at Ghia, running along at a wounded pace, covered in sticky spittle. Parker was shooting with almost reckless abandon. Pili was battering bugs off the ceiling. Dada saw my hesitation, gave me a series of forceful shoves, shouting at me to run.

That was enough. I turned and ran back down the passageway, as they continued to shoot and shout behind me. I held the heavy bar tightly in both hands, ready for anything that was waiting around the corners. My legs quickly found their full stride and my heart pounded. Faster and faster I ran, until I was sliding around the corners and leaping over debris.

Back through the maze of passageways and cut-throughs, I went. I made my way quickly, remembering how we had come before. Soon I was far ahead of the action and could hear no more of the battle behind me.

In my head, I counted back the turns. Soon, the doorway I saw on the initial trip down loomed ahead. It was a short run of steps, maybe fifteen or twenty. I took them in leaps.

I stopped at the door, panting. I had no idea how deep I was. I put my ear against the surface and listened. No sound came from beyond. It was too thick. I grasped the latch and pushed. No movement. I pushed harder. Nothing. I dropped the bar to the stairs with a loud clang, leaned back and hit the door hard with my shoulder.

I burst through the doorway into the freezing open air and tumbled out into the snow and ice. Bellingshausen. I was in the city streets. Snow and howling wind blew fierce and stung my eyes. I gasped and the chilly air filled my lungs. With a snap, I turned back and watched as the exit door slammed shut in the wind.

There was no latch on the outside.

[Communication Relay: 01APR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Underground, Seeking Exit

doorway_upI listened… but there was little sound to be heard from inside the thick-walled concrete room where the insurgents had been holding me. The room smelled damp. From time to time, the naked bulb above flickered with a quick tick tick noise. At one point, I thought I heard a trickle of water behind the wall to the rear. Then I heard nothing again. I knew I was below ground but that was the extent of my knowledge. I could be anywhere. This thought made me uneasy. If I were to escape this room, which way would I run?

The warm bowl of noodles felt good in my cold, nervous hands. I ate in silence, savoring every bite of hot food. The food was energy and energy was strength. The clinking of the utensil against the side of the bowl echoed off the walls. Pili, a towering figure of a man, stood guard in the corner of the room, watching the door, unmoving. He didn’t look at me. But I stared at him. He’d nearly choked the life out of me once already. He frightened me.

Pili carried a chemical flechette rifle. Typically, these were non-lethal, but the dart releases agonizing venom that sends the nervous system into a fiery panic. Some versions also release an endorphin blocker, so the victim can roll around in anguish without any aid from the body’s natural painkillers. I wanted none of that.

I chewed and swallowed another bite. I wanted out.

A series of quick knocks at the door preceded Dada entering the room. Pili managed the door for Dada, checked the hallway, and closed it after him. Dada strode to the bed with a bag slung over his shoulder. “Feeling stronger?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Good.” He dropped the bag. It made a soft thump. “If you’re up to it, I’d like to tell you a little about the landscape here.”

“Please do,” I replied and listened attentively as Dada told me about the city above and the underground below.

“On the surface, Bellingshausen can be hostile,” Dada said. “In winter, outdoor temperatures drop to nearly negative seventy degrees Celsius. The wind whips through the streets at an average of eighty kilometers per hour with gusts up to three-hundred. The environment is unsympathetic to humans and LMOs alike. If you’re unprepared, exposed skin can freeze in less than thirty seconds. Death can occur in mere minutes. Down here, you’re somewhat safe. The city works and thrives inside the buildings and below the ground.”

I nodded again. Dada continued.

“The underground connects all major structures and provides exit points to nearly every spot in Bellingshausen. It’s a multi-level network that allows the people and equipment to move freely, when the street levels are impassable.”

“How many levels? How deep?” I asked.

“There are many levels. But how many, I can’t say for certain,” Dada replied. “Much of the deep underground has never been formally mapped. Some of it still remains unseen.”

This was puzzling. “That doesn’t make much sense,” I said. “Why? How?”

“Good questions. The lowest levels, some eight stories deep or so, are the remnants of clandestine tunnel work that dug deep below the planned substructure. The laborers who first cut the ice and built much of the underground for Bellingshausen were treated harshly, like third-class citizens, here only to do the hard labor. Many lives were lost on the job. Working conditions never improved and there was no recourse available. So they dug themselves a deep subterranean hideaway for illegal labor movements and criminal activity during the earliest days of the city’s construction.”

“And now?”

“Over the decades, the deep underground grew and spread, providing passage and refuge for enemies of the LMO Development Plan. Most of the underground is difficult to navigate. All deep underground trespass is considered illegal and strictly prohibited by the LMOs.”

“But your team operates here?”

“Yes. For those who know how to navigate the underground, these lower levels are highly-valued traffic networks for contraband, information, and people.”

“And you have knowledge of the layout, the mapping?”

“Ghia does our navigation. She’s the expert.”

“If the underground here is off-limits and hazardous,” I started. “How do they regulate trespass?”

“LMO sentries and advanced-technology organisms are routinely sent to crawl the passages. Fatalities are common and the bodies are often left as a warning. Those that are taken from the lower levels of the underground alive …are rarely ever seen again.”

“Why tell me all this, Dada? It seems like a dangerous topic to even speak about.”

“You’re right. It’s not something I would ever talk about to someone outside of the team. But I need you to understand where we are and how we operate, if you are going to help us fight against the Director and the LMO Development Plan.”

I stared at Dada for a time. He was entirely serious. I set the empty noodle bowl on the ground.

“What are you asking of me, Dada? I’m not some liberator or super soldier come to lead you to victory against the LMOs.”

“Maxim, I didn’t expect…”

“No, Dada, I expect you did, from the sound of it.” I was exasperated. This was too much. “What is going on here, Dada?”

“I have something to tell you that may seem unbelievable.”

“More unbelievable than what you’ve told me already?” I asked with a sarcastic tone.

Dada smiled uneasily. “Maxim, I know that I’ve asked a lot of you recently. Hopefully, what I’m about to say next will help you understand us and our actions a bit better.”

“I’m listening.”

“Good. As I’ve said before, there are a number of people who are actively working against the Director and the LMO Development Plan.”

“Yes.”

“Under the actions of the Director and the LMO Development Plan, our people have lost their freedoms, their rights, even their ability to procreate. Our humanity is at stake, Maxim.”

“What does that have to do with me, Dada?”

“Among these people – our people – there is a long-held prediction that someone with advanced technology and intelligence would arrive at the very spot that the first LMO had landed a generation ago. This unique individual would pose a terrible threat to the structure and longevity of the LMO Development Plan. This person would be the blade that severs the LMO’s umbilical and helps to re-start the whole of our wounded species. This person – I believe – is you, Maxim.”

I was stunned silent. I couldn’t believe it. This was madness. But, I could see the honesty in Dada’s eyes and hear it in the sound of his voice. He was absolutely convinced. I looked over at Pili, who stood silent and held up his corner of the room. These people were desperate. They wanted more than I could offer. They needed leadership, direction. I wanted to hear nothing of the kind. I wanted out.

After a long silence, in which Dada merely stared at me, waiting for my response, I was finished listening.

“Hold on, Dada. This is madness. I’m not here to…”

The door burst opened with a bang and Parker entered the room.

Ghia was standing in the hallway with her back to the room, her head swiveled back and forth as she scanned the hallway beyond. Parker brought a rifle, one of the flechette varieties that Pili was carrying. He eyed me and then looked at Dada. Turning the rifle over, he slapped a magazine in and worked the action. He tossed the rifle to Dada.

“Why isn’t he dressed?” Parker asked, disdainfully.

Dada handed me the bag he’d brought with him. It was full of clothes.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Street clothes,” Dada said. “They should keep you inconspicuous and warm enough to travel at street level for short distances. Each garment is impregnated with a system of thin heating elements that will keep you from freezing during any exterior travel.”

“Are we going up to the street level?” I asked.

“I hope not.”

I pulled the garments and a pair of boots from the bag. I stood and stripped out of my basic duty clothes. Ghia glanced into the room, looking at me suspiciously. I slipped into the street clothes. They were lightweight and warm. The jacket had long cuffs with a set of embedded controls to control the temperature.

Parker looked me over and gave me an approving nod. “One last thing,” he said, pulling a device with a thick needle from his gear bag. “You need an asset tag.”

I looked at the needle. I’d seen them before. In my experience, they used them on all LMOs for tracking purposes. I’d recently tried to cut one from a dead LMO aboard the ship that brought me here. “What if I don’t consider myself an asset to be tagged?”

Parker didn’t answer my question. He looked at me with serious intent and held up a sub-dermal implant a little bigger than a grain of rice. “You said that you were a communications specialist.”

“Yes, I was,” I answered, thinking about how an asset tag could jeopardize my ability to escape undetected.

“Good to know. I just happen to have a tag that should suit you.” Parker fit the grain into the gun. “You know, we could use a little advanced communications experience around here.” Parker held the tag gun up in front of me and waved it around. “Ready?”

“You’re not tagging me like an animal, Parker,” I said, taking a step back.

Parker pushed forward into my space. “You don’t understand, Maxim. Without one of these, you’ll stand out, draw attention. We can’t have that.”

Dada stepped in. “Everybody in Bellingshausen has a sub-dermal tag, Maxim.”

He was trying to ease the tension. “If we run into an LMO security patrol and they scan five people and only come up with four tags, we’ll all be hauled off for some serious questioning.”

“I understand that much” I replied.

“Do you?” asked Parker.

I started to open my mouth again. Parker cut me off.

“I don’t think you do, Maxim. I don’t think you have a clue. See, we’re engaged in a ground war with some serious opposition. Our success comes from our ability to remain wholly unremarkable until it’s time to strike and withdraw.”

I made no reply. I was eyeing the needle, seething inside.

“We’re starting with the tag,” Parker said, reaching out and making a grab for my arm.

I shook his hand away and made a back-handed slap to the tag gun with my free hand.

Parker acted without hesitation. I saw him push one foot back and throw a well-aimed jab at my jaw. Instinctively, I raised my forearm, elbow out, and let the blow deflect to my side. Parker was fast, but he didn’t anticipate my ability to react. Before he could recover, I cocked my right and drove a powerful strike to the center of his chest with a loud shout. Parker’s feet shot out from under him and he took a full-body drop to the floor with a heavy smack.

I cocked my arm again and took a step forward. Dada jumped in, cutting me off. Parker quickly recovered and threw an open hand up to hold both of us off.

“Hold it,” Parker shouted.

Dada froze. I stood my ground.

Parker began to laugh and sat up. “Maxim has some skill. How about that?” he said, getting first to his knees and then his feet. “I’m getting up,” he said, waving Dada back. “We’re calling this one a draw. Agreed?”

I didn’t move. Dada looked at me and then at Parker. Dada had a decent build for a tech expert, but he couldn’t hold both of us away from each other.

I looked at Parker, nodded an understanding, and dropped my hands to my side. Parker stood all the way up and rubbed his chest where I had struck him. I took a step back to give him space and bumped into Pili who was standing right behind me. I looked up into the big man’s smiling face. He’d been there all along. He was big but quick and quiet. He could have crushed me at any time he wanted.

“Maxim,” Parker started. “I can understand your apprehension. But we have a highly-specialized function here. We wait, we receive orders, we execute those orders, and we disappear into the crowd. Isn’t that right, Pili?”

“Yeah, boss,” came the big man’s booming reply from behind me.

“Let me explain something clearly. I have one job today. I have to move our team safely from one location to another. To help facilitate this move, you will need to give me your full cooperation, without issue or question. Having said that, if you want to go without an asset tag, fine. But if the LMOs close in, I’m going to order everyone here to withdraw from you and let you twist in the wind. You get me?”

“I do.”

“Great,” he said with a smile. “You’re quick on your feet, Maxim,” he said, pointing at me and winking. “Where did that come from? Military experience? Combat training?”

I paused for a moment and thought. It had been ages, so long ago. “I had an uncle who trained me in battōjutsu and shinkendo.”

Parker gave me bemused look. “What did you just say?”

A chuckle came from behind me. It was Pili. Dada was also laughing.

Parker looked even more perplexed. “What’s so funny?”

“He’s a sword fighter,” Dada said, continuing to laugh.

Parker gave Dada a worried glare. Dada was smiling and shaking his head.

“The man is full of surprises,” Dada added.

Parker stepped back and stared at me, sizing me up. “You’re kidding me.”

“No,” I replied. “Many years.”

“Great,” he said, sarcastically, throwing his hands up. “I’ll see if I can get you a samurai sword next time we hit one of the armories. Unbelievable.” Parker pointed me toward Pili. “He likes to fish, you know. Maybe you can help him cut bait.”

I began to explain. “I don’t think…”

“Shut up,” Parker said abruptly, staring me dead in the eyes, turning strangely serious. “Let’s get moving,” he said. “Dada, get your swordfighter in line.”

“Can do,” Dada replied, clapping me on the back.

I stared back at Parker, who didn’t seem to care.

Parker crossed the room away from me. “Ghia, how are we doing?” he asked.

From the hallway, Ghia shouted back. “Not good. Somebody is running interference. I have crawlers, I don’t have crawlers. Nothing looks good.”

“No visual signs?” Parker asked, stepping toward her position in the hallway and working the action on his rifle.

Ghia stared at her tracker and shook her head. “All clear out here. Nothing moving.”

“We move now,” said Parker, urgently snapping his fingers and pointing from Dada to Pili and back. “Give me a standard five-man protective escort detail in the hallway.”

“We only have four,” shouted Ghia from outside the room.

Parker looked around quickly. “Pili, you stand for two.”

“You got it, boss,” the big man replied.

With final orders to move quickly and quietly in a staggered formation, we left the room. Parker sent Pili down the hallway first, followed by Ghia. Dada placed me between Ghia and himself. Parker brought up the rear. There were two in front, and two in back of me, rifles up. They moved me down the dim corridor into the depths of the underground.

As we crept, I was in the pocket, in step with their every move, but without a weapon. Turn by turn, they took me through a web of passageways and doors, always moving downward. We routinely cut from one passage to another though concealed doorways. Although Parker appeared to be in charge of this kind of maneuver, Pili took the point position. To his right, Ghia kept her eyes on a handheld tracker and gave the navigational instructions through hand signals alone. There was no sound, save for the shuffling of boots.

During a changeover from one passageway to another, I saw a stairwell leading upward to a doorway. I did my best not to turn and look, for fear that either Parker or Dada would catch me taking interest. Slowly, I began to count off the steps and the turns from that point. I didn’t know if the stairwell lead to safety or danger. I only knew that, in the underground, up was good.

We rounded a corner strewn with clutter and saw a short passageway that ended in a darkened turn ahead. Ghia stopped and threw a hand up into the air, fingers splayed. The team halted suddenly. We waited, as Ghia stared intently at the handheld tracker. After a breath, maybe two, I felt a hand on my right shoulder and Parker slowly pushed past me on my right. Dada appeared on my left and moved forward. He motioned for me to stay back and get low. I backed up a few steps.

Ghia shook her hand forward toward the dark end of the passageway. She counted off the numbers with the fingers on her raised hand. One. Two. Three.

The passageway before us stretched for twenty meters or so and then took a turn to the left. It was completely dark. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. When the number Ghia was counting off hit five, she cursed softly, dropped the tracker to her waist, and raised her rifle. The rest of the team moved closer together, creating a human barrier between the movement on the other side of the darkened passageway and me.

Dada looked over his shoulder at me. His eyes showed alarm. I crouched lower.

From the far end of the passageway, I heard a clicking sound, like dozens of tiny claws traversing the concrete floor. Pili straightened up tall and broad, taking up as much space as he could. Parker cursed quietly. All eyes were forward. I leaned to one side and tried to see the ground ahead of us, waiting for something to come out of the dark. The clicking continued but there was nothing there. As the noise grew louder and louder still, I lifted my gaze up, and saw that all four of the insurgents were pointing their rifles at the ceiling.

That’s when I saw the massive purplish-black bugs crawling toward us.

[Communication Relay: 27MAR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

The Heart of the Matter

replacement_heartThe thick, black veil parted and vivid dreams faded away to mere wisps of thoughts and remembrances. I was reluctant to let go. I tried to hold on. Dada kept calling my name and shining a light into my eyes.

“Maxim. Maxim!”

Squinting, I tried to sit up and turn away. A deep breath into cold lungs brought on a violent coughing fit. My chest ached. My head hurt. I felt as if I had just emerged from a prolonged journey in stasis. As the blood began to circulate, perspiration beaded up on my forehead.

My thoughts were a clutter of memories and dreams and rising panic. Dada leaned in with the light and I tried to shield my eyes. My focus was lost. The room spun. I tried to see through the haze, see past Dada. Who else was in the room? Was I safe? Where was I?

“Thirsty,” I whispered, causing my throat to tighten up. I put my hand to my throat and began coughing again. Dada grabbed my wrist and tried to put a cup in my hand. I jumped and knocked it away. Dada backed off. “It’s okay,” he said. “Take it easy, Maxim.”

The coughing continued. I leaned over the edge of the bed and spat. The flooring was bare concrete. Gray. My stomach turned and I wanted to vomit but there was nothing to disgorge.

Dada offered the water glass again. “Take it in sips.”

I took the glass. It was cool in my hands. The water was sweet and cold. Minutes passed. Dada sat in silence. Soon enough, I could see a bit better. This was a different room. It had the same gray walls and a metal door that looked thick, solid. There were no windows.

Dada stared at me, waiting.

“What’s happening here? How long was I out?” I asked in a whisper.

“Six days,” he replied.

I made no reply. I looked at Dada, trying to gauge his expression. His eyes betrayed nothing. I didn’t trust him.

“You’re safe here, Maxim. Things have changed. You’re under our protection now.”

“Safe? How can I believe that? Earlier, your team was ready to tear me apart. What’s different now, Dada?” I asked.

Dada leaned back in his chair and let out a long breath. “During our question and answer session, the medical scan showed us a number of biological anomalies that uh… let’s say… begin to support your claims.”

I remembered the bio-medical transmitter the doctor had attached to my chest. I reached up and felt below my collarbone. The device had been removed.

“Maxim, Dr. Klas was also able to show us a scan of some of your internal organs. Your heart, for instance, is tagged and coded with manufacturer’s data from a bio-technology group that has never existed. It’s also a quality replacement part that looks to be the product of a much more advanced medical system.”

I knew what he was referring to. I nodded slightly. “Yes.”

“Dr. Klas was quite impressed. He was upset that he couldn’t be here when you woke. You’re a bit of a medical marvel, Maxim.”

Thoughts of medical testing and organ harvesting suddenly flooded my mind. I wanted to leave the room, get out, just go. I opened and closed my left hand. It was strong again. The pain in my shoulder was nearly gone. Although I was still tethered by a tube to the drip bag above the bed, I could easily pull it free and walk away. I started to get up.

Dada immediately put his hand out to stop me. “Not just yet. Take it easy for now.”

“Don’t!” I shouted, swiping his hand away.

Dada backed off, hands up, palms facing.

“Please, Maxim. I know this may difficult to see but you are among friends here.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I understand,” Dada said earnestly. “Give me some time.”

I was becoming angry. I felt trapped. I moved myself to the edge of the bed and began tearing at the tape that held the tube to the flat of my forearm. Dada watched, saying nothing. “Your people almost killed me, Dada.”

“And for that I apologize, Maxim. I can honestly tell you that there is a greater level of group control and cohesion with leadership. Unfortunately, that leadership died with Quinn.”

I felt my heartbeat increase slightly. The blood pumped. I took deep breaths. It felt good.

“Maxim, I need you to understand a few things. Things that are meant to keep you safe. Help us help you.”

“Help me?” I responded, sarcastically.

Dada clasped his hands and hung his head a little. “Yes. Help you, Maxim.” He gave me a look of concern and frustration. “I won’t lie. We intend to help you, in hope that you can also help us.”

“I don’t understand, Dada. Tell me what you want from me.”

Dada took a deep breath. “Maxim, you represent a great gift to us in our struggle against the Director and the LMO development program. There are a lot of unanswered questions…”

“Stop,” I interrupted. “What if I don’t want to answer your questions, Dada?”

“Maxim, we’re at a loss here. Our group is facing a high threat level with you. We have little time. We want a few answers, so that we can make the right moves.”

I was a gift. I was a prisoner. I was under scrutiny and being questioned. My anger and frustration were growing but I had to act calm, bide my time.

Dada sat in silence. I could tell that he was having trouble anticipating my reactions. He appeared slightly anxious, but controlled overall. I could easily see his curiosity. Most telling, however, was his patience. He wanted something.

“What do you want to know?” I asked.

A thin smile showed on his face. “Let’s start with the obvious. Tell me about what we saw on the medical scans.”

“It’s an advanced tissue engineering process.”

“Really? How does it work?”

“A blank scaffold is selected and then recellularized, using my own stem cells. Then they manually pump blood through the scaffolding. Along with the blood, chemical signals from the scaffold allow the stem cells to specialize into the needed tissue. The whole process takes about one month.”

“Amazing. Grow a new heart. Just like that. What else?”

“The major organs, principally. The heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs. All are common replacements.”

“Fantastic.” Dada replied, shaking his head and smiling. After a moment, he eyed me with a strange grin. “Where are you from, Maxim?”

“Which time?” I replied.

Dada appeared confused. “I don’t understand,” he said.

“Most recently, I came from an unknown region of deep space where I was stranded near a supermassive black hole. I was stuck there for nearly three months, battling LMOs that wanted me dead. At the end of it all, I traveled through a wormhole and exited here in Antarctica.”

Dada was dumbstruck.

“But I was born on a military base at Atsugi.”

“Japan?” asked Dada.

I nodded.

“I see,” Dada replied, knitting his brows, as if he was pondering something difficult or troublesome.

“What is it?”

“Well, there is a lot you should know, Maxim. But I believe that this is not the proper time. We should keep you sheltered for now…”

“Tell me,” I interrupted, sternly.

Dada paused. His eyes showed that there was much to say. Much that was difficult to say. He was conflicted.

“The world as you know it is gone, Maxim,” he began. “Although little is known about the origin of the LMO technology, the common story is that a great deal of it was brought here – to this very place – some seventy years ago. When the word got out that a massive amount of technology had simply fallen out of the sky, nations turned against one another and what ensued was an incomprehensible shower of mass destruction that left Antarctica the only habitable place on the planet.”

“Antarctica?”

“Yes. Bellingshausen. This is the last civilization on Earth.”

“Last civilization on Earth?”

“Maxim, I’m sorry.”

I was horror-struck. I could only think about all that I had been through, trying to free myself of the LMOs that had sent me plummeting into the outreaches of space and back again. I was now a prisoner of their time, their place, and their destructive nature.

“Dada,” I interrupted. “When I mentioned that I was from Japan, you gave me a concerned look. Why?”

Dada didn’t answer right away and I knew what was coming before he even spoke.

“Japan is completely gone, Maxim. It’s not even home to microorganisms now.”

I couldn’t believe it. It was too much pain. I shook my head. Madness. Absolute madness!

“This is too much, Dada. I think that I’m ready to have a walk around your city and check things out for myself.”

“Look, Maxim… I’m afraid we can’t let you do that.”

“What?” I shouted. I was furious. “I’m supposed to believe that everything I’ve ever known is simply gone. I’m in Antarctica now, captive, powerless, and under the control of crazed LMOs that oversee the last habitable place on Earth?”

Dada did nothing more than nod slowly.

“I have a few ideas of my own, Dada. And I think that you should let me go now.”

“That’s not a good idea, Maxim. It’s not safe to let you out of our care right now. Bellingshausen, especially here on the outskirts, is no place to wander unescorted.”

“It gets worse?”

“Maxim, I’m not going to mislead you or purposely lie to you. You’re a high-value asset to both sides of the battlefront. The controlling element at the heart of this city knows that you’ve touched down. They have your data patch and whatever information that it contains. Half the battle is already over. The only piece they don’t have is you. I can promise that the Director has unleashed his dogs. You’re being hunted at this very moment.”

“Hunted? By whom?”

“Hunted by what – would be the better terminology, actually. Aside from standard LMOs, the Director has created a number of unique horrors that do his dirty work.”

I was deep in disbelief. I had seen nothing like this in all the history of the LMO program. Nothing made sense.

Dada continued. “Some patrol the underground, sniffing out interlopers. Some crawl the streets…”

“That’s enough, Dada…” I interrupted.

“Maxim,” Dada shouted. “We’ve seen them! We’ve fought them! You can toss around all the disbelief you like, but outside that door are things you don’t want to run into.”

My anger and my impatience with this crazed story reached a fever pitch. As I was about to launch into a series of angry accusations, a loud knock came at the door. I jumped. Dada stood and moved to open it. Nervous, I began to get up and pull the tube from my arm. Dada held up his hand to me. I ignored him and worked the tube free from my arm.

“It’s okay, Maxim. Pili brought you something to eat.”

Dada unlatched the door and let Pili in the room. I looked at the mountain in the doorway. He wore the same expressionless face. Same cold eyes. He had a steaming bowl of noodles and broth in his hand. Even from across the room, the sight of real food made my stomach groan.

Pili crossed the room slowly. His massive form blocked out the light in the room. I had a flashback of my earlier interrogation and pushed myself back from his advance.

Pili stopped short of the bed. With a stretch, he offered the bowl to me. I was frozen, staring him in the eyes.

Dada spoke. “You can trust him, Maxim. I give you my word.”

Pili looked at Dada and back at me, nodding slowly.

I needed the food. I reached and took the bowl from his massive hand.

Pili’s broad face broke into a warm smile. “They make the noodles upstairs. They’re really good.”

I nodded to him, as I dug in and filled my mouth with hot food. It was the first warm meal I had eaten in months.

Pili backed up to the corner of the room. He shot Dada a concerned look.

“What’s wrong?” asked Dada.

“Parker says we have to move soon,” replied Pili.

Dada was immediately concerned. “Why?”

“There’s a lot of chatter, Dada, about movement in the substructure. There are crawlers in the underground.”

“Understood.”

Dada turned from Pili. His eyes darted back and forth for a moment. He looked up at me. “Maxim, we’re going to be moving soon. I need to talk to Ghia and Parker about an exit strategy for you. You’re going to have to prepare yourself.”

I looked at Pili and Dada. I was suspicious and I was hungry. Hunger won over.

“I can do that,” I said in reply.

Dada stepped outside the room and pulled the door shut. With my eyes on Pili, the massive guard standing silently in the corner, I ate slowly, savoring every bite. Dada said that we would be moving soon. Once I was outside this room, I would make my escape.

[Communication Relay: 21MAR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

An Awakening

dojo_doorsWith a push, the dark wooden door to my uncle Setsuo’s dojo swung open with a long creak. A pale shaft of moonlight illuminated the entryway. The room beyond was deep in darkness. I stepped out of the cool nighttime air and stole into the room. My slippers made a soft scratching sound as they slid across the floor matting. I stepped out of them, leaving my bare feet to the mercy of the cold flooring. There were no windows to let in the ambient light from outside, so I left the door open. The cool autumn air swept in through the open doorway and filled the room with the smell of damp maple leaves and fragrant pine needles.

When my uncle was teaching battōjutsu and shinkendo, Japanese swordsmanship, the dojo was filled with students practicing body-turning movements and engaging in controlled sparring. Their shouts filled the room and echoed off the wooden walls. Now, the room was empty, quiet.

I pulled out a small torch that was tucked behind the obi belted around my hakama trousers and switched on the lamp. Dim yellow light fluttered across the floor in front of me, as I crept to the kamidana shrine at the back of the room. The katana at the shine was once carried by an ancestor six generations ago. As with tradition, it had been stripped of its furniture and placed on display in its naked form. The blade was cared for by my uncle Setsuo and it held a position of high value in both the dojo and within our family. The blade still had a high polish, whereas the bare tang was rusty. On the tang, the stamped signature of the sword maker was still visible.

I set the torch on the floor below the shrine and approached the katana, the wooden floor creaking under my feet. The wind blew in. I turned to check the entrance as a handful of pine needles whispered across the floor. With both hands, I lifted the blade from the wooden stand. It was lightweight and cool. My small fingers played across the tang and the blade, as I turned it over and over in my hands. I was amazed. This weapon was nearly two-centuries old and it still had all of its edge and polish.

There were many swords in the dojo… but this one was perfection. I was mesmerized by its power and potential. From my first visit to uncle’s dojo, I had longed to hold it in my hands. As I held it out by the tang and felt the true weight of the blade, extended fully from my arm, my heart beat faster.

The room turned suddenly dark. A cloud bank crossed in front of the moon and obscured the light at the entryway. As I turned toward the doorway, my foot knocked over the small torch and the dim light flickered toward the front of the dojo. I gasped. A tall figure stood in the doorway, his coat fluttering slowly in the breeze. A roar filled the dojo and the figure rushed toward me. I backed up against the shrine wall and dropped the blade to the floor with a metallic clatter. The figure stepped into the light of my torch and snatched the fallen sword from the floor. It was my uncle Setsuo. He stood before me, shaking his head and gritting his teeth, as he scrutinized the blade for damages. I had never before seen him angry. I trembled. My heart pounded in my ears.

Holding the blade in his large hand, he picked up the torch and shone the light down on the katana and me. “What have you done, Maxim?” he asked, turning the blade over, examining it carefully in the light.

I was ashamed and silent. I wished that I could shrink away to nothing and slip between the cracks in the wooden flooring.

“Answer me, Maxim,” he said, his voice booming in the empty room.

My whole body began to shake. “I only wanted to see…”

“No,” he interrupted. “We never touch the blade without proper preparation. You know this, Maxim.”

“Yes. I am sorry, uncle.”

“Are you?” he asked.

I had no response.

He turned the flat of the blade toward me and shone the light down on the surface. There were numerous rust-colored spots across both sides of the blade where my small fingers had touched the rusted tang and ruined the highly-polished finish on the blade.

“Maxim, what you have done here is disrespectful to both the history that this sword carries and to our ancestor that carried this great weapon. You must learn to treat the requests of others with more respect.”

“Yes, uncle.”

The shame was overwhelming. My heart was heavy. Uncle Setsuo placed the ancient katana back into its stand and stared down at me with great concern.

I turned my gaze to the floor.

My uncle stood before me in silence for a time. In the dojo, I recognized this quiet pause as his way of collecting his thoughts before issuing a lesson to his students. He drew a deep breath. “We cannot ask much of you yet, Maxim, for your hand is a shallow bowl. But with age you grow in size and soon you will be able to offer much more to those around you.”

“Yes, uncle.”

“There is a lesson to be learned here, Maxim,” he said, as he shined the light from my torch onto the katana. “I want you to sit here in the dojo and look at this blade and think about your actions. I will return for you in the morning.”

I stood silent.

Uncle Setsuo looked at me once more. This time, his expression was calm. He snapped off the light and walked toward the doorway. I took my seat in front of the shrine and stared at the katana. As he closed the door, all the light disappeared from the room.

“But I can’t see it in the darkness,” I shouted.

“Give it time, Maxim.” He said, as he turned the latch from the outside. “You will.”

As I sat there on the floor in front of the shrine, the darkness gently folded in over me. The night was long and the dojo was cold. But I did not move. I did not shiver. I did not sleep. I focused my eyes and stared through the darkness where the sword rested silently until the first rays of dawn peered through the cracks around the doors and illuminated the blade. It was brilliant.

And then I heard the voice.

“Maxim.”

It was distant but clear.

“Maxim, can you hear me?”

The light grew brighter and the dojo faded away.

“Maxim, can you see me?”

The light was intensely bright now. I saw some shapes moving before my eyes. I struggled to see through the haze, make out the figure calling to me. I gained some focus. I saw the shape, the face, and the eyes. It was… Dada.

Dada was leaning over me. I was lying on my back. I looked up and saw a tube running out of my arm up to a bag and a drip chamber attached to a pole next to the bed. I tried to speak but my mouth was dry and nothing came out but a soft croak.

Dada shook his head. “Maxim, you’ve been out for some time,” he said with a warm smile. “Welcome back.”

[Communication Relay: 16MAR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

A Harsh Light Shines Down

interrogation_lightWith a black bag over your head, you lose track of time. The world around you is dark. Perception is cluttered. You quickly begin to withdraw from your surroundings. I felt sick. The ride was longer than I expected. Or was it my imagination? Inside the bag, my breath, hot and thick, was choking me. I could hardly breathe. Where were they taking me?

Before we departed the skirmish site where they took me from two LMO security officers, the team of insurgents, Dada, Parker, Pili and Ghia, made certain that I was hidden from sight and that I was blinded. For security reasons.

From my prone position across the floorboards, I felt the vehicle rise and rock over the frozen landscape. The engine’s low whine reverberated throughout the vehicle. I heard the crunching of ice underneath the powerful tracks that propelled us. The toe of Ghia’s boot dug into my ribs. She tapped her toe impatiently when she spoke. I heard only quiet tones, infrequently. Ghia spoke with a Dominican Spanish accent that was warm and murky. Even in a hushed voice, there was a rapid staccato delivery to her speech and a tendency to slur consonants.

Parker at the helm clicked off the kilometers and the checkpoints as he navigated. Dada ran surveillance sweeps and scan blocking. Even in their quiet voices, I could tell there was a nervous tension about traveling through dangerous territories. Who was out there? How many?

The vehicle passed through a series of gates. I heard the electronic acknowledgment of every pass-thru from the vehicle’s AI. We were in an official vehicle of some sort. I couldn’t tell if it was government or military or corporate. The onboard AI had a non-inflected tone, a cold but proficient quality typical of special-purpose systems.

When we stopped, I heard all manner of noises. The city. I was pulled from the vehicle. By the feel of the grasp, I could tell Ghia was escorting me. Even with the bag over my head, I could feel her anger and frustration. She gripped my arm tightly and pushed me through each of the turns like an ill-bred animal.

I felt myself pass through a doorway. Then another. Down some stairs. Down again. We went through a final door that sounded heavy and thick. I heard the latch work to open and then close again. The room we entered was cold. I heard a few footsteps. Someone else was here.

Ghia released my arm suddenly and it made me sway a little on my heels. That’s when I felt the kick to the small of my back: unexpected and sharp. I went sprawling through the air head first and hit the floor with a painful smack that knocked the wind out of me. My shoulder and my chin took a beating against the floor. My chest tensed. I gasped for air and groaned. I began coughing. There was blood in my mouth.

“Damn it, Ghia,” shouted Dada. “That’s enough!”

Someone pulled me up, grumbling. It was probably Parker. He grabbed both of my hands around my back and bound them together. I was shoved roughly into a chair. “What’s happening,” I asked.

“Nothing yet,” replied Parker. “He’s all yours, Dada.”

The hood came off. Bright light. Harsh. I squinted. Shadows moved around the room. I could make out Ghia’s tall and slender figure, as well as Pili’s mountainous mass. The chair was metal, cold. With my hands fastened together, my shoulder injury begin to burn.

My eyes adjusted to the light. The room was gray walls, tile flooring, and barren, but for a few intensely-bright lamps on the walls. Pili, Ghia and Parker stood at one end, watching me. Each was expressionless. Parker still had his EMD rifle slung over his shoulder. There was a drain in the center of the floor. It was rusty. An improvised medical monitoring station occupied one corner. Dada was standing by the station, talking to another man. Someone I hadn’t yet seen. He was older, with short, thinning blonde hair atop a round head. They whispered to each other for a bit. Dada gestured toward me a few times but the rounded-headed man did not look over. I could hear nothing of their conversation until the round-headed man said “Oh, that is interesting.” Then they both turned to me.

“Maxim,” said Dada. “We’re going to have a little question and answer session with you.”

“I don’t understand,” I replied, the taste of blood lingered in my mouth.

“Your arrival here has many of us… confused. We lost a man during our mission to recover you. He was a leader, a friend.”

“I… I understand that but…”

“Maxim, this is Dr. Klas.” Dada interrupted, pointing to the man with the thinning hair. “He will be assisting us today.”

Klas smiled and approached me with a device that looked like a black metal truncheon with a flat, silver-tipped end. He reached down and opened my shirt to the skin. “That appears to be a nasty wound you have there,” Klas said with an accent that was Swedish in tone but tempered by decades of English dilution.

I stared at him.

“We’ll probably have to look at that soon.”

“Klas,” said Dada, impatiently.

“Fine,” he replied, with a quick look over his shoulder. He turned back to me. “This shouldn’t hurt too much.” Klas pressed the end of the black truncheon object to my chest, just under my collarbone. There was a cold hiss and a small wisp of vapor, followed by a metallic snap. Painless. When he pulled the truncheon away from my chest, there was a silvery, round device attached to my flesh by a number of thin prongs that penetrated into the skin. A small trickle of blood ran down my chest. The face of the device was a display screen that was alive with a series of bright blue digits. It was a bio-medical reader and short-range transmitter. It would tell them everything about my vital signs and my physical state… during whatever they intended to do with me.

“Well, Maxim. That should tell us everything we wish to know about you,” said Klas

“Where are you from, Maxim?” asked Dada. “Tell us why you’re here.”

I licked my lips and tasted more blood. I looked around the room at all of them. I could imagine their frustration, anger, and confusion. Who was I? Why did I come here? What was so damn important about me? So, I told the story, as best I could remember. The HyperDrive Assist Station, the accident, Spegg, the other SM5, the fighting, the wormhole, the data patch and the crash. I was nearly out of breath when I finished. They stared at me. Dada looked at the others.

Parker exploded. “I don’t believe any of it! He’s talking about technologies and events that simply don’t exist. It can’t happen, Dada. How do we know he isn’t making all this up?”

“The LMOs wanted him pretty bad!” Dada shouted. What are we supposed to think, Parker?”

“Let’s get the real story out of him!” Parker shouted back. “Treat him like any other mission apprehension.”

“And…?” asked Dada.

Parker was silent, serious. Dada stared at him. I felt a cold sweat on my forehead.

“Pili,” said Parker, snapping his fingers and pointing over to me. “Squeeze it out of him.”

Pili looked momentarily confused. He turned away from Parker’s intense gaze. “Dada?”

Dada continued to stare at Parker. “This is your way? This is really how you intend to address this problem?”

“I saw Quinn die, Dada. I dissolved his body so that the LMO’s couldn’t get their stinking hands on him. Yeah, this is how I intend to address this problem.”

There was another silence between the men. They stared at each other. Dada now appeared perplexed. Parker was unrelenting. Shaking his head, Dada quietly walked to the back of the room and leaned against the wall.

“Pili,” Parked said, pointing to me once more.

“Okay, boss,” replied Pili, crossing the room toward me. When his huge shape stepped in front of the light, I was engulfed by his massive shadow. He looked down at me, his eyes deep and calm. No expression crossed his face. His big hand reached out and encircled my neck. He turned to the side, so they could all see. I took a breath. The hand went tight and I felt my head swell.

Parker stepped forward. “Maxim, you’ve told us quite a story. I don’t believe a word of it. So, I’m going to ask you this one question. What is your relationship with the LMOs and The Director?”

“Parker…” I started weakly, “I don’t know…”

Pili’s other hand dropped to my wounded shoulder and his fingers dug in. The pain was immediate and excruciating. I screamed. Pili’s tightened his grip around my neck and my scream was silenced. I choked. I squirmed. My neck and shoulder muscles turned into agonizing, twisted knots of pain.

Parker took a step closer to the chair and looked down at me. He looked up at Pili.

“A little higher, Pili,” Parker said. Pili lifted me by my throat to Parker’s eye level. “Maxim, I shouldn’t have to say that your answer to my question had better be really great.”

This was madness. I had no answer. Silently, I twisted in the air. My lungs burned. My eyes bulged. My hands struggled against their bonds and my feet danced in the air. Parker looked back at me indifferent and silent.

“Please,” I gasped, struggling against the grip.

“What? I didn’t hear that. You said you’re working for The Director?”

“Parker, this isn’t going to work!” Dada shouted.

“Shut up, Dada!”

“You’re killing him!”

“He’s fine,” Parker replied. He smirked at me. “So who are you working for, again?”

I stared deep into Parker’s eyes and tried to speak, but my throat was clenched shut.  The room started to spin. My vision began to fade. Suddenly, my lungs violently seized and an exhalation escaped Pili’s tight grip. I showered Parker with spittle. Parker cursed and turned away to wipe his face. In the distance, I saw Klas call Dada over to his monitor station. I heard Klas say “Dada, I think there’s something on the medical monitor here that you should see.”

I closed my eyes.

“See there,” said Klas.

“I see it,” Dada said. He let out a long breath. “But I don’t believe it. How is that possible?”

“Maxim may be telling us the truth.”

I gave in. The room faded into echoes and forms and blackness gently folded in over me.

[Communication Relay: 10MAR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

An Armed Insurgency

insurgentsShe was a woman, a human! She stood there in the light of the open hatchway, hurriedly working the action on a chemical flechette rifle, and cursing in a language not-quite Spanish. Frustrated, she banged on the underside of the rifle, finally activating a new magazine. She looked up at me with a quick snap of her head.

Her eyes were brown and deeply impatient. She was tall and wiry with sharp features, pointy fingers, and a swath of short black hair swept back. Her face, her poise, her gestures all had a controlled but elegant intensity, like hot smoke in a bottle. For an instant, she regarded me with either a sneer or a half-smile. I couldn’t tell which, until she opened her mouth.

“You!” she shouted. “Move!”

I jumped from the sheer volume she commanded and quickly crawled to the edge of the compartment opening. She grabbed me by the collar of my shirt with one hand and jerked me free of the hatchway. I tumbled across the snow and ice, shocked by the sudden rush of cold. My fingertips screamed out at the touch of the frozen landscape. As I scrambled to get to my feet, my collar snapped tight to my neck, choking me, as she pulled me up off the ice.

“I can get up…” I protested, coughing, spitting.

“You can’t,” she said. “You move too slow.” With a yank, she pulled me around to the side of the fallen vehicle where her team was recovering from the brief fight. With a rough shove, I was pushed up against the vehicle and held there. My injured shoulder buzzed with fresh pain.

A man was sprawled on the ice, covered in blood, a deep penetrating wound in his chest. He coughed and rocked his head back and forth. Another man, down on one knee, hovered over him, speaking to him in calm words.

Two of the other team members were engaged in securing the immediate area, rifles up, scanning the landscape around the overturned vehicle. Both of them were dressed in tactical gear and bits of civilian clothing. Both carried high power, long-range EMD pulse rifles. They were non-lethal, except at close range. One of the two men was a mountain of a man and stood like a shield before one that was fallen.

“We have him, Dada,” the woman told the man attending to their injured companion.

He looked up at me with sharp, inquisitive eyes and then back to the woman. “Ghia, get cover on him,” he said. “Pili,” he shouted to the mountain. “Over here.” Pointing in my direction.

“Yeah, boss,” Pili replied, turning and lumbering toward me.

I flattened myself against the overturned vehicle as Pili moved his huge frame directly in front of me. In his large shadow, I felt safe. Safe as I’d even been. But still, I didn’t know who these people were or what they intended to do with me. Am I trapped, captured again?

All around was the immensity of the frozen landscape. It was truly arctic, inescapable. We were on the outskirts of a glittering city, against a backdrop of a snow-covered mountain range. Dozens of glass and steel buildings towered at the heart of the city. They were hundreds of stories high and massive at the base. A wide expanse of smaller buildings surrounded the central towers. The city was immense.

Bellingshausen. It was like nothing that I had ever seen before. In all my knowledge and memory, it didn’t exist. This was new. This was different. Was this truly Antarctica? How could this be possible? When?

Quinn was squirming on the blood-soaked ice, wincing and shaking in pain. Dada leaned further over Quinn, who began speaking in quiet tones. Dada listened attentively. Then they both looked up at me. Ghia shot Pili an anxious look and then glanced back at me. She lowered her rifle and rushed to Quinn’s side, shouting his name. Dada tried to hold her back. She pushed through.

“Parker, get her back in line,” Dada shouted to the other sentry. “We have to keep this area secure.”

As Parker backed his way up to Ghia, she quickly kneeled next to Quinn. Ghia’s hands trembled as she touched him softly on his shoulder. Quinn spoke and ordered her to cover me. She shot me an angry look. Parker insisted that she fall back in line and pulled her to her feet with a rough jerk.

Ghia shook off Parker’s grasp, shouldered her rifle and stormed back to her position. She glared at me angrily. I felt frustrated, confused.

Looking away from her fierce gaze, I saw that Quinn had lifted his head and was making a feeble gesture toward me. I stared back. “I expected that you would be different.” Quinn said in a trembling voice, causing all to turn and look at me.

I was shocked. “How could you…” I began, but my words were cut short as Quinn began to cough, gurgle, and shudder. Dada gripped his hand tightly. Blood spurt from Quinn’s mouth and covered his neck and face. The pale red stain on the frozen surface beneath him began to grow.

“Quinn! Quinn!” Dada shouted. “Hold on, my friend!”

“We have to move. Get him up!” said Ghia.

“Agreed,” Dada replied. “What do you see out there, Pili?” he added.

“Nothing moves, nothing on the scans,” replied the big man.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” said Parker, harshly. “They’re like nasty little insects. They’ll be crawling out of the walls in no time.”

Ghia turned to me. “What did you bring with you?” she said with an angry scowl. “What is it that makes you so damn important?”

“Enough of that!” shouted Dada.

“I… I had some information… from my ship,” I replied. “It’s on a data patch device.” I pointed to the vehicle behind me. “They took it. It’s there in the cabin. They took it from me.”

Dada snapped his fingers twice and pointed Parker over to the vehicle. “Get it out and get it safe. We’re not going away empty-handed on this one.”

“I’m on it,” said Parker, who dropped his rifle to his side and moved to climb up to the hatch atop the vehicle. Before he could reach the top and get access to the cabin, a heavy impact struck the ground a few meters from the vehicle, exploding and fragmenting a huge patch of ice and snow. Parker was thrown from the side of the vehicle. All scattered for cover. Dada threw himself to the ground near Quinn. Ice fragments rained down heavily.

From his prone position near Quinn, Dada shouted, “Parker, get me an update quick!”

Parker stood and scanned the area. “I don’t know, Dada. It could be a single, maybe multiple hostiles. No time to wait and see! We need to go now!”

“We need that information…” said Dada, but his words were cut short by another impact. This time the impact was closer. An explosion of ice filled the air with razor-sharp shards of hard-pack ice.

Parker brought his rifle up to his shoulder and stared through the optics. “Damn it, I can’t see anything, Dada. They’re out there, well hidden. I say that this stage of the mission is over. We pull out now and relocate.”

“You heard him, people. We move now,” said Dada. “Pili, pick up Quinn. We’ve got to get to safety.”

“Yeah, boss,” said Pili moving away from me. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and reached down to pick up Quinn. He stopped suddenly and then reached to turn Quinn’s head to one side. A large chunk of ice had caved in the right side of his skull in the explosion. Quinn was dead. Pili looked up. The rest of the team had already taken notice. “He’s gone, Dada.”

Ghia screamed, loud but brief. It was an explosion of rage and pain. Dada rushed over and grabbed her by the arm. “We have to move and cannot bring him with us, Ghia.” Dada said.

Ghia shook his hand away. “You can’t just leave him here!”

Dada looked at her with sympathy and then turned away. “Parker, we’re leaving him. Tell me you have a nanopat injector.”

Parker lowered his weapon, let out a breath, and reached for a pocket inside his vest. “I do,” he replied.

“Set it off. Dissolve him. We have to go.”

Ghia turned to Parker and shot him a pained look.

“I’m sorry, Ghia. Dada’s right… and so are you,” Parker said. “We can’t take him. And we can’t leave him here. When the nanoparticles are done, there won’t be anything left for them to keep.”

Parker pulled a gray tube from his inner vest, snapped off the cap and slid out what looked like a black stim injector. It had a number of red cautionary symbols imprinted down the length of one side. Ghia didn’t take her eyes off Parker, even as he activated the device, ejecting a thick needle from the bottom. Parker leaned over Quinn’s body, paused for a moment, and the plunged the needle into the side of Quinn’s neck. The device made a soft hiss.

Ghia turned a hateful gaze toward me. “You’d better be worth this, whoever you are.”

“I’m sorry,” I began. “I don’t… ”

“That’s enough, Ghia,” said Dada, interrupting me sharply. “We move out now. We will deal with this later.” Then, turning to me, he paused and asked “Who are you, by the way?”

“Maxim. My name is Maxim.”

“Maxim, we have a short climb to another vehicle that’s hidden. We’re going to get you back into the city to a place that’s safe. We’ll get you some medical attention. After that, you’re on your own. Questions?”

“Just one,” I replied. “What time is it?”

Dada looked at the mission counter on his rifle and replied “It’s about 01:30 right now.”

“I meant, what year.”

Dada made a side glance to Parker and then looked at both Ghia and Pili. They were silent for a moment. “It’s 2086, Maxim. What year did you think it was?”

“I didn’t know,” I started. “When I left… well… I only made it back one-hundred years.”

Parker and Pili looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Ghia stared at me with a deeply-confused expression.

“Maxim,” Dada replied, solemnly. “I think that you’re exactly what we’re looking for after all. Let’s get you to safety.”

[Communication Relay: 07MAR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Across the Frozen Landscape

arrival_AntarcticaI sat in the dark rear compartment of the vehicle, shivering. I didn’t know if I was cold or if it was the effect of the electro-muscular disruptor wearing off. I bit down on my tongue and tried to calm the shakes. Nothing was working right.

Hours ago, my ship smashed into a commemorative monument on Alexander Island in Antarctica. The militant LMO forces in the region blasted me with an EMD, pulled me from the ship, and apprehended me. I had inadvertently flattened a monument erected to honor two men I’d never seen before and the vile creature I knew as Spegg. Once again, I was a captive, held in a windowless prisoner compartment of a large military-style snowtrack vehicle.

For three months prior, I had encountered pain and darkness and uncertainty because of the actions of just one crazed LMO. To now find myself at the mercy of a large number of these insane creatures made me angry and frustrated. My thoughts ran red with hate and my fear caved in.

Slowly, I could move my arm and my legs again. The paralysis began to subside. I tried clearing my throat but little noise escaped me. As my limbs began to work again, I inched my way into one corner of the dark compartment and propped myself up on my right arm. My wounded left arm and shoulder ached and I could not move them. I began to fear that I would lose my arm if I did not receive medical attention soon. What were the chances?

Although the rear of the vehicle was dark, I could tell that it was clearly a holding pen for the transportation of individuals who were not treated well by their captors. It was thickly constructed. It smelled dirty and earthy, with undertones of nervous sweat and stale urine. There was no interior lighting, save for the soft amber glow of four EMD charging lamps in each of the four corners of the compartment. The activator for this intimidating quad-EMD blaster was at the driver’s touch. And any captive could be kept in paralyzed submission for any length of time.

I heard two LMOs enter the front cabin and lock in. With a roar, the patrol vehicle came to life. Beneath me, I felt the four massive tracks power into gear, bite into the snow and ice, and accelerate quickly away. I was thrown to the rear of the holding compartment and dashed against the hatch door with a bang. The vehicle continued to accelerate quickly and cruise smoothly across the otherwise rough terrain. This ability to glide over a choppy landscape is produced by the inclusion of small anti-gravity pumps built into the framework of the vehicle which cancel a portion of the overall mass and allow for an almost unlimited movement across any type of solid landscape.

A soft ping broke the silence. A dim white line stretched across the back wall of the compartment, as a virtual view portal snapped to life. The broadcast allowed me to see the face of both the driver and another escorting officer. The driver was the same muscular LMO that first found me at the crash site and the same LMO that had taunted me after I was thrown into the vehicle.

“We have little time, Chikushou,” the driver said. “Before we arrive at the processing center, why don’t you tell us about this device.” He held up the M-patch that was taken from me earlier. The patch had gone rigid, a sign that it was conserving power. He tapped it with an index finger.

I weighed my options. I could lie or I could tell the truth. Alternately, since they had no experience with the M-patch, I could give them a half-truth.  My pause angered the muscular LMO and he shouted for me to answer him. I began to speak but all that came out was tangled gibberish, as my tongue and jaw were still not working right. My stammering and babbling caused an eruption of coarse laughter from the LMO crew in the cabin.

As the muscular LMO repeatedly shouted for me to “speak up,” I chewed on the words slowly and managed to get the answer out. “It’s a data patch, a mini system, for files and applications…”

“Enough,” he blurted, tossing the M-patch to the escort sitting next to him. “See that it quickly passes through to the top level. Put it into the hands of The Director himself,” he instructed the other LMO. “Make it happen.”

“Yes, Sar,” came the reply, punctuated with a sharp nod of the head.

The conversation was interrupted by an alert that came from the vehicle’s AI. Approaching Gate 28 dash 04. Identification will be required.

“Acknowledged,” said Sar.

The AI continued. Bio-scans for all passengers will be required, as well as an inventory of all asset tags.

“Yes, acknowledged!” Sar shouted angrily. He shook his head and pounded the instrument panel with a meaty fist. “Some day, I will find the poor creature that voices these AI personality attributes and…”

The explosion cut Sar’s tirade short and sent the vehicle both airborne and sideways. For a second I tumbled freely in the compartment and then smashed hard against the side wall, as the vehicle struck the ground and landed on its side. The virtual view portal showed images of the front shield showered in clusters of black earth and shards of white ice, that plunged the cabin into darkness. We had been attacked from the outside. The view portal went suddenly dark. As I curled into a tight ball, I could hear Sar and the escorting officer shout at each other as they struggled to orient themselves inside the cabin.

From outside I heard the familiar crackle of EMD weapons and the high-pitched ping of another type of small arm. I heard the LMOs scramble to open up and engage their attackers. Another explosive burst threw up more fragments of ice and dirt against the exterior. Sar and the escort panicked, roaring deep and gutturally. A larger burst then rocked the massive vehicle and slid it across the ground with a loud grinding sound. One of the LMOs howled with pain.

There came two more quick bursts from the small arms and it was over. Sar and the escort made no more sounds from the front cabin. I uncurled myself from my balled-up position but stayed low. I could hear my heart thumping. Each beat pounded my chest wall like a hammer. I took breaths in quick shallow gasps and strained to see anything through the darkness. Even in the cold, warm sweat rolled down my face.

Before too long, I heard a scuffle of many footsteps on the ice and snow, They were rapidly approaching the rear of the vehicle. Low voices spoke quickly to each other. There was a short volley of conversation, followed by a verbal acknowledgment of some sort. A few of the footsteps dashed away.

As the outside attackers began to work the hatch lock, I sat up and pushed myself back further into a corner. Something snapped tight against the hatchway and the footsteps shuffled to the side of the vehicle. Instinctively, I put my head down and covered up with my one good arm. Four loud electronic pings preceded a small detonation that shook the hatchway door and sent a number of loose metallic fragments bouncing off the walls of the interior. The footsteps converged. The hatchway rattled loose and fell open with a crash.

As the gray light streamed into the compartment, I squinted and stared into the face of… a woman.

[Communication Relay: 03MAR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

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transmission details:

A communications specialist in the year 2185 is abandoned in deep space by a deranged Living Modified Organism, setting up a series of events that lead him back in time to a ruined home world ruled by a wealthy eccentric, a scientist playing God, and the very creature that first stranded him in space.
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