Mia was moving towards Crystal Hall on the far side of the assemblage when Ian caught her on a short range wave.
“Where are you?” the words screamed across her sensor transmitter as she followed the corridor.
“I can’t wait two years.” Mia cut her brother off and disappeared into the crowd.
A minute later, the Plaza was alerted of an integrity breach and an oxygen leak in one of the air refill compartments. Apparently, its security seal had been overwritten to break and enter. Visitors were instructed not to panic while evacuation of the isolated sector was underway, to be followed by immediate repairs.
Ian clung to the transparent wall separating him from the vacuum. He stared into the Moon’s dark airless sky, at the stars and the blue ball they called home. His legs felt weak and his head was on fire. He didn’t know how to explain to himself what he knew in his heart had just happened, didn’t know what to do with the pain and guilt that began eating him from inside.
He stood like that, his thoughts on hold, when a rescue jet closed in on a young girl’s body that was drifting in space after being catapulted out of the air lock. Do you sometimes think that life is unfair? rang in Ian’s mind.
The Legend of Tal
Led by the Overseer, Ian and the group of monks in their shimmering loose robes tiptoed down the hill from where their convent stood, surrounded by a thick wall and misty clouds. The monks had a funny disposition with a tall human among them. Hardly seeing anything in the mist, they walked another mile and suddenly stopped. Nauseating odor tickled Ian’s nostrils. A hot breeze blew away the mist and, aghast, Ian looked down at his feet and then at his surroundings.
It was impossible to make one single step without walking into a pool of decomposing flesh and organic fluids. Blood was everywhere. He tried to move ahead, but his feet kept stumbling on bones, some appearing freshly cut, with bits of flesh and bloodstained uniform rags still attached to them. He spotted a piece of metal that looked like a pusher spring of some kind, fused with the gun’s barrel, probably resulting from a violent fire outburst. Using it to shove human debris aside to free the pathway, Ian managed to find a clear spot not far from a large crack in the soil. On an uncharacteristic whim, he looked inside the crack. A beheaded human body, disfigured and badly burned in places, lay there on top of smudged weaponry and a pile of dirty stinking rags.
Ian threw up.
Meanwhile, the monks took out portable cleaners and vacuumizers, and began zealously scrubbing the ground surface, gradually bringing it back to its previous arsenic beauty.
When they were done, the Overseer joyously glanced at Ian.
“Now you see?”
The moment the shuttle entered the nebula, Ian’s pod was ejected into a purple gas cloud. A portable cloak he had borrowed from his old friend could be extended to no more than the size of the pod, but that was large enough. There was, however, one minor complication-the pod’s life support system had been damaged during the maneuver and he now only had enough air for twelve hours. Holding his breath for a little miracle, Ian navigated the pod deeper into the nebula.
“Someone call for a taxi?” Ian would recognize his friend’s cheerful voice, now coming through his brain fog, out of millions. “Seems you dozed off there for a while. Lucky you I had a few errands to run in the vicinity…So, you hungry or what?”
Famished, Ian thought. Wait a minute…what’s a taxi?
Return to Timbuktu
Sun sets rapidly in Africa. It literally takes a few moments to go from light to dark. After night fall, when the dunes began to cool and local wildlife awakened, the two friends watched the camp from afar.
“This was not what I wanted to do when I grew up…” Ian turned to his pal.
“No kidding,” Mbwana was visibly bored.
“I wanted to save people…” Ian continued. Stars always reminded him of Mia and how he made that promise to himself—a promise that had been impossible to keep.
“You weren’t so philosophical when I was your rookie. What happened?” Mbwana yawned.
“I don’t know. Maybe I learned that not everyone wants my help…” Ian shook his head, remembering his very last visit to Lunar Plaza, the place he hadn’t set foot in for twenty years.
“Well, maybe you’ll still get your wish. The way I see it, there’s plenty of mending to do out there…” Mbwana was losing patience for this stake out. He wanted to see some action, and soon.
Meanwhile, nothing extraordinary happened. The Guard agents patrolled the perimeter while a group of archeologists and their assistants rounded themselves up before going to sleep.
At a later hour, the men took turns keeping watch. It was quiet, with the exception of a family of aardwolves, whose population had grown significantly since their migration a few decades before.
A lonely weather balloon was about to dive into a heavy midnight cloud when a sudden shriek brought Ian back from his sky gazing. He activated his heat sensor array—in the camp, lights went on, and Guard agents moved in and out of the tents. A female assistant was trying to talk some sense into a very upset scientist. From what Ian could tell, the
relic had been stolen.
In less than a minute, Mbwana crawled up to Ian, dragging his tiny backpack. His head and body were covered in dust, and his overall suit was torn.
Ava sat down on her mat and sucked a drop of blood off her finger tip. A box appeared in front of her. No sound, no movement. She was curious to know if what she saw was the result of mentally governed teleportation or a high tech transporter device.
Amusing herself with these ideas was what kept her from going insane. As usual, there was nothing in the box she could use to cut or break the wall, just a collection of colorless organic blocks. She guessed they must have contained H2O compounds. As much as these nutrients were distasteful, she soon realized she needed to preserve her strength and therefore continued consumption, forcing herself to fight a persistent reflux.
Is this what they did to the others? As she tried violently to shake the spot off, her fingers got tangled in her hair, and she lost control over herself.
“Leave me alone! Let me go…” Her throat released a rusty flow of air that competed with the whisper.
She stood up and began wandering alongside the wall, wrapping another vanilla thread around her finger. The silence in her head was deafening. Her nails danced off to scratch the wall above the older rows of bloodstained marks that she barely noticed any more. Her sanity was slowly betraying her.
Prompted by instinct, she stopped and rubbed the dark spot again. This time, an intense cascade of memories assaulted her mind—she’d seen this spot on her wrist before, remembered waking up and not knowing where she was and how long she’d been in this debilitating semi-conscious state.
She remembered everything.
When that happened, an intolerable and powerful impulse, originating from the spot, shot down her spine. Ava lost consciousness.
Mission To Seta Prime
Ian received Ava’s transmission with a week’s delay. She excavated some fascinating material and wanted him to take a look. The transmission carried a message for Mbwana as well. She was apologizing for her rudeness. Ian forwarded. He had no way of knowing that at the very hour Ava sent the message, Seta Prime began experiencing an avalanche of fatal catastrophic events.
“Code red, all hands to rescue stations! I repeat, code red, all hands to rescue stations! This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill…” The mechanical voice of the alarm system reached every part of the colony.
Harsh conditions on Seta Prime demanded a continuous stand-by for a command to leave immediately, but as time went on, the extended crew grew more relaxed. The code red alert incited agitation among the colonists, but after their initial shock, they systematically responded to the evacuation order.
First there was an earthquake, then a subterranean eruption that spread exotic lava throughout the caves of the western hemisphere. The surface temperature rose rapidly, leading to massive migration of graphitic ice on both poles. To add to the menace, a heavy meteor shower disrupted the flow of atmospheric gasses and pushed previously static masses of helium closer to the colony’s coordinates, infiltrating the upper caves and making them unsuitable for humans.
The colony sent a distress call minutes before the communications array was destroyed, but it would be another week until the message reached the nearest Guard outpost. In the meantime, events on Seta Prime were developing with a scary speed and the crew prepared to abandon the planet, salvaging the remnants of their valuable findings.
The infirmary was running out of medical supplies. Karo scurried into the cabin to get her private stash and found Ava still on the line with the main system controller inside Lomonosov. From several words she overheard, Karo deduced that Ava had a pretty clear idea of what was causing the destruction of the planet.
Ava switched her scanner to the carbon dating mode and ran another series of tests. The artifact’s age took her aback. A faint energy signal emitting from the object suggested this was a piece of technology. Something in its configuration was oddly familiar. She reckoned there was also a good chance that the device was planted inside the planet’s body on purpose. Whoever it was must have known about its destructive power. Could this be a set up, a millennia old trap they walked right into? Ava sent another message to Ian.
Tarusian inscription complicated the matter. If the scrolls were accurate at all, it had been a thousand years since the gadget’s last use.
Ava couldn’t possibly know if the device was operational and needed to run a diagnostic routine. Not in the Guard’s facility, though, where every single inch of every construction had been put on close watch. She needed privacy. Teig’s lab seemed suitable.
The prototype in her hands meant freedom. The procedure was risky, but she was willing to go as far as it would take her to put an end to her misery.
“I was not counting on seeing you today.” Dr. Teig met her with a humble smile.
“Sorry for dropping by unannounced. I just got back from Sagittarius and came straight to my favorite MD. The assignment took longer than I thought it would. And… I brought you this.” She held up an irregularly shaped object. “Remember what you said about helping me if I needed anything. Well, I was hoping we could check out my theory. Together.” Ava was testing the waters with the good doctor and struggled to contain her excitement in his presence.
“First we talk. You’ve completely neglected your treatment!” Anton remembered Mbwana’s warning—Ava was playing them.
“Not to worry. With any luck, this little thing right here will compensate for everything.”
“But Ava…your sessions, your medication…”
“You know arguing with me is useless. I’ve made up my mind,” Ava proclaimed.
“All right, all right… You win.” Pushing her to admit to a problem would only worsen the confrontation, and Teig didn’t want Ava to withdraw from treatment altogether. He played along.
She is an addict! I knew it would come to this, didn’t I tell you? And that doctor of hers…Teig something…I don’t know what grip she’s got on this guy, but he’s going along with everything!”
“Teig? As in Anton Teig?” Ian was surprised to hear Mbwana mention a name that came familiar. “He performed my installation. My father used to know him. Anton would help, but the decision is hers. She has to come around on her own, nothing any of us can do. It’s her choice.” Ian wasn’t trying to be cliché—he knew how this worked. He never told anyone about Mia, always managing to silence the voice in his head, just like today. Nothing anyone says matters, ever.
“I wonder what she’ll do next,” Mbwana remarked without enthusiasm.
Ian didn’t notice his friend leaving. He sat in the dark, staring into the midnight blue. A disturbing pattern bothered him.
The Overseer’s gift, another ancient scroll, told of an intergalactic uprising led by the Seeker against an unknown enemy.
Were the Makers responsible for the collapse on Sagittarius and the creation of that gigantic black hole that was slowly sucking the galaxy in? Were they responsible for staging the cataclysmic accident on Alpha-Persei? Were they after humans as well, creating the diversion on Terra Antipodes and setting traps all over human space?
If Ian’s suspicions were correct, their galaxy, and perhaps their entire universe, was in a more immediate danger than he initially assumed.
The Nagasaki Expanse was known for its vicious character. Free Walkers rarely spoke about that part of space. Not quite a taboo, the expanse had become a cause of superstition, unfitting the true spirit of the fellowship. Those daring spaceships that ever ventured to enter were never found.
Not a single radio wave could get in or out, and over the years the expanse turned into a no-go area, connecting the outer leg of the Milky Way’s spiral with the rest of the universe. As the galaxy rotated, so did the expanse. It got in the way of spaceships and, however time consuming, detour was the only way to get around it.
Mbwana hesitated. He was unsure whether his jet would handle the amount of pressure inside the expanse. The cloak usually generated a sustainable force field that kept hazard at arm’s length, but now it was barely functional, and Mbwana was out of ideas. Perhaps an adequately increased acceleration value on entry would compensate for the expected loss of inertia, but he was doubtful. The transformation was simply too much of a gamble, too unpredictable.
Mbwana couldn’t fathom why the Overseer was sending them into the Nagasaki Expanse. The monk knew more than he was saying, but Ian trusted him and the scrolls that he was given. Somehow, though, Mbwana couldn’t get rid of the steel butterflies in his stomach. The Guard’s approximated dark energy readings inside the expanse were far beyond an acceptable risk for any conventional vessel to even consider.
Ava took a walk in the convent’s salt garden. A growing unease overwhelmed her. They were about to embark on a trek of which the outcome could not be foreseen.
After her return from Terra Antipodes, doctors in the clinic managed to remove the biocircuitry that connected the spot inside her wrist with a remote receiver they could not identify, but they could do nothing about the mark itself. Now the spot reminded her why they were on Tal. The only other way would be to retreat and allow the Makers to proceed with their plan. But that was no option.
There was no doubt in Ian’s mind that the key to the riddle was in the expanse. He gathered his belongings and his friends and bid goodbye to the Overseer. The trio left as a team in a way they hadn’t been when they came to Tal.
A harsh, metallic voice hailed from nowhere:
“Halt. You are trespassing. Come no further or you will be eliminated.”
The voice repeated the warning three times and ceased. The turbulence stopped too. All was quiet. Still in the dark, Mbwana activated a diode on his head gear. A soft beam illuminated the spacecraft, making it possible to assess the damage.
Ava’s seat was empty. She was probably behind the compartment wall, he thought. He looked in Ian’s direction-his friend was on the floor and appeared unconscious.
When he tried to stand, an excruciating impulse shot through his leg. A portable medical probe that he always carried ‘just in case’ revealed a fractured fibula. Overcoming the pain, he leaned on his healthy leg and reached to the control panel, to find the jet not responding to manual input. The main viewer had cracked and could shatter at any moment. The shields were down, and with every second, the prospect of a vacuum preservation became more real.
“Of all places…” Mbwana sassed into the silence. He crawled over to Ian and probed his bio signs. Ian was breathing and did not appear to have external injuries. Mbwana moved further, looking for Ava. She turned up with a few bruises and was mildly disoriented.
“What was that?” she asked, slightly shocked but otherwise unharmed.
“No idea. Perhaps exactly what Ian was looking for?” Mbwana was more concerned about getting the jet back into operational mode. The plasma patch on his leg worked miracles for his injury; he was again ready for action.
Ava groaned. “Great. Can you get us on the move again?”
“If I find what caused the full stop, I will.” Mbwana was about to start cursing through his teeth, “You go help Ian and I’ll see what can be done for our engines and the viewer. If life support fails, we are cooked.”
Ava grabbed a med kit. Ian had a grade C concussion that could be easily treated with a neural stabilizer.
“Are we there yet?” was the first thing he mumbled upon regaining consciousness.
“Apparently the damage to your brain is more severe than this machine tells me,” Ava grinned.
“Are you new to this?” Mbwana called over, “He’ll be tossing around doomsday scenarios in no time.”
“Okay, boys, time to blow this popsicle stand.” Ava’s rush was dictated by fear.
“We are not going anywhere,” Ian sat up, “We are not leaving till we find their Achilles’ heel.”
Mbwana piloted the spacecraft into the vortex’s core. The trajectory should have been quite simple, now that the jet was again working perfectly. The crew was collecting their thoughts after the encounter with the Makers. A strange noise alerted them of a disturbance. Something went wrong, the jet was misbehaving again.
“Malfunction in the left engine, sensors down again,” Mbwana reported.
“We have just passed the coil; we are now in the last quarter before the ejection. A few more minutes to exit,” Ava reported after checking their position.
A powerful blast shook the jet. By the feel of the impact, Mbwana knew that someone was firing at them.
“The cloak is disabled! Ian, take the con, I need to get inside the tech compartment to see what is going on.” Mbwana knew Ian was a lesser pilot than he was a scientist, but hoped that whatever was guiding his friend, would guide them out of this mess.
The attacker was definitely not going away easily. The jet took a series of blasts and the fight was far from over. Mbwana’s automated weapon system targeted the source after each new explosion and deployed countermeasures, to no avail. The unknown attacker was good at playing hide-and-seek.
While Ian maneuvered the best he could, Mbwana located the cause of the malfunction. One of the plasma reactors was leaking. The containment field froze the supplementary engines to prevent combustion, but it was only a matter of time before an overload.
“Someone is trying to keep us from getting home,” Mbwana concluded when he got back to the bridge.
“We mustn’t let them. Any ideas?” Ian asked as he focused on steering the jet.
“You won’t like it. Hell, I don’t like it, but I don’t see an alternative.”
Ian was in Lomonosov’s observation lounge when Ava’s SOS was patched through. Armed with his plasma sword, he made his way to the bridge just as the life support alarm went off. By then, the entity had already ablated the ship’s isolation and slipped inside, causing depressurization. Oxygen was slowly leaking into the vacuum. Ian had to hurry and mend the hole, but the mass had blocked access to the area that needed repairs.
Minutes away from suffocation, he tried to maneuver around the intruder. When something cracked under his foot, he looked down. Ava’s kanzashi hair clip lay crushed on the floor. Raging, Ian thrust his sword at the huge organic lump. Now that he was so close, he recognized the lump to be a cluster of fused, malignant Shadows, mutated and consuming organic matter for nutrition.
In an outburst of anger and retribution, he chopped and minced the mass into pieces. As he dealt the final blow, he fell to his knees, his thoughts wandering off to unsettling images from the past. Do you sometimes think that life is unfair? echoed at the back of his mind.
Camilla Stein ©2011. All rights reserved.