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

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

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

Number 426. The Bimson Building.

This was the location.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m freezing. I can’t stop shaking.”

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

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

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

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

“How about now?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Makabe… ? Come again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Acknowledged.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name, citizen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her wide smile quickly faded into a hostile sneer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maxim…?” said Makabe impatiently.

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

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

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

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

“Acknowledged.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Communication Relay:  28MAY2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]