Chapter 13. Ground Control

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]

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]

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]

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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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