Rick is a Peacekeeper--an officer of the law. He guards the remnants of civilization in a city that is the last bastion standing after the cataclysmic events of the far future. One fateful night he meets Andy, a mysterious young man who seems too good to be true... and who may endanger the lives of everyone Rick has sworn to protect. But Andy knows things about Rick's city that he ignores, including the monstrous secret hiding deep underground...
This is the fourth chapter of 'Spark'. A new chapter will come out every week. Any comments or questions can be directed to the author at nothlit(at)hotmail(dot)com
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people or events is entirely coincidental.
I tried to move, but my arms and waist were fastened to the wall somehow, on either side of me. Carefully, mindful of the pain in my head, I looked down. Thick metal straps held me tight to the wall, two on both of my forearms and a single big one around my waist. They were what was keeping me upright and seemed to be part of the wall somehow. I struggled against them, but they didn't budge. I was trapped, and helpless, and before my eyes Andy was free to hack into the system, his hands flying over the keys of the final line of defense against intruders.
The alarm from earlier was silent now, and everything was eerily quiet but for the quick typing sounds Andy was making. I wondered how much time I had been unconscious. Probably not a lot. Andy still hadn't gained access to the genesis chamber, even though it was only a matter of time before he did.
I looked around for possible weapons, or a way to free myself, but of course there was nothing close by. The one thing I had going for me was that Andy had not realized that I had woken up, but since I couldn't break free it was useless. I was about to struggle again when there was a crackle of static and then a disembodied man’s voice spoke.
“Lake? You there?”
Andy stopped typing and reached for what looked like a radio communicator that had been set next to his work console. He grabbed it and pressed a button.
“This is Lake. Come in.”
“Finally,” the voice said. “Damn static, couldn't get through. Had to switch frequencies and change my stakeout place just to make it work. Peacekeepers are coming now, swarming like ants over the Plant. How many made it in with you?”
“Rogers is dead. I found him right outside the final door. I don't know about Gordon. He got shot and then we separated.”
“Shit! So you're there on your own?”
“Affirmative,” Andy answered.
“Well. Okay. Good thing you’re the code breaker. We got almost twenty-four hours until the lockdown is lifted if our intel is correct. More than enough time for you to kill the monster they got in there. Remember, I need proof it's done when I come down there for extraction. I will move into position once it gets dark. No proof, no deal.”
Andy's voice changed almost imperceptibly. I heard a note of anxiety in it as he asked, “Dean is with you?”
The man snickered. “Still here, alive and well.”
“Put him on.”
“Oh, getting bossy, are we?”
“I'm alone in here,” Andy said, his tone threatening. “None of your dogs survived. If you want me to do this, let me talk to my brother.”
There was silence in the line, broken only by a few crackles of static. Just when I thought the man would not answer, the radio communicator came back to life and he said, “Fine. Two seconds.”
There the sound of shuffling, then somebody coughing as if he was choking.
“Dean?” Andy asked quickly.
“Andy!” A different voice answered him. It sounded young, and really scared. “Don't do it! They can't get at you there! Go to the Peacekeep—”
The sound was abruptly cut off.
“Dean? Dean, answer me!” Andy demanded, grabbing and then shaking the radio communicator.
“I said two seconds,” the first man’s voice said suddenly. “You heard him. He's fine. And you got a job to do, so you better hurry up and do it, Lake, before these damn Peacekeepers find me and take us all out. Extraction in twenty-three hours, with or without you. You better be there.”
“Son of a bitch! Bentley, listen to me! We don't have to go through with this! Let Dean go!”
The sound of a cry of pain coming from the communicator answered Andy's words.
“Dean!” Andy yelled helplessly.
“Twenty-three hours, Lake,” the man named Bentley reminded him, his calm voice contrasting with the fading sound of Dean's cry. Then the faint noise of static went dead as he cut communications.
Andy hit the console angrily with his fist, slamming it down and making the screen above flicker.
“Damn it!” he exclaimed.
Then he kept on typing. I was not sure what he was doing, but judging from the many error messages that were displayed on the screen at regular intervals, it wasn't going well. I tried to stay as still as possible, making no noise and thinking furiously. What could I do? The restraints were too strong for me to break, and my head was pounding still. My only hope was that the security measures would hold and keep Andy from accessing the inner chamber. Maybe if they lasted long enough the lockdown would be called off and reinforcements would be able to come and help. But that was a big maybe. I had to do something, anything, to try to stop him. I shifted again, stealthily, trying to see if the restraints would at least bend a little. Where had they come from? The setup of the metal bands reminded me more of a dungeon and far less of scientific research station, which this was supposed to be. How had Andy managed to activate them? Maybe there was a key somewhere, a button I could press to get out.
“I know you're awake, Rick,” Andy said as he worked. “You can't break free from those. I made certain of that.”
I stopped. Then I decided to drop all pretense. “You can't do this, Andy. If you kill the source of spark then it's gone forever. There are no others.”
His typing slowed, but he kept on working as he answered me. “I know that. I also know that this entire city's power is based on an unfair advantage over the rest of the continent. Have you ever been to the Mainland?”
“Yes, I have.”
Andy stopped typing altogether and looked back at me, surprised at my admission. I saw there was dried blood on his upper lip, and the area around his nose looked slightly swollen. Out of nowhere, I felt a pang of regret at having broken his nose like that. Then I remembered what he was about to do and I narrowed my eyes, meeting his stare with as much anger as I could muster.
“Oh, that's right,” Andy said, touching his nose gingerly. “Your fighting style is very similar to the way we are trained back home. So. You have lived among us, you have seen the way things are over there. We have no fancy subway trains like you do, none that are still operational at least. We are forced to heat our homes with firewood, but most of the trees are already dead. Thousands die every year, of trivial diseases that could be easily cured if only our hospitals had power for the diagnostic machines to activate again.”
“I know all of that,” I answered. “And I know the usual propaganda, too. I'm not stupid. I know that here we may still have modern technology, but it's failing slowly and nobody knows how to repair it. Twenty more years and we’ll probably be as bad off as all of you. I know that now we're better off than all the Mainlanders put together, but that doesn't change the fact that there is only one living source of spark left in the world. There aren't any others, and she hasn't laid an egg in more than a hundred years. Killing her so we are just as miserable as the rest of the continent is no solution. It is only an act of vengeance.”
Andy scowled. “The sooner we are all on equal footing, the sooner mankind can start rebuilding again.”
I sneered. “Do you really believe that political slogan bullshit? I thought you were smarter than that.”
“You don't know me!” Andy exploded, surging to his feet and knocking his chair to the floor in the process. “You don't know why I'm doing this, you don’t know me at all, so don't you dare get all righteous and try to convince me to back down. Okay? Just shut up!”
He had come closer to me, and in his outburst his nose had begun to bleed again a little.
“Why are you doing this, then?” I asked. Judging from the conversation I’d overheard, I could make an educated guess as to Andy’s motivation in all this. Nevertheless, the sincerity in my voice seemed to take Andy by surprise. He actually stopped to think about the answer, but then he scoffed dismissively.
“You wouldn't understand. You're just a Peacekeeper, a glorified cop who does what he's told to do.”
“At least I choose to follow orders and protect people,” I countered. “You just let others push you around and blackmail you into doing something you really don't want to do. Come on, you're not fooling anybody here. You are trying to talk yourself into killing an entire city! And don't give me that bullshit about being equal. You know perfectly well that we are too dependent on spark to live without it. You kill the queen, we all die. Slowly, but we die. Is it worth it? Is it worth killing thousands just to save one? What are they going to do to Dean if you don't keep your end of the barg—?”
He crossed the remaining distance between us before I had even finished speaking, balled his hand into a fist and punched me right in the gut to shut me up. Hard. I groaned involuntarily, and felt as if I were going to hurl, it was that painful. I fell forward, head hanging, held upright only by the restraints.
Andy's face was less than an inch from mine. “Don't you ever drag my brother into this, Islander,” he growled. “I didn't kill you, but you're making me regret it. Now shut the fuck up and let me work.”
I was still trying to get enough breath in my lungs to reply something when Andy turned around and went back to his workstation. He set to work furiously, ignoring me completely. I slowly righted myself to stand fully upright again. I coughed; it hurt. Then I spat something on the metal floor: my spit was tinged with red.
I realized something then. Andy was fully committed to this. He would kill me if I tried to stop him, I was sure of that now. Somehow, I had thought that this was the same horny but thoughtful guy I had met yesterday, a guy I actually felt safe sleeping next to. He wasn't. To him, his brother was worth his own life and the lives of the people of an entire city. It was obvious that he wasn't getting out of this alive; that man, Bentley, had mentioned extraction out of this place but I knew perfectly well that there was no way out of here once the security lockdown was in place. There was only one way out, but when it was open it would be swarming with Peacekeepers and Andy would be killed. He was in this knowing it was a suicide mission. There would be no convincing him.
In spite of myself, I felt a grudging admiration for his bravery.
Andy worked, and the firewalls were knocked down one by one. Minutes passed. I began to sweat, since the air temperature in here was much higher than outside. I had heard that the queen needed to be in a warm place all the time, but I had never seen her. Almost nobody had. This cavern was off-limits to all but one or two senior scientists; probably the ones I had found dead outside. Peacekeepers could theoretically also come in, but none of us did. Nobody had needed to in the longest time. Everyone knew how everything down here worked, but there had never been a need for me or any other Peacekeepers to come to the actual genesis chamber. Now I wondered if I would only see the queen right before she was killed before my eyes, taking with her everyone else I knew.
Andy gave a triumphant yell. The firewalls were gone. He stood up, took out his falsified Peacekeeper's ID, and swiped it over the scanner. It was a near-perfect copy of my ID, and it reminded me of the fact that if I hadn't hooked up with Andy yesterday night, maybe he wouldn't be here. I had let him use me, stupidly, and now I was paying the price of not having been more alert. I gritted my teeth, and waited for the final lock to be disabled.
There was an error sound instead.
“Welcome, Rick Dwight. Biometric and voice identification required.”
Andy tried again, as surprised as I was that the badge hadn't worked all the way.
“Welcome, Rick Dwight. Biometric and voice identification required.”
“What the fuck?” Andy said. “Really?”
He threw the counterfeit ID away and stood up. He turned to face me, wiping some sweat from his brow. The lower outlines of his eyes had gotten a dark, bruised look from his nose injury, making him look haggard and exhausted.
“I guess I was lucky I didn't kill you,” he said, coming closer. “My intel did not mention that there would be a final biometric check. I'm going to need your fingerprints and probably a retina scan. You can help me. Or I can simply take them.”
He produced a small switchblade from his pocket, and despite myself I felt a tremor of fear. The tired but determined look in his eyes told me that he would get what he needed even if I refused. I thought of that sharp-looking blade digging into my eye socket to pop the eye out for the retina scanner, then severing the bloody optic nerve...
“I will help you,” I said. “Just take me to the console.”
Andy grinned. “You're going to jump me the second I remove the restraints.”
I met his eyes with the darkest glower I could muster. “You're damn fucking right I will.”
“Computer, request for detachable bioscan terminal,” Andy said loudly, not taking his eyes off me.
Andy reached over my head, maddeningly within my range, but all I had to hit him with was my own head, and it hurt too much to risk another blow that would do nothing. As he leaned in very close, his arms inches away, I caught a whiff of him. He smelled like sweat and blood. If I hadn't been so angry, I might have been aroused.
Andy pulled something out from the wall, stepped back and showed it to me. It was a small tablet, already active and ready to scan. Andy saw my confused look and nodded.
“In case you hadn't noticed, this room is also a subject test laboratory,” he told me. “The wall you were strapped against can be converted into an operating table with the push of a button. Occasionally, our intel tells us that the senior scientists need somebody to, um, 'interact' a little bit more directly with the queen. They bring them here, and experiment on them. Some of them they feed to her. Some others they let go and become wandering junkies out in the streets.”
“You're lying,” I said automatically.
Andy shrugged. “I don't need to. There's lots you don't know about how they keep your precious Island running in comfort you can no longer afford.”
Slowly, Andy ran the tablet over my face. I tried to look away, but the scanner picked up my retinas anyway and flashed green. Then he moved the scanner to my hand. I tried to close it into a fist, but Andy grabbed my upper forearm, dug his thumb into the inner groove of my elbow and somehow pressed a nerve that forced me to open my hand. The scanner flashed green again.
It was going to happen. There was nothing I could do about it.
“How did you find me?” I asked him, at least wanting to know how I had fallen for the fake romantic meeting he had set up the night before.
Andy looked up at me. He stopped scanning. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Yesterday night. Sex with you. How did you know I was a Peacekeeper? How the hell did you set me up so perfectly?”
The scanner beeped again when Andy dabbed a drop of my blood into a special receptacle. He took it from the corner of my mouth.
“I didn't find you,” he confessed, pressing a button on the terminal. “It was a coincidence. I just got lucky, I guess.”
“Don't bullshit me, Andy,” I said threateningly. “You're going to kill me anyway when this is done, so just tell me the damn truth.”
For a fraction of a second, Andy's look softened and I caught a glimpse of the guy I had met yesterday. Then his determination set back in and that guy was gone. “It's the truth, Rick. We already had fake IDs and everything was set up. I had no way of knowing where they were keeping Dean, and we had not been issued any orders for that night except to blend in and draw as little attention to ourselves as possible. The order to attack today came this morning. I had been expecting for the attack to happen weeks from now. I already knew that this was it; that whether I won or lost I was not going to see the light of day again after our mission started. So I decided to have fun for one night while I still could. That's when I met you.”
Despite our mutual anger, the look he gave me was steady and honest. Was he lying? Did he even need to? Somehow, his calm acceptance of death made his words ring true. He had nothing left to lose. I found myself nodding, but I wasn’t sure I believed him.
The scanner beeped again.
“Biometric check complete. Access to inner chamber granted. Please initiate access protocol with a voice command.”
Andy stepped away from me and shut the scanner down. “Computer, open the inner chamber,” he said. My heart sank.
There was a pause. Then, “Voice mismatch. Rick Dwight, please repeat your request.”
Andy's eyes widened as he realized what that meant. Despite everything else, I had to smile. The people who had designed this security system had been paranoid as hell with their redundant security measures. And now it had paid off.
I lifted my eyebrows at Andy. “Unless you have a voice replicator with you, it looks like you won't be able to open the door.”
The dark look Andy gave me was enough of an answer. He didn't have a replicator. He needed me to say the actual words or this entire plan would have been for nothing.
He took out his switchblade. Walked closer. His bloody nostrils flared as he spoke. “No. I've come too close. Open that door, Rick.”
I shook my head. “I don't think so.”
He walked close enough that he could press the edge of the switchblade against my throat. I was helpless, my arms bound to the wall no matter how much my muscles bulged with the effort of trying to break free. I felt the cold touch of the metal and was forced to stay still. I felt it bite into my throat, and then the faint warm trickle of a drop of blood running down my neck.
Andy's voice was a rough whisper in my ear. He was close enough that his stubble scratched my cheek.
“I'm not playing any games, Rick. Open. That. Door.”
I swallowed, felt my Adam's apple bob against the edge of the blade he was holding. I thought about giving in, but deep down I knew I just couldn’t do it. Not after Jane and what she’d taught me.
I gritted my teeth, knowing this would be my final answer, tensed my entire body and said:
Andy stood where he was, right next to me, our bodies still close enough for me to feel the warmth coming from him. His deadly closeness could have almost been tender. I shut my eyes, waiting for the blade to bite deeper, for Andy to slit my throat and end it all. When I felt the slight increase in pressure against my neck, I knew it was coming.
Then Andy's hand, the one holding the switchblade, started trembling. It actually made it worse, as the blade began scratching against the already open wound on my neck, setting off minute stabs of red pain in my body. The trembling got stronger, and suddenly Andy was breathing fast like he was running out of air. I opened my eyes and saw the conflict playing out over Andy’s features, clear as day. And my life hung in balance of his decision.
The tension held, grew, became intolerable. Then suddenly, “Fuck!” Andy roared, his voice echoing off the walls, and snatched the blade back from my neck. He threw it on the floor with every bit of strength he had and the sharp clang of metal on metal was, to my ears, the sweetest sound I had ever heard. “Fuck,” he repeated, but his voice broke this time. He stumbled backwards, unseeing, and landed heavily on top of the chair. He covered his face with his hands so I wouldn't see the tears that had been brimming from his eyes.
“Andy…” I began, not even knowing what I was going to say.
“I can't do it,” he told me, his face still covered. His voice sounded years younger now. “I can't do it, I can't kill you in cold blood or torture you to get you to open the chamber. I thought I could, I really thought I would be able to.”
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. We were silent for a long time while he got himself under control.
“I can’t make you do it. I don't know what's going to happen now,” Andy admitted eventually, and slowly lowered his hands, wiping some tears gingerly from his bruised face. “I'm not going to make it out alive, I know that. But Dean…” he choked on the name of his brother.
“Maybe we can help him,” I said carefully, sensing that this might be the opportunity I had been waiting for. Andy was a good guy; we could work together. If I could convince him that I could help him. “You didn't kill the scientists outside, did you?”
He shook his head. “That was probably Gordon. I don't know how he did it, or when.”
“So. You haven't done anything you can't undo,” I said, more relieved than I cared to admit about Andy not having killed innocent people. “I will tell them as much when they dig us out of here. The other Peacekeepers will listen to me. And I can help you find Dean, too. It's not over yet, Andy. Work with me.”
He looked at me sadly and shook his head again. “You don't know Bentley. If it looks like I betrayed him, he will take it out on Dean. I saw what he did to one of the hostages they tortured for intel on the Island, a few days before we sailed. Bentley made him talk, but the hostage died minutes afterward. And Bentley laughed; he had enjoyed it. He's a monster, Rick. If I'm not there, or if I don't fulfill my part, Dean will pay.”
“But we can try,” I said, willing him to trust me, desperate for this unexpected opening to hold. “Let me go. I will help you, I swear. You're not a murderer, Andy. You just proved that to me right now when you wouldn’t torture me to get what you wanted. Let me help you.”
He seemed so vulnerable at that moment. I saw him think about it, searching my face hoping to find honesty there, and I met the gaze squarely. I saw him make his decision and stand up. He walked quickly to a panel on the wall beside me and brought out a small display. He punched in a code, and the restraints binding my arms and my waist snapped open.
I stumbled forward, free. Now I had to act. I prepared myself to attack him right then, just in case he changed his mind. I knew he was a better fighter than I was, but if I didn't seize this chance I might regret it later. I got into second pose.
Andy saw how I tensed my body as I flowed into the offensive posture, and he reacted instinctively, assuming a defensive stance. Should I trust him? Or fight? We held the tension for a few long moments, but then I saw the streaks that the tears had left on his bloodstained face, the things he had said, the way he had set me free in good faith. The fight left me. I dropped my arms and my shoulders slumped. Andy did the same.
I gave him a sad smile. “Sorry. I just find it hard to trust in other people.”
Then the radio communicator crackled to life. Bentley's voice sounded from it, uncomfortably loud.
“I knew you would fucking betray me,” he said into the silence. “Are you so retarded that you assumed I wouldn't have you bugged, Lake?”
We both jumped, startled, and looked at the small communicator. It was acting like a one-way radio, and neither Andy nor I were close enough to turn it off. We only listened, spellbound.
“For that, you fucking faggot, and for thinking you could doublecross me, I'm going to have one of your brother's fingers. I would send it to you to prove you I'm going to do it, but I'll do you one better. You'll get to hear your brother scream as I cut it off.”
“Bentley, don’t!” Andy yelled.
“Fuck you, Lake.”
We listened, horrified and helpless, as Bentley's voice trailed off and started shouting at someone. That someone answered, and I recognized Dean's voice. He sounded scared. Really scared. The voices got closer, and I started to be able to make out the words.
“No!” Dean was saying, his voice shaking with fear. “Please don't do it, Bentley. Please!”
Bentley answered in a sadistic tone. “Be still. You be a good boy, now, and I will only take one finger. Or do you want to lose more? Give me your hand! Over the chain, you idiot. Now don't move while I take out the pliers.”
“Please don't do it! Andy! Andy, help me!”
“Ah, here they are,” Bentley said, and I could almost hear him smile. “Don't worry, kid. It's just like cutting the leg off a chicken. Here we go.”
“Andy!” Dean screamed. “Andy...NOOOO!”
There was a sickening snip sound and then Dean's screams got much, much louder.
“DEAN!” Andy yelled helplessly. “DEAN!”
There was a sound of dragging something, and gradually Dean's screams faded away. Then heavy footsteps stomped back and Bentley spoke. “Such drama, right, Lake? It's only one little finger. It's not like I cut off his thumb or anything, but you'd think I had cut off his entire hand.”
“Fuck you, Bentley,” Andy said, his voice shaking with fury. “I'm going to kill you!”
Bentley laughed. “I don't think so. Here's what you are going to do if you don’t want to listen to me dismembering your little brother piece by piece. You're going to get that Peacekeeper trick of yours to open the chamber. Right now. I can't do my thing if the entire chamber is protected like it is right now, so make sure he does it. Punch him or fucking kiss him but make him do it, or your brother loses another finger. You have ten seconds.”
Andy looked at me pleadingly. From far off, but still audible, came Dean's cries of pain. Open the genesis chamber? But what could Bentley do from up there? I couldn't see any danger; we were deep underground and he was on the surface. Was he trying to get Andy to work with him again, step by step? Or did he have another way to kill the queen from wherever he was?
“Time's up,” Bentley announced. “This time I'm taking a thumb.”
“NO!” I roared, surprising even myself. “Stop. I will do it.”
“Nice,” Bentley said appreciatively. “So quick to betray your entire city. Are you sure you're a Peacekeeper?” He laughed.
“Don't hurt Dean again,” I told him. “Let him go. Or no deal.”
“Rick, don't do this,” Andy told me, placing a hand on my shoulder. He gulped, and tears made his eyes sparkle. “Dean… Dean will understand.”
My mind flashed back to Jane. To what she would have told me to do.
I took his hand from off my shoulder and held it briefly in mine. “No. This isn't what Peacekeepers do. We protect others, even if it's only one person. Especially if it's only one.”
Andy nodded slowly. “Thank you, Rick,” he said, his voice husky.
I hoped I hadn't just signed a deal with the devil, but I simply couldn't stand by while somebody tortured another human being. My job had always been to protect. And I would do it, even if I regretted it bitterly later.
I raised my voice. “Bentley. I need an answer. You let Dean go, I help you open this chamber. I need proof that he's free, I need him telling me that he's free to move, and then I need you on this line, not moving, for long enough for Dean to run clear from you. Take it or leave it. Now.”
There was a pause. A long pause, sly and calculating. I didn't expect him to actually agree, but I was ready to negotiate. Then, suddenly, Bentley answered.
“Sure, why not. Dean's useless now, anyway. I’ll let him go as soon as you say the words that will open the chamber.”
“No deal,” I said. “You let him go first, then I open it.”
Bentley made a big show of sighing. “No trust anymore, huh? Fine, Peacekeeper. Have it your way.”
There were sounds of somebody walking away, and then some rough words spoken. A few seconds later, we heard two people approaching the communicator on their end.
“Here. Tell them that you're free,” Bentley ordered.
“Andy?” Dean asked shakily.
“Dean! Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”
“Just… Just my pinky. On my left hand. He gave me a bandage.”
Bentley cut in. “Enough with the family reunion. Tell them you're free and get the hell out of here before I shoot you down.”
“Are you free to go, Dean?” Andy asked anxiously.
“Yes. I can go.”
“Then run, Dean. Get to the city; tell them everything and they will help you. Go now!”
“GO!” Andy said.
We heard hurried footsteps fading away. Dean said something as he ran, but he was already too far away and the communicator did not pick it up well.
Bentley sighed loudly again next to his microphone. “Okay. I kept my word. Now open the chamber, Peacekeeper, or I shoot Dean down. He's still in my sights and I got a good sniper rifle with me.”
I nodded even though he couldn't see me. “Five minutes, then I do it. Dean needs time to get away.”
“Okay, okay. You got it.”
We waited out the five minutes. The channel was open all the time; Andy was making sure that Bentley did not hack it to mute the sound of a shot. When we were certain that Dean was well away, I spoke again. I had given him as much time as I could. If I didn't fulfill my end of the bargain and keep Bentley busy doing whatever it was he needed to do, Bentley might simply go hunting after Dean with his rifle. I couldn't let that happen.
“I'm ready,” I told him.
“About damn time. Open the fucking chamber already.”
I closed my eyes briefly. There was no backing away now. “Computer! This is Peacekeeper Rick Dwight. Open the inner doors. Request for full access to the genesis chamber.”
There was a slight pause. Then, “Access granted. Welcome, Rick Dwight.”
“Nice,” Bentley said. “Now I can do my thing. Good talking to you, Peacekeeper. I'll check back in before everybody dies. Just to let you know how you made it possible for me to kill so many people. Bentley out.”
The line went dead again. Neither Andy nor I said anything at first. On the screen, a bright countdown told us that we had fifty-seven seconds before the chamber was unlocked. I stared at the numbers, avoiding Andy's eyes. The enormity of what I had just done was only now dawning on me. I felt the insane urge to take it back, but there was no way to cancel the countdown now and besides deep down I knew that if I were faced with the decision again I would still do the same thing. Besides, what could Bentley really do, all the way from the surface? Most likely nothing. He had seemed so confident of his victory, though... Forty-two seconds to go. The silence lengthened. If I had done the right thing, then why did I feel like I had betrayed everybody?
“You didn’t have to do that,” Andy said suddenly, his voice quiet. “But thank you for saving my brother.”
I was forced to look at him, at the genuine worry for me in his eyes mixed with relief that his brother was okay for now. He held my gaze, and I felt as if he were looking directly inside me, understanding how horrified I was, how conflicted, how relieved. Emotion came rushing in—what the hell was wrong with me? What couldn’t I keep it under control? I felt a lump on my throat as it tried to overwhelm me. In a way, I had betrayed everyone by doing this. They had counted on me, and I had failed—it didn’t matter that both choices had been awful. I should have been able to do something more.
Then Andy did something very unexpected. He stepped close, very close, and set a hand on my shoulder. Then he leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek with heartfelt tenderness.
“Hey. It’s all right,” he said, his lips close to my ears. Then he leaned back and looked at me in a way that let me know that he understood exactly how much it cost me to save one life at the expense of thousands of others.
I was going to answer something in return, but then the countdown ended. And the floor started moving under our feet.
“Initiating access to genesis chamber.”
I swayed slightly as a very noticeable spiral motion took hold of the floor. Andy was as surprised as I was. I had expected a door to open somewhere, not the entire floor to begin spinning even as it descended, like the bottom lid of a cylinder that had detached from the walls and was spinning ever downwards. The motion wasn’t too violent, but seeing the walls rotate around us as we descended was disconcerting. The process was noisy, but less so than seemed normal for such a big structure moving. I had a few moments to wonder just who had designed this complicated way of accessing the chamber of the queen, trying not to get dizzy, and then the growing sliver of the bottom section of the wall all around us suddenly turned transparent as we descended into another cylinder, larger. It encompassed our circular platform, but this time all the walls were made of glass. It felt like descending into the center of a cylindrical aquarium.
“Oh my God,” Andy said when we were halfway down. He was pointing at something very large that towered behind one of the transparent walls.
The spinning motion slowed down, but I scarcely noticed. All I could do was stare. The further we descended, the bigger she became, and when the floor finally touched the bottom with a muffled bump, I saw that the being in front of us was almost twice as tall as me.
“I can't believe this,” Andy said in a hushed voice, instinctively coming closer to me, backing away from the creature. “We had oral descriptions from one of the scientists, but I never imagined… Seeing her like this, for real… She is more terrifying than I could have ever though.”
I agreed. “Get away from the wall, Andy. Just in case. I've heard she can be dangerous, even behind that thick glass. And don't stare at her for too long. She can sense your attention.”
I was just parroting the safety advice we had been given years ago during basic training, just in case we needed to come into this chamber for an emergency. Most of my mind, however, was entirely caught up in staring at the queen that was responsible for creating the spark that kept my city running.
She had a long and sinuous body, supported by slender-looking, barbed-tipped spider legs. Her exoskeleton glistened red under the bright white lights that cast their merciless beams down on her bloated, pulsating abdomen. The upper part of her body reared up, reaching almost as high as the ceiling of her enclosure, and the cruel V-shaped head that topped her terrifying body was lined by nearly a dozen completely white, disturbingly intelligent eyes. Two impossibly long and thin antennae sprouted from the edges of the V and were constantly moving back and forth, over the walls, over the floor, over the dozens and dozens of tubes that pierced her abdomen and held her motionless in place. I counted three sets of scythe-like mandibles working silently, never stopping, as if she were trying to talk or masticate food that was not there.
I took a step back. I couldn't help it. Andy copied me, and backed all the way against me when the queen sensed our motion and swiveled her barbed head so that an entire row of eyes could look down at us. She made no sound through the thick walls of her prison, and somehow that made it even more horrific.
Andy pointed at a gigantic machine to which all of the many tubes connected. His finger was shaking slightly. “There. That is the genesis machine. It's even bigger than I imagined. Some people back in the Mainland have been suggesting that we replicate the technology you have here, adapt it somehow to re-create an electrical grid that is not dependent on spark.” He gave a short, humorless laugh. “I am not a scientist, but even I can see that it's pointless. The entire array here, the machine, this torus-shaped containment chamber, everything is far more advanced than anything we can ever hope to make. Or you. I doubt Islanders remember any better than we do.”
“She's doing something,” I said.
And she was. At the sound of our voices, her antennae had stopped moving and hung in the air, quivering slightly. As soon as we were quiet, she started moving them again.
“Is she listening to us?” Andy asked me, his voice full of awe tinged with fear.
The antennae’s motion stopped.
“I'm not sure,” I answered. “I don't even want to find out.”
We were spellbound by the spectacle. I saw some tubes pumping something into the queen's segmented body, and other tubes extracting something else. Spark, if I had to guess. Spark in its pure and unrefined form, glowing from within the tubes with a soft, blue-white light of its own. The heavier extraction tubes led straight to the genesis machine, and the device itself was very obviously connected to an ancient-looking structure that encompassed the back of the entire room, full of cables thick as ropes, pipes, switches and even the occasional stray arc of pure electricity. Several parts of the room glowed with the remnants of splashed spark. The lower half of the queen’s legs were coated by it, giving a brilliant sheen to the dark surface underneath. Everything looked impossibly delicate and complex in its operation. This entire place was the center of our grid. If anything happened here, if anything got destroyed, there was simply no rebuilding it.
“Can she move?” Andy asked me, looking all around. “The space where she is in is so big… Do you think she can walk all around it?”
I shrugged. I couldn't say why, but I wanted to get out of that room as fast as I could. It wasn't fear, not exactly. It was more the sensation that the creature front of us was not only an animal. She was still looking at us, still halting the motion of her antennae at the sound of our words. There were people back in the city who refused to believe she was sentient, and I had been one of them. Now, though, I found myself believing the complete opposite.
“Let's look for a way to get out,” I said. “Maybe we can go back up and re-seal chamber before Bentley can do anything like he threatened.”
With an obvious effort, Andy took his eyes off the creature. “Okay. Where do we start?”
“Computer, request to return to the previous level,” I said loudly. “Close this chamber and seal it.”
There was no answer. “I guess that means voice won't work,” Andy said.
“Well, it was worth a try. There's got to be something else. Look for a console or an interface panel. The scientists that work down here have to have something. I don't think they just come down to stare at the queen.”
The circular space was not big, but even so it took us more than five minutes to finally find the hidden panel set on the floor. It activated at my touch, and deployed a virtual work interface with actual screen holograms superposed over the glass walls of the area. Most of the holograms were displaying incomprehensible information, text and graphs that kept on changing. They were rows of numbers, organic diagrams of the queen’s body in three dimensions, chemical reactant simulations and other kinds of data I had no name for.
“Wow,” Andy said. “Actual working holographic technology.”
“Do you know anything about it?” I asked him, totally at a loss as to how to operate it. I had never seen it before either.
“It shouldn't be too difficult,” he told me. “I studied the basics of this during specialist training. In theory, it should be no different from normal interfaces, only more convenient.”
“Bentley said you were the coder,” I said, remembering one of the comments I had overheard. “Are you a tech guy, then?”
Andy grinned even as he set his hands to a virtual keyboard that to me looked nonexistent. “Officially I am a military software engineer. But yeah, I guess I am a tech guy.”
“Okay. Do your thing, then. I won't get in your way. Just get us out of here.”
As Andy worked, I thought about what Bentley had thought he could do with this chamber unlocked. We had to be at least six or seven levels underground, with no way up other than the way we have used, and that was blocked. How could he hope to damage this chamber from outside? Just the fact of not knowing me was wearing my patience out. Was there a way he could link to this room from the surface?
Andy’s bug. Of course. And Bentley was probably hearing everything we were saying right now.
“Maybe we should get rid of the bug Bentley put on you first,” I said to Andy. “Who knows what kind of information he's gathering using it.”
Andy nodded, his brow furrowed in concentration as he worked with the holograms. “Of course. Already on it, actually. There's an app here to detect extraneous electromagnetic communication sources. I'm trying to activated now, to block Bentley off completely.”
“I won't even pretend I understood that,” I said.
Andy's hands flew through the air, hitting barely-visible buttons. I stopped to watch him, and realized that it wasn't only his hands and fingers he was using. The system was tracking his eye movements somehow, and was responding to his body language in other ways. I tried to follow whatever it was he was doing, but I had never been particularly good with old computers. The ones we used at the office were simply terminals, connected to a single working machine somewhere in the city center. The most advanced thing I had ever learned about computers was how to hack simple security systems, and that had been more than ten years ago.
“Found it,” Andy said, pointing to a three-dimensional model of himself that had appeared in front of him. A blinking red dot on his left boot was the obvious spot where the bug had been detected.
He took the boot off, turned it around his hands for a bit as he examined it.
“I know it's here,” he muttered. “I just can't find it”
“Give it to me,” I said. “You can work on getting us out of here while I find the bug.”
“Sounds good,” he answered, throwing the boot at me. I caught it easily and began to examine it. I turned around in my hands and looked at it from every angle, comparing it to the holographic display. The ambient light was brighter closer to the wall, so in spite of my disgust I had to get closer to the queen to see better and find the thing.
It took me a while, but eventually I discovered that heel of the boot had a detachable cover that had been sewn shut. I tugged at it, loosening it enough eventually for me to pull it out. Attached to it I saw a small black square. It had tiny holes on one side and was heavier than it should have been.
“Hey Bentley,” I spoke into the square. “I found your little toy.”
I was very surprised when the thing crackled to life from some kind of speaker wired to the heel of the boot. Bentley spoke to me over a deafening background noise of something crunching repeatedly. “Well done, Peacekeeper. I knew you would be resourceful. And thank you for taking my transceiver out into the open. I won’t be needing it anymore now that the link has been established.”
“What the hell? What is going on?” Andy yelled behind me. I turned around and looked. Every single screen had blanked out. Nothing happened for a couple seconds, and then a written message was listed on all of the screens at the same time.
“Lifting protective dome cover. Disengaging electromagnetic shield,” the computer said, echoing the writing.
“What are you doing?” I asked loudly. I was certain that whatever was happening was Bentley’s fault.
For an answer, I got laughter. Disgusted and furious at him, I threw the communicator down on the floor and crushed it with my boot.
“Fuck him,” I said, matching my heel against the floor to pulverize this little machine. “I'm sick of his little games!”
“At least he can't hear us now,” Andy pointed out, trying ineffectually to get to the computers working again. I tossed him his boot for him to put on. “Whatever he thinks he's going to do will take time. We can use that time to try and come up with a plan.”
“Yeah. Good idea. But where the hell do we start? And what is going on, how is he even doing this?”
As I was saying that, though, I began to feel something. I stopped talking and stayed very still. Yeah. There it was again.
I looked at Andy. He had stopped what he was doing as well. He was feeling it, like me. It was a deep, rumbling vibration that came to us through the floor. We both looked at the queen with alarm, thinking she was the source of the disturbance, but her antennae were waving wildly all around and she was actually trying to move away from the tubes that bound her, stretching them and bending them but unable to break free. Her clawed legs gouged the metal itself on which she was standing with the strength of her efforts to escape. The vibration intensified.
Then an alien voice spoke.
Chapter 5 will come out next Monday!
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