Chapter 11. Alexander Island

Impact at 18:57:09

white_knuckleThe blinding white light streamed mercilessly through the viewport, causing me to shake my head from side to side, desperately trying to avoid the assault. Outside the ship, a screaming, howling blast continued to gain in pitch and volume. I felt as if my ears would burst before too long. We continued to tumble out of control. All about the cockpit, there was violent shaking and rumbling and madness. The ship was coming apart. I felt helpless, strapped to a chair with useless controls in front of me.

I struggled to stay alert, in control. I clenched my fist, gritted my teeth, and shut my eyes tight. A massive jolt shook the ship and it groaned and squealed as the hull and the structure began to surrender to the outside forces. I wondered how long the ship would hold together, as it barreled through the turbulent wormhole toward that unknown destination. I wondered how long it would take. I wondered if it would kill me.

The outside pressure increased and the framework of the ship noisily protested. The interior pressure increased as well, squeezing me as if my body was clenched in a fist. The air was stifling. I screamed and screamed again but heard no sound over the shrill noise outside the ship. When there was no more breath in me, I seized against the belts that held me and went stiff. Then, without warning, the ship pitched violently forward, throwing me hard upward against the restraints. There was a loud pop, like a colossal bubble bursting. The ship felt suddenly motionless. The terrible howling noise from outside the ship quickly wound down and disappeared.

I took a few quick breaths and opened my eyes just slightly. Through the shallow slits of my eyelids, I could see that the light through the viewport had subsided. The running lamps in the cockpit were dark blue once more, signaling that the exotic matter pump was once again protecting the ship with a bubble of negative energy. A dull humming sound reverberated throughout the hull and a crisp crunching sound came from below.

I drew a single deep breath, closed my eyes again, and allowed myself to hang limp in my seat, waiting. Within a few seconds, the humming sound stopped and the ship fell forward with a gut-wrenching drop. The fall was brief, maybe fifteen or twenty meters, followed by a loud crunching slam as the ship struck something nose first and buried itself. My body lurched. My head whipped sharply downward with a snap. A streaking pain instantly ran through my neck and shoulders. The ship shuddered and rocked slightly as it came to rest.

When I opened my eyes, there was nothing. The cockpit was black. The intense light had all but blinded me. A host of ghost shapes in all colors, remnants of the intense light display, flooded my vision. I squinted and turned my gaze back and forth, trying to see through the dark. Slowly, familiar shapes and colors began to return to sight. The console lights winked softly at me through the darkness. The dim running lamps around the perimeter of the cockpit came into view. But there was nothing to see through the viewport.

There was a stinging electrical odor in the air. A soft hissing sound came from outside the ship, like hot metal in water. It was warm, too warm. Sweat rolled off my face and fell forward from my nose, dripping across the expanse of the cockpit toward the now darkened viewport. I then realized that I was hanging nearly upside down and face-forward toward the viewport. My one free hand roamed over the belt latches that held me to the chair. They were taut. If I depressed the latch release, I would fall forward all the way to the front of the ship, easily breaking my neck or my back.

While trying to find a safe way out of the belts, I stopped suddenly and turned an ear to the rear of the cockpit. Noises came from behind me. They were voices, quickly chattering, growing near. My mind spun. Who? The possibilities were endless. Then, a hissing, sputtering noise like a fiery-hot cutting torch broke the silence. A flash of light went up behind me, filling the darkness with a bright red glow. I smelled smoke. The chatter got louder. Then, with a clank, a small piece of metal fell from behind me and tumbled over the console base toward the front end of the cockpit. A hole had been cut into the ship and something was pushing its way inside.

As I fumbled for the fasteners on the belts again, the buzzing began. It sounded like a large insect, buzzing and darting through the air behind me. I turned my head from side to side but couldn’t turn far enough to see what it was. It then hovered into view off to my left. It was a large insect, but only partly organic. Commonly, it was known as an advanced-technology organism. It looked much like a damselfly, with four long translucent wings, a three-part body, a long, thin, segmented abdomen, and two large compound eyes that glowed green. The thin wings beat so quickly that they gave off a ghostly white blur.

As it hovered in mid-air before me, the eyes grew bright, flickered, stopped, and flickered again. It was registering me. I had seen this before, in a demonstration of advanced robotics that evaluated potential targets for military forces. The insect probe made a high electronic squeal as it reported back. The chattering on the outside of the ship turned to shouting. I quietly drew a deep breath.

The robotic insect moved closer and dipped slightly in the air before me. I didn’t move. I waited for it to do whatever it was going to do. A sequence of tiny lights on its back turned bright amber. Even before insect sounded the familiar warning chirp, I knew what was about to happen. The electro-muscular disrupter it carried with it filled the air with potent electric crackle. My muscles overloaded, convulsed, and went completely lifeless.

Immobilized but conscious, I hung limp in the chair as the insect flew away and the voices outside the ship grew louder. They began to cut their way through the hatchway above.

[Communication Relay: 25FEB2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]

Into the Light

cutting_torchThe air was filled with choking fumes and smoke from the cutting torch. Sparks and fragments of hot metal fell in fiery drops from the hatchway above, illuminating the smoky darkness with a bright red rain that sputtered and popped as it fell past my belted position in the chair. The hot fragments crackled and danced briefly as they struck the darkened viewport at the fore end of the cockpit. Then they went cold and flickered out. Hanging high above, I watched the light display with great anxiety and I occasionally squirmed and jerked in my seat as a random hot speck landed on the back of my head or neck.

The effects of the EMD were slow to wear off. I could turn my head a little and move a few fingers. Strapped securely to the seat and hanging face-first, a full ten meters from the front viewport, I was trapped, waiting. I twisted my neck around so that I could watch over my shoulder as the outsiders cut their way through the bent metal frame that held the hatchway door tightly shut. From my downward-facing position, I could only assume that the crash had buried the ship nose first.

As the flame and the shower of sparks neared the final cut at the base of the hatchway door, I could hear garbled shouts from outside the ship. Through the hissing and popping of the cutting torch, it sounded as if there were two or three individuals taking shouted orders from another louder individual. With all that Maxim had told me before he died, my assumption was that I had landed on Earth. This was my hope.

The hissing of the cutting torch soon stopped and I clearly heard a new round of shout and response come from outside. They spoke a mix of English and Japanese. If I hadn’t landed on Earth, I was certainly inside some common territory off-world.

A loud series of hammerings then preceded the sound of the hatchway door coming free from the bent frame that surrounded it. Cold air and soft light rushed in. I looked up into the light and saw through the cutaway opening to an overcast sky above. I was instantly puzzled. Beyond that hatchway was the Main Corridor that ran the length of the ship. It was gone. The entire fore end of the ship had broken away.

The stream of daylight was suddenly obscured by the head and upper torso of the largest LMO I had ever seen. He poked his head down through the open hole and peered through the dense smoke at me. His face was beefy, grim, and serious. He had dark, mottled skin and wore a black tight-fitting one-piece uniform with taut armbands that encircled his massive biceps. His thick fingers curled around the inside of the opening. If the metal was still hot to the touch, he didn’t seem to notice at all.

He stared at me, unblinking. Then he turned and shouted. “Ha! The probe was accurate. We have a live pilot.” This elicited a flurry of babble from outside the ship. “Get the strap assembly and haul him out.” His voice was deep and his tone was aggressive, almost military in nature. He turned back to the hole, leaned down, and peered through the smoke at me once more. “Do you understand me, Chikushou?”

I managed a weak nod in reply.

“Welcome to Bellingshausen,” he spat back, with a scowl.

Bellingshausen? Unable to speak, I knit my eyebrows, puzzled.

The LMO made an irritated clicking sound deep in his throat and glowered at me fiercely. “Alexander Island. Antarctica, you fool.”

I’m in Antarctica?

“What’s left of your ship has laid waste to an honored monument of The Director, Dr. Robertson and our Great Ancestor.” Then, with a very serious tone, he quietly added “You will be interrogated for this act of vandalism. Harshly.” The large LMO pushed himself away from the hole and shouted “Haul him out” to another LMO that quickly appeared over the hole and dropped down a long, thick and rubbery snake-like apparatus.

Much like the advanced-tech insect probe, the end of the snake strap had multipart eyes and a thin metallic slit for a mouth. It immediately went to work, winding its way around my body, and constricting tightly. When it had me secure, the face end of the snake quickly struck each belt strap once and with a flash of intense white light the belt straps snapped cleanly in two. Then, with a painful jolt to my injured shoulder, the snake snapped tight across my chest and began to hoist my body up toward the ragged hole that was once the hatchway entrance to the cockpit.

The strap snake worked quickly, pulling me upward and out. Once I had exited through the top of the hole, I could see the landscape and the destruction around the ship. The nose of the ship was all that remained. It was wedged deeply into the bottom of a large bowl-shaped crater of densely packed snow and ice. The exterior of the ship was a wreckage of bent metal, wires, and tubing. It was as if the head of a large black insect had been bitten roughly off and spat into the snow. I was horrified. The surrounding terrain was barren and cold. A thick blanket of snow and ice covered everything in all directions, but for a few bits of stone and an occasional patch of mud peeking through.

The LMO that operated the snake strap grabbed me roughly, dragged me from the opening, and fed me down to a group of LMOs on the ground. They all wore the same kind of black uniform. The snake strap was removed and I collapsed to the ground, still largely incapacitated by the effects of the EMD.

“Gah,” shouted a particularly gruff LMO, as he hoisted me from the ground and tossed me roughly to another LMO. They made a game of handing me back and forth, treating me with violent shoves and slaps. Finally, the muscular LMO called them off and I was thrown into the back of a rugged military-style snowtrack vehicle.

One of the smaller LMOs, obviously young, approached the back of the vehicle with a hand scanner. A shimmering green light emanated from the scanner and flickered across my body. The scanner squealed. The young LMO turned to his superior. “He’s wearing a device,” he reported loudly. “On his chest.”

No! I was crushed. All that I had worked for had come undone.

“Find it. Take it,” replied the senior LMO.

As the younger LMO opened my shirt and peeled off the M-patch, the muscular LMO that had initially peered in on me approached the rear of the vehicle and stopped to look upon me once more.

“It is unfortunate that you are already suffering from many injuries,” he shouted, which elicited many laughs from the throng of LMOs. “I know the company interrogation team well, Chikushou. Once they see how you have destroyed our most-adored monument, they will be… let’s say… rather unkind to what remains of your flesh.”

As the large LMO stepped back from the vehicle to shout a few more orders to his crew, I saw the structure they spoke of. A monument had indeed stood in this place prior to the crash. It was now almost entirely flattened. Sturdy as it may have been, the massive negative energy burst that prevented the ship from connecting with the ground and exploding on reentry had reduced the monument and much of the surrounding landscape to a large bowl-shaped indentation. These bronze statues or sculptures were no match for the power that the ship gave off as part of the emergency impact countermeasure. And although the figures were twisted and half buried in the snow pack, I could make out three faces. Two of them were human. I recognized neither. The third figure… was Spegg.

The LMO guard slammed the door to the vehicle and I was once more enveloped in darkness.

[Communication Relay: 01MAR2086 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]

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]

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 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]

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]

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]

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]

Next Chapter: 12. Bellingshausen

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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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