Planet of the Dead
by Steven Mace
There is a planet named Pelion in the Orion star system that is mostly inhabitable but rich in important minerals and fuels, hence the mining colonies which dot its bleak, cratered landscape. Orbiting Pelion there are seven moons, each one even more inhospitable than the planet below. Crags of dry, cold rock form jagged, uneven surfaces that rise up into high ridges and dizzying pinnacles before sloping down into vast, pitiless empty plains that stretch for seemingly endless lunar miles. Orbiting the seventh moon, Ludacris, there is a way station for space travellers, colonists, traders and miners in mid-transit between employment contracts on various mining planets.
The official name for the way station was Xanadu 9247, a dry technical moniker that had been assigned by some naming droid in an administrative office somewhere deep within a neon-lit capital city in the Terran Empire. It was the usual standard naming format of a romantic Terran name or word combined with a random number, so that the original name could be re-used for countless millions of other locations in the known universe. For the beings that often frequented the way station Xanadu 9247, and even those who were merely first-time visitors, the place was known simply as ‘Xan’.
‘Xan’ had plenty to offer the passing inter-galactic traveller: luxurious guest rooms, countless storage bays for space-craft, and of course plenty of entertainments and a wide variety of pastimes. There were virtual reality chambers with a choice to be participant or non-participant and which were notorious for their addictive allure and the potential hazard of becoming…too immersed. Indeed, there were cautionary tales of those who became so obsessed with their artificial existence within the chambers that they could no longer distinguish between reality and fiction, and were left psychologically and emotionally connected to the fantasy worlds that had been created. Such people had to be forcibly removed once they tried to abandon their real lives, and they would duly be required to spend periods in reality-adjustment rehabilitation. Occasionally, certain individuals- permanently maladjusted virtual addicts- were left completely unable to function outside their personal artificial world.
For those that liked their pleasures to be more visceral there were indoor games, nightclubs, bars, card schools, strip clubs and an unprecedented selection of male, female, bi-gender and flux-gender whores from around the universe. They were of all races, species, ancestries and descriptions and catered for any possible preference, taste or fetish their potential clients held.
Johnny Volta was not averse to any of the entertainments that were on offer at Xan with the purpose of killing time for the weary space traveller or miner on leave. Indeed, on the occasions that he found himself upon Xan with the purpose of refuelling or socialising, he had partaken of all of them. On this particular occasion, he was playing the card game Zentil, a popular pastime across numerous worlds. The game was played with cards of frosted blue glass, each inscribed with a symbol, or rune. The players competed to win another type of card: the V-card, which was the standard currency of the Terran Empire. He was playing the game against three other beings: a Hladorean merchant who possessed the sensitive snout, prominent whiskers and smooth tusks of his race; a Lacrean miner- a humanoid male from Lacrea, which was a Terran colony; and a Varsi, a small brown intelligent upright mammal-like creature with four limbs, in humanoid fashion, from the Varsi homeworld.
Johnny was losing, and quite badly- but he was preparing a trick that was quite literally up his sleeve. He kept spare Zentil cards on his person for occasions such as this, which he was prepared to use when he required specific cards to improve his hand.
The Hladorean laid a fantastic card down on the table at which they all sat in one of Xan’s busy social bar areas. It was the Keretan, the Plinth card. Johnny knew that in order to counter it he would need a card that he did not have in his legitimate hand. Otherwise, he was out of the game, and about to make another momentous loss. To counter a Plinth he would need the Titan card. Fortunately he had that card up his sleeve, and right now he was trying to work it down along his arm through the material of his black shirt without his fellow players noticing what he was up to.
“Nicely played, nicely played”, Johnny said to the Hladorean, mainly to distract him and buy more time. “You must be feeling confident. That’s a strong card.”
The Lacrean coughed. “Come on, Johnny. Hurry up and play.”
The Titan was almost at his wrist. Just a few more seconds, and he would have it out of his shirt cuff and be able to surreptitiously switch it with another card in his hand. However, a bitter twist of Fate intervened. The Hladorean, fidgeting from his impatience, knocked his considerable frame against the side of the table. The tables on Xan had been designed with humanoids in mind, rather than the greater mass of the average Hladorean. The table was jolted significantly enough to knock both of Johnny’s wrists, and send all of his cards spilling out on to the table, including –most visibly- the Titan card that he had been secretly and illegally attempting to extract from his shirt cuff.
The Lacrean player had been about to admonish the Hladorean for his clumsiness in revealing Johnny’s hand and spoiling the game, when he noticed that Johnny had an extra card: eight, rather than seven. Even if he had been able to dismiss the sight of a card slipping from Johnny’s sleeve as a trick of the eye, the presence of an extra card spilled upon the table confirmed his suspicion that Johnny had been attempting to cheat, an action revealed unwittingly by the Hladorean’s blunder.
“Hey!” the Lacrean said. “What the…?”
“That’s an extra card”, the Hladorean said, grunting to Johnny Volta in the Terran language. “You had an extra card up your sleeve all along.”
Johnny stood up from the table and put his arms up defensively. “Hey come on, guys. I don’t know how that got there. Let’s call it quits, eh? Take my money, it’s a dead game.”
“Why, you cheating…!” the Lacrean was moving menacingly toward Johnny from the opposite side of the table. His behaviour had caught the attention of one of the helmeted Guards in dark blue uniform and body armour who monitored the Xan recreation spaces for signs of trouble. He was watching them carefully from where he stood near one of the gleaming metallic balconies that overlooked the vast entertainments forecourt.
“Leave him”, the Hladorean growled, placing a furred paw upon the Lacrean’s shoulder. “It will cause a scene and get me banned from Xan. Just take the credits.” The Hladorean swept a generous share of V-cards that had been piled upon the table in its vast grasp before walking away.
“Yeah, you ain’t worth it, pal”, the Lacrean spat bitterly toward Johnny, before piling a tall tower of V-cards into the space between his hands and also walking away, pausing only to aim a poisonous glance over his shoulder at Johnny as he did so. For its part, the Varsi merely made a strange spluttering noise before uttering something in its own squeaking language. It stood up on its hind legs, picked up the remaining V-cards, and also strutted away. Satisfied that there would be no trouble like it had anticipated, the Guard’s gaze lingered upon Johnny for several more seconds before it finally turned away.
Johnny let out a sigh of relief and stepped forward to pluck his white Geth-skin jacket- which he had removed during the game- off the back of his chair. As he did so, he heard a low chuckle behind him.
“Same old Johnny Volta”, a low, amused-sounding voice said. “Same old cheat, same old loser.”
Johnny spun around. Leaning against the metallic frame of the bar as he was served by a Shantrelian waitress was a man that Johnny recognised: the tall, well-built frame of Max Hutchison. Max was a Terran in his mid-thirties with short brown hair and a prominent jaw-line. He possessed a vivid pink scar on his cheek from some fire-fight or common brawl he’d got caught up in, sometime in his distant past. He wore a dark black sleeveless jacket over a white shirt, frayed denim trousers and heavy brown boots made of a strong material, hennen, from a distant Terran colony. Max was a Salvager, just like Johnny Volta was, although they were rivals. Whereas Johnny worked for the Vendaker Bounty & Salvage Agency, Hutchison was freelance. He had used to work for the same Agency as Johnny, but he had fallen out with Johnny’s boss and the owner of the entire operation, Mortius Vendaker. Johnny didn’t know the true cause of the feud despite the many rumours going round (the most oft-repeated was that Max had slept with Mortius’ nubile young wife) but he had heard that after going freelance Max was raking in the V-cards, by all accounts. Johnny had experienced numerous encounters with Max in the past, clashes over salvage and space-treasures, and unfortunately for him Max had come out on top more often than not. That was not the only reason that Johnny cared little for him, but it was the primary one. He also knew that the feeling was mutual.
“What’s it got to do with you?” Johnny replied weakly.
“The extra card up your sleeve”, Max said, grinning at him. “Oldest trick in the book, Johnny! Mind you, you’re not exactly known for your imagination, are you?”
“Screw you, Max”, Johnny replied, shrugging himself into his jacket. He made to stroll away across the platform of the recreation area.
“Better luck next time, Johnny!” Max called after him, raising a glass of blue Luridian juice in a mock toast before guffawing with laughter. “Here’s to better fortune and future prosperity!”
Max Hutchison’s presence in the recreation zone had put Johnny in a bad mood and he no longer felt a strong urge to relax and continue his stay on Xan. After a brief conversation with one of the Transport Monitors on his communicator, he discovered that his Agency-issue space shuttle was fully refuelled and ready for take off whenever he wished. He had planned to spend at least another twenty-four Terran hours on Xan but after his encounter with Hutchison he now decided to accelerate his departure from the way station.
He’d had an urgent alert on his communicator which had come through over an hour earlier during his card game with the aliens, which indicated that his boss Mortius Vendaker wished to urgently speak with him. He had been ignoring it as he’d wanted to make the most of his brief vacation period on Xan, but now he thought that he might as well take the communication from Vendaker.
He waited until he was back in the shuttle and had clearance for launch from Xan flight control, before he switched on his Telecaster screen in the shuttle cockpit. Vendaker’s name was flashing on the incoming call screen, and Johnny deliberately let him wait a little longer before pressing ‘RECEIVE’. Johnny didn’t quite possess the same kind of dislike for Vendaker that he did for Max Hutchison – fat old Mortius was his boss, after all- but it was close.
“Hello boss”, Johnny said. “What’s up?”
The bloated face of Vendaker had appeared on the screen, lined with slight interference and distortion from the many light years between his location and Xan. It was powerful technology, but solar flares and other natural space phenomena were prone to disrupting communications. Vendaker had been looking in a sideways direction from the camera, in the middle of a conversation with someone off-screen. His pointed aquiline nose was prominent in the slightly distorted view, lending him a patrician’s gravitas that his personality did not deserve. Johnny Volta’s sudden acceptance of his transmission had obviously taken him unawares. “One moment, Volta”, Vendaker said to him, giving the young salvager a taste of his own medicine.
The transmission clicked off, and an ‘On Hold’ message appeared on the screen. Johnny quietly cursed Vendaker under his breath. At least it gave him a chance to navigate properly out of Xan’s shuttle bays, giving the process proper care and attention.
He had just exited Xan’s gravity field when his telecaster screen flickered into life again. Mortius Vendaker was framed there, his small beady eyes fixed upon Johnny with perhaps a discernable flicker of wry amusement present in them. “Volta. How good of you to finally respond to my message.” Vendaker’s tone was dripping with sarcasm. “How was your little period of R & R on Xan?”
“Oh you know. Much needed downtime and all that.” Johnny was busy at the controls of his ship as he swept her away from Xan and into general orbit around Ludacris. “Always nice at the start but it gets boring after a while. What do you want, boss?”
“I’ve got a proposal for you, Volta”, Vendaker told him. “It’s a mission for you, and it’s a dangerous one. Pull it off, and you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams, even after splitting the profits with me. You could even retire from the Agency on the back of this.”
“Okay, sounds great”, Johnny replied, unperturbed. The thought of being able to stick it to Vendaker was an enticing one, being rich was even more alluring. However, he was immediately suspicious. Something was not quite right here- he was hardly one of Vendaker’s favourites so he couldn’t quite work out why his boss had contacted him. “If it’s such a great mission, how come you are touting it to me and one of the more experienced salvagers hasn’t snapped it up?”
“Well…” Vendaker paused, obviously wondering how to phrase his reply. “There is a very high element of risk with this one. It is highly dangerous, and there’s a big probability you might not come back from it. A lot of the other guys and gals have turned it down, and to be honest I suspect that you will too. It’s one of those that will either make your career, or end it all prematurely. I’m not sure why I’m even asking you, it’s just out of courtesy really- I don’t think you’re up to it.”
“What exactly is the job?” Johnny asked impatiently.
“I’m sure you’re familiar with the Adroxinus dynasty from the Trapidian homeworld…no? Anyway, their Ambassador Fergal Josinian was travelling between Trapidia and Adrea on a Trapidian shuttle, and he was carrying a very precious and important artefact with him, an ancient heirloom of the Adroxinians that is sacred to the people of that planet. It’s also worth an incredible amount on the black market. I’m talking countless piles of V-cards stretching miles upon miles in height, and taller than Neon City apartment blocks. It’s that big, Johnny.”
“You paint a wonderful picture, boss”, Johnny said with a smile. “Go on.”
“Unfortunately our Ambassador met with a nasty little accident”, Vendaker said. “His shuttle in which he was carrying the artefact collided with a Hladorean space-freighter. Josinian’s shuttle took serious damage and they had to crash land. They entered the atmosphere of a nearby planet.”
Vendaker had paused in his explanation, so Johnny spoke up again. “Two questions: what exactly is this valuable artefact? Secondly, what’s the issue with the planet and the shuttle crash? Why is it so dangerous to retrieve the artefact and how does anyone know it is still intact? It could have been burned to dust in the planet’s atmosphere when they crash-landed.”
“The Adroxinians on Trapidia are in mourning”, Vendaker said. “The artefact is a sceptre of some sorts, a symbol of the ruling dynasty’s power and the Emperor’s authority. The Adroxinians have some kind of tracking technology fixed on the device, and they say it’s still intact on the surface of the planet where the Ambassador’s shuttle crashed. They have its exact location, as it is still beaming out a signal. It’s also believed to have…certain attributes. Supernatural powers, it’s been said.”
Johnny laughed. “A magic wand?”
Vendaker grinned. “Precisely! Superstitious nonsense, of course. We’re more interested in the price it will fetch.” Vendaker’s smile disappeared and he took on a grave expression. “As for your second question as to why there’s a problem regarding retrieving the artefact from the surface of the planet…well, it’s a huge problem actually.”
“Poisonous atmosphere?” Johnny interrupted. “I’ve got droids and drones for that.”
“Not quite”, Vendaker said quietly. “The Ambassador’s ship crash-landed on Nekros, of all places.”
Johnny’s blood ran cold. Suddenly he realised why Vendaker had been unable to persuade any of the other salvagers at the Agency to do what appeared to be a simple job. The artefact was on Nekros.
“This is not good”, he said quietly. “Not good at all.”
“I take it you don’t want to take the job?”
Johnny was silent. Going to the surface of Nekros was an act that was fraught with danger. Anyone who attempted it blindly and expected to leave unscathed was a fool. The other salvagers were obviously not fools, and had sensibly turned the job down, despite the incredible rewards on offer. Johnny was more hesitant about turning it down- not because he had a death wish, but because he needed to make a name for himself in this business, and he knew that he badly needed the money. Max Hutchison’s taunts at the bar in Xan were still fresh in his mind, and they had stung him deeply after his bungled attempt to cheat at the card game. If he successfully pulled this one off, then Max would be eating his words for the rest of his days. “Do we have precise co-ordinates for the location of the artefact?” he asked Vendaker. “I know the Adroxinians do, but do we? And what happens when they know the artefact has been removed from the surface of the planet? They’ll know someone’s taken it, won’t they? Even if I get off Nekros safe and sound, that’s another risk.”
“I can transmit the exact co-ordinates of the artefact to your ship’s navigation system”, Vendaker said with a twinkle in his eye. “We have our resources and our methods as you know! Adroxinian communications are quite easy to eavesdrop on. After that, you’re on your own. If you take up the mission, Johnny, you’ll have to find out exactly how the artefact works and turn off that tracking device. You’re absolutely right, once you leave Nekros’ atmosphere you’ll soon have an entire Adroxinian fleet after you. Assuming you get that far, of course. Also assuming that you accept the mission- so am I correct in thinking that you actually want to take it on?”
Johnny hesitated. Once he said yes to Vendaker, there was no going back. He would be in breach of his contract and he would be released from the agency’s employment. It took him a few moments to carefully weigh everything up, before he realised that he had always been a gambler, even when the odds were stacked against him. This was a challenge that, foolish or not, was too great for him to resist. This was the big one where he would prove himself, and do what the more experienced salvagers had not dared to attempt. “I’ll do it”, he said.
Vendaker grinned. “Never knew you had it in you”, he said. “I’m sending you the information we have from the Adroxinians. Is your shuttle fully equipped? You have droids, weapons, and explosives? Excellent. Good luck, Johnny. To be honest you’ll need it, but I really hope for all our sakes we pull this one off.”
“Sure boss”, Johnny said. “Don’t worry, in three Terran solar cycles, I’ll be back in Neon City. I’ll be handing in my notice and retiring to a tropical planet somewhere.”
“Hope you’re right”, Vendaker answered, although Johnny thought that he did not look convinced. He cut the transmission.
When Vendaker had first mentioned Nekros, an icy cold trickle had run down Johnny Volta’s spine and goose pimples had sprung out upon the surface of his skin. Nekros. The name itself was cursed, a notorious place of the damned, a dreaded world. It was the planet of the dead.
Once it had been a pleasant, beautiful planet named Vitalus. The atmosphere was very similar to Terra, and initially it had been easy for the Terrans to colonise during the third phase of expansion from the home-world. The early settlers specialised in environmental science and built environmental bubbles and gardens upon the lush, verdant lands of the planet. Vitalus had deep winding rivers that snaked through its plains and valleys and it also had lakes, seas and oceans, green fields, forests and tropical jungles. Overall, Vitalus had possessed an abundantly rich fertile landscape and thriving natural environment, and scenic countryside that resembled Terra in its youth, before the ecological damage that had been done to that planet by previous selfish generations.
As decades past, some of the colonists on Vitalus began to specialise in science and work on experiments specific to the requirements of the Terran Empire. Laboratories and experimental facilities were built on Vitalus in addition to the living colonies that had sprouted there, these secret facilities were ostensibly for medical research but also for the benefit of developing strange new weapons that would help the Terran Empire in its many wars and conflicts which were taking place throughout the galaxies of the known universe as the Empire expanded outward and encountered new civilisations.
One day, something went wrong.
by Steven Mace
“A what?” Thea asked, baffled, wiping her nose.
“What the hell is a Screecher?!” Clyde demanded to know, staring at the blood on his hands and pinching his nose.
Dr Elliott had rushed to a nearby table, upon which was a small case. She picked it up and went to the small boy who was being cradled by the woman, presumably his mother. After she had ushered away the annoyed crowd, she opened up the case and took out a needle. At the sight of it, the mother began to cry but did not pull her child away. Jane Elliott knelt down beside them and injected the boy with the needle.
The small crowd that had gathered now disintegrated, moving toward their respective cubicles and the bathrooms- probably to find tissues and cloths to wipe their noses clean of blood. Clyde had found a roll of tissue on the doctor’s table and took a considerable amount before handing the roll for Thea to take her share. After briefly comforting the mother and the boy (who now seemed unconscious), Dr Elliott returned to them and cleaned her own nose with the tissue. She had bled from her own nose quite profusely, staining her white coat, and Thea noticed that it had got worse in proximity to the small boy. Now however, everyone’s nose bleeds had dissipated.
“What was all that about?” Clyde asked the doctor, frowning.
“Oh. No, you might not know what a Screecher is.” Dr Elliott turned to give them both a serious stare through her glasses. “They’re basically mutants. They’re children whose brains have been altered by the aftershock.”
Thea stared at her. Dr Elliott’s words had brought back echoes from things she’d heard at the facility…
“What just happened was…well, in times of stress, like seeing strangers, these children send out a telepathic shockwave. It’s almost like a distress signal, but unless you’re telepathic, you won’t pick it up. It physically manifests itself in the form of a nosebleed.” Thea and Clyde listened to her intently. “It’s happened here several times, obviously people get frustrated about it but the child can’t help it. It’s a response to fear or anxiety. They call these mutants ‘Screechers’. It’s not nice to experience but…there are worse mutants out there.” Dr.Elliott did not elaborate.
“I’ve never heard of anything like that”, Clyde said. Thea thought she had heard something about it, in her past, but said nothing.
Dr Elliott nodded, and for a moment seemed distant. Then she brightened and said to them: “We have some spare space for you, if you’d like. I can find you a free bed and living space here. We’re not full, by any means. We also provide food, from a cafeteria, for all the refugees that are here.”
“That would be nice”, Thea replied, smiling at her. “It was such good fortune to find a safe place here. We’re very grateful.”
“Just as long as you don’t put us near a Screecher kid”, Clyde said quietly. Thea quickly elbowed him in the ribs. If Dr.Elliott had heard his words or noticed Thea’s reaction, she did not show it.
As they walked past the boy that Dr Elliott had called a ‘Screecher’, Thea looked at him more closely where he slept in his sobbing mother’s arms. The woman was dark-haired, and perhaps Latin in origin, but the boy had white hair. His skin was pale too, and Thea realised that he was probably an Albino. She felt sorry for him, as his mutation meant he was destined to be regarded as a freak all his life. Despite the experiments that had been done to her at the facility, at least she looked and acted normally.
As they walked through the hall of people, some refugees stared openly at Thea and Clyde, some gave them a casual glance as they passed and some ignored them completely. Eventually Dr Elliott led them to an empty living area with an empty bed. She smiled at them and indicated that they could drop their things there.
“Do make yourselves at home”, she said smiling. “The robots can bring you some fresh things to wear. I’ll notify them. ”
“Thanks”, Clyde and Thea said, almost in unison. Amused, Thea wondered how the doctor ‘notified the robots’. Dr Elliott turned as if to walk away, and then lingered. She turned back to them with a coy smile on her face.
“May I ask you something?” she said.
Clyde had already sat down on the edge of the bed provided in the living space. “What’s that? Go ahead.”
“Are you two a couple?”
Thea laughed and Clyde smiled. “No. We’re partners in crime…circumstances have thrown us together”, Clyde told her.
Dr Elliott blinked and then laughed in response. “I see. Partners in crime it is. Good luck then, and welcome to Safe Haven.” With that, she turned and walked away. As Thea busied herself, arranging their things, Clyde watched the doctor as she went away from them, her heels clicking on the hall floor as she walked. He stared at her long legs and stockings, visible underneath the hem of her white coat. She was attractive, he thought, more attractive than the scientists he’d known at the facility.
The robots brought them some fresh clothes as promised. They were ill-fitting, but Thea and Clyde were grateful for something else to wear. Their current clothes only reminded them of the facility. Both of them went behind a changing screen to dress in their new outfits. Both of them had been given orange jumpsuits.
Half an hour later, Clyde and Thea were startled by an alarm in the refugee hall that suddenly began ringing, drilling into their ears. It resonated throughout the hall. They looked at each other in astonishment, feeling anxious. Was there some kind of danger? Everyone around them suddenly started to get up and make their way out. Clyde peered down the aisle and saw that people were heading toward two large double doors near the centre of the hall.
Clyde caught the arm of a man who was passing. “Hey, where is everyone going?” he asked.
The man looked surprised. “To the cafeteria”, he said. “It’s twelve o’clock. It’s lunchtime.”
Feeling somewhat foolish, Clyde released the arm of the startled man and let him go. He turned to look at Thea, who relaxed and smiled back at him.
“Grub time”, Clyde said, grinning.
The cafeteria was another vast hallway within the structure that adjoined the refugees’ living hall. Everyone queued to be served food by robots behind counters at one end. Thea and Clyde joined the queue and waited patiently. As they were one of the last to enter, it took over half an hour to be served. There was not much diversity on offer. They were served potatoes, peas and chicken with gravy. It was the same meal that everyone received. Clyde wondered if everyone got the same meal every day, or if there was any kind of variety.
All the people were sat on long benches eating. The hall looked like one of the old prison dining rooms, in keeping with the orange jumpsuits that the robots had given them to wear. As they wandered around, looking for spare seats while carrying their trays, Clyde glanced around for Dr Elliott but he couldn’t see her. Finally, he and Thea took seats next to a thin, balding man with a crooked nose who was perhaps in his early sixties, and a slightly overweight thirtyish looking man with thinning black hair.
Clyde and Thea were hungry, and they were more interested in food than conversation. They had been sat there for a few minutes, and then the younger man –who had been casting curious glances toward them- decided to introduce himself.
“Hi”, he said. “I’m Paulie. You guys are new, aren’t you?”
As his mouth was full, Clyde nodded. “Yeah. We only arrived today”, he said finally.
“So what’s your back story?” Paulie asked. “Where you from?”
“Home town was destroyed”, Thea lied. She gave Clyde a meaningful look.
“Yeah, been wandering coast to coast since”, Clyde said uncertainly.
“Jesus!” Paulie seemed surprised. “It’s a miracle you guys survived. There are some nasty mutants out there. I’m telling you, really nasty things. You’re lucky to be alive. You’re safe here though.”
“How safe is anybody, anywhere?” The new speaker was a much younger man with light brown-coloured hair, sat several seats away. He’d evidently been eavesdropping on the conversation.
“This place is as safe as anywhere can be now”, Paulie replied, speaking loudly so that the man with light brown hair could hear him. Clyde glanced down the table and briefly made eye contact with the man who had spoken, but that man said nothing more. Clyde looked at Paulie questioningly.
“That’s Elijah”, Paulie whispered. “Strange kid. I’d avoid him, if I were you.”
As Clyde sliced into one of his potatoes with his knife, he thought that he’d be avoiding most of their fellow refugees for now. He didn’t need to look at Thea to know she was probably thinking exactly the same thing…
by Steven Mace
There was a small lake below, nestled in a valley. Beyond the lake, the hills rose up again, forming a bowl-shape around the valley perimeter. Beside the lake an impressive old church had been built in a European Gothic style, which had evidently fallen into some disrepair. Despite that, it was still a magnificent construction- built from stone that had blackened with the effects of time and damage, perhaps from fire. A huge pointed spire rose up from the top of the church tower. Clyde guessed that the entire structure – including the tower’s spire- was about two hundred feet tall.
More pertinently, next to the church there was a circular tarmac area, which looked like a launch and landing pad for a helicopter. And next to that, there was a large grey metallic building. Sunlight reflected off the surface, dazzling Thea and Clyde when they focused their eyes upon it. Blinking, Clyde shaded his eyes. He turned to make eye contact with Thea. He was smiling.
“Well”, she said quietly. “You were right.”
She still felt cautious. They had no indication of what was down there, no real idea of how things worked out here in the outside world. If there were people there, they could be associates of the military and scientific people at the facility that they had escaped from. In contrast, Clyde was elated by the discovery. She could see he wanted to go down there and meet whoever inhabited the buildings there.
As he began to make the descending route down to the lakeside, Thea hung back. Moments later, he realised that he was clambering alone down the steep slope. He turned back to look at her, shading his eyes against the sun.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“We don’t know who is down there”, she said. “We don’t know who these people are.”
“They’re our only chance”, he told her firmly. “That’s what they are.”
“What if they’re not friendly? What if they send us back to the facility?”
“Well, if you want you can stay up here and worry about that. You can try and get some food and water. I’m going down there.” Clyde turned away from her and continued walking. “Good luck with that. Or you can follow me.”
“Arrogant bastard!” Thea muttered under her breath. Then, audibly to Clyde: “Wait! I’m coming!” She began to scramble down the slope after him.
It took them fifteen minutes to descend the heights and reach the flatter ground of the lakeside. They walked slowly toward the silver-grey building, the shadow of the enormous church looming over them. It was completely silent, and so far they had seen no sign of life.
“Do you think there are people here?” Thea asked. “Or do you think this place is abandoned?”
“There are people here”, Clyde said. “Look.” Thea looked in the direction of where he was pointing, and saw a small Hispanic-looking child crouching in the entrance to the church some fifty metres away, watching them carefully. Thea resisted the temptation to call out, and instead met his curious stare with her own.
Clyde looked as if he was going to walk to the church to speak to the boy, but at that moment their attention was caught by something else. They heard a small whirring noise, like that generated by a machine. They were coming close to the large silver-grey windowless building, and exactly at that point something came around the perimeter of the building and into their view. It was a something, rather than a someone. It looked like a metallic, electronic creation of some sort, a robot perhaps. They had seen similar devices used at the facility. The frame was humanoid in nature, with what looked like a radar or sensor atop the ‘head’. The main body, or torso, of the machine was set upon a wheeled platform, which allowed it to move. The machine stopped abruptly, and after a few moments, began to move in their direction. Thea threw an anxious glance at Clyde.
Just as Clyde was wishing he had a weapon of some sort, the machine stopped moving. Almost at the same time, a door opened in the side of the silver-grey building. Thea and Clyde had not noticed the outline of the door upon the surface of the wall until now.
A woman stepped out and began to walk toward them, her heels clicking on the concrete surface that surrounded the perimeter of the building and adjoined the circular tarmac pad. She was a tall, slim woman with dark brown hair tied back in a bun, and wearing glasses with prominent brown frames. Thea was alarmed at her attire. She wore a red blouse and a very tight grey pencil skirt with an open long white coat. It was the way that female scientists at the facility might dress, which worried Thea. Immediately the thought came to her that this woman could be an associate of the doctors who monitored them at the facility. Thea threw a nervous glance at Clyde but he was impassive for the moment, giving nothing away.
As this woman drew closer to them, Thea realised that she would be extremely attractive if it were not for the unflattering glasses and the hair tied back so severely. Even as she was, she was a very attractive, intelligent looking woman. As she drew close to them, she smiled at them in greeting and Thea relaxed a little.
“Hello”, she said. “It’s unusual for us to receive visitors.” She was well-spoken, in keeping with her appearance.
“I suppose it must be”, Clyde said dryly. He glanced at the building and the church behind them. “What is this place?” he asked.
“I apologise”, the woman replied. “You must be confused. This is Haven, or Safe Haven as we like to call it. It’s a place for refugees. I’m Dr Jane Elliott. And you two are…?”
“Doctor?” Clyde gasped. He and Thea exchanged alarmed glances. “Do you know…a Dr Walton? Do you know…The Director?”
Dr Elliott frowned, lines creasing her unblemished forehead. She was evidently bemused by their reaction, unless she was a fine actress. “No, I don’t believe I do…who are you? Where are you from?”
Thea and Clyde looked at each other. Thea willed him to speak. When he didn’t, she decided she would be the one to take the plunge and reveal their identities. “We’re from…the facility. They made experiments on us there. I’m Thea Van Brandt, and this is Clyde Baxter.”
Dr Jane Elliott smiled. “Wherever you have come from, you’re very welcome here, I assure you. We take in all kinds of waifs and strays. I’m very glad to have you here. I don’t have anything to do with any of the government institutions or installations that have been set up in the ruins of our country.” There was a note of bitterness in her final remark.
Clyde relaxed and gave Thea a satisfied grin. “That’s wonderful to hear. I’m so glad we found you.” His relief was palpable.
Dr Elliott was distracted by something behind them. She was frowning and peering over Clyde’s shoulder. “Julio! Julio, come here. The service ended ages ago, what are you doing out here?”
The small Hispanic boy that they’d seen hovering near the archway entrance of the church was now loitering behind them. At Dr Elliott’s words he ran to her and buried his face shyly in her white coat, leaning against her hip. Laughing, she took his hand and began to lead him toward the door that she had previously come from. “Follow me”, she said over her shoulder to Thea and Clyde. Thea saw that Jane Elliott’s gaze had been travelling down to the clothes that they were wearing and she had noticed how dusty and battered they were. “You can wash and we’ll find you something to eat- perhaps some fresh clothes.” Delighted by this seemingly wonderful stroke of good fortune, Thea and Clyde followed the doctor inside.
By Steven Mace
Clyde impatiently drummed his knuckles on the dashboard of the car. “Come on, come on!” he muttered in agitation as he scanned the map he’d rested on the steering wheel for directions on where to go. They had reached a crossroads. In front of them, the desert stretched out into the distance, a flat and empty yellow landscape. Dust billowed around the car from Clyde’s action of slamming on the brakes seconds before.
Thea looked back over her shoulder, through the rear window of the car, back in the direction from where they had come. She saw nothing. She flicked a glance upward, to check for any aerial activity. The lack of any movement behind them did nothing to assuage her anxiety.
“Okay, left turn.” Clyde hit the accelerator and the car roared down the dusty, worn, potholed motorway. The engine did not sound in good health, and Thea wondered how far it would take them before it finally gave up the ghost. It had not taken Dr Walton long to sound the alert and send most of the base’s troops in pursuit of them.
“So where are we going?” she asked Clyde, not for the first time.
He gave her an irritable grunt in reply, exasperated.
“If they send helicopters after us, they’ll spot us in no time”, Thea had told him anxiously. “We’re sitting ducks out here.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” he’d snapped at her. He had changed gears, angrily pulling at the gear-stick in his frustration. “We need to find shelter, dump the car, and hide. That’s what we’re going to do. First, we’re going to get as far away from that place as we possibly can.”
So here they were, hurtling down an ancient motorway in an antique vehicle, worn and scarred from years of war and disuse, with bullet holes in the front and back windscreen.
“You don’t know where we’re going”, she said, after several minutes of silence and anxious watching of the horizon and the skies. It was not uttered as a question, but rather as a flat statement of fact.
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not.” She took a sip from her water bottle. “We’re as good as dead anyway.”
The first thing she remembered of her childhood was the Tube. That was what they placed you in when they wanted you to go to sleep. It was also where they made sure you got the vitamins and the nutrients that your body needed. Her earliest memories were of the scientists, prodding and probing, attaching things. Of course, there were also the things she hated most – the needles. Sometimes the scientists injected them with drugs when they were awake. But mostly, she thought, they did it when they were asleep. As a child, she’d thrown tantrums and become agitated when she’d seen a needle. They’d always had to sedate her. As the years had gone by, they’d always put the drugs and the other chemicals in her system while she was sleeping.
She didn’t think that Dr Morgan was an unpleasant man. She’d known him all her life and he had always been kind to her. Sometimes, she thought that he had sad eyes. She knew he didn’t always like what he had to do. Dr Walton on the other hand, was a cold man with no discernible conscience. He had empty, dead eyes that were distorted by his thick lens spectacles. He had always kept his distance, particularly from the children, who he clearly despised. Thea knew that, whatever happened, he’d always be loyal to the Programme. Ultimately, Dr Walton would always be loyal to the Director and to himself.
Nightfall came. Clyde stopped the car by the side of the deteriorated road and they sat there in the dark together for several minutes. It took a while for Thea to actually register that they had stopped, as she had been so pre-occupied by her thoughts and memories. She looked at him questioningly, squinting at his features in the gloom and trying to read his expression.
“Why have we stopped?” she asked.
“I can’t put the headlights on. Travelling in the dark like this, they’ll spot us easily. We have to wait it out until dawn.”
“But what if they come?” Thea asked incredulously, staring at him. “You’ll give them the opportunity to catch up with us.”
“We’ll find somewhere”, Clyde said firmly. “But…we’ll find somewhere tomorrow. We can’t travel now, Thea. Because of the lights. They’ll find us much more quickly. We should get some sleep. Wait it out.”
“Clyde, what if we don’t find somewhere?” Thea said anxiously. She looked out of the car. She could see nothing, only the blue sky at the edge of the horizon, and darkness.
Despite his answer, he did not sound convinced. Thea gazed at him, feeling deeply concerned and wondering how this was destined to end.
“You should get some sleep”, he told her. “I can sleep here. You can have the back seat. Take one of the blankets.”
Thea glanced at the back seat of the car. She knew it was an old car and so it was dusty back there. She knew that the car hadn’t been cleaned properly despite being preserved by Dr Morgan. It was a whole world away from the comfortable cell at the facility. Still, she had no choice. She sighed and clambered into the back of the car. She took one of the covers they’d hurriedly brought with them, and covered herself with it. Then she lay back and closed her eyes. She had not expected to fall asleep that quickly, but she was more tired than she cared to admit. It had been a frenetic and incomprehensible day, the culmination of all their carefully-arranged plans for escape. It did not take long before natural sleep came.
When she awoke, it was still dark.
“Shhhh”, Clyde said. He was leaning over her, crouched in the space between the front and back seats. For a shocking moment, she thought he was trying to be intimate with her, and she was about to push him away. Then she realised something was happening outside. There was light coming from somewhere, casting beams across the interior of the vehicle.
She propped her head up and looked out of the car window. To her relief, the source of the light was not close. In the distance she could see lights flashing, like incredibly bright stars, moving on the horizon. It was impossible to tell how far away they were.
“What is that?” she whispered.
“I don’t know” Clyde replied softly, “But I’m glad we stopped moving. I started seeing them ten minutes ago. They’re probably vehicles of some kind. From the Facility, I’m sure of it. I think they’re looking for us.”
Thea caught her breath. “Then we should get moving too.”
“No. Let’s take our chances. The car lights will completely give us away. If they come down this road, then they must come down it. We don’t move until dawn.”
“Clyde…how…what do you think will happen? Do you think we can find somewhere to hide out here?” Her wide, questioning eyes met his.
“I’ve heard stories”, Clyde said evenly. “I don’t how reliable they are, but I heard them from people I trusted, who saw the outside. I heard that there were settlements out here. I even heard that they had technology and medicine in these places. If they do, then we might be able to survive.”
“I hope so.” Thea watched the ominous lights on the horizon for a little longer. After a while, she lay her head back down on the seat again, and offered a silent prayer to whichever God had forsaken them.
Clyde fell asleep too. He dreamed of the children, all together in the laboratory. They are all asked by a scientist in a white coat to lie down. Then the clouds of smoke start to fill the room. It smells funny, not like normal smoke, and Clyde realises that it is gas. It has a chemical quality. It’s too late to panic because he feels strangely relaxed. He can’t move his muscles. He is frozen and everyone else is lying on the floor. That’s when another man in a white coat enters the room, with a needle.
Suddenly Clyde realises that he can move. Strength has returned to his body and he can move his muscles. He jumps up and runs past the scientist with the needle, through a door. He’s running down a sterile, white corridor lit by florescent lighting. He runs into an empty room and slams the door shut. It’s a dead end, there is nowhere to go. He watches the door handle turn slowly and holds his breath. The door opens, and two helmeted soldiers in uniform look into the room. They are carrying guns. They look straight at him…and through him. They close the door. He must have become invisible, because they didn’t see him. He tests his theory by walking out into the corridor. It’s true. He passes soldiers and scientists and all cannot see him. He is the invisible boy, and he can go anywhere he likes. He goes into a stairwell. Two scientists- a doctor and a laboratory technician- are standing there talking. They still cannot see him, but they pause and stare at the door opening by itself. It bangs shut, and they look like they have seen a ghost. He creeps down the stairwell. At the bottom of the stairs there is a boy from the laboratory experiment, standing silently and all by himself with his hands by his side. Clyde cannot look at his face, doesn’t want to look, because he is horribly disfigured….
When Thea awoke again, she saw clear blue sky through the car window. For a moment, she did not know where she was. She was used to seeing the plain white ceiling of the laboratory or her room in the facility, like she had done for every day all of her life. Then she finally got her bearings for where she was, and it all came flooding back to her.
She sat up, and wondered where Clyde was. She was the only one in the car. Then she saw him. He was stood by the side of the road several yards away from the vehicle, closely examining the map he’d taken with them. He was sipping a drink from a small flask.
He looked up at her when she got out of the car, yawning and stretching. Her limbs were stiff from her cramped sleeping posture during the night, forced to be spent in the car.
“Do you want something to drink?” he asked. “I have some water, in another flask.”
“Please.” She was only too aware that her throat was dry and she felt parched. The thought made her worry about what they would do further down the line of their journey for food and water. She tucked a stray lock of blonde hair behind her ear and gratefully accepted the flask Clyde gave her.
“I have some bread too”, he said.
Thea was hungry, so the offer was impossible for her to refuse. As she chewed on the bread, she thought about the breakfasts she used to have at the facility: cereals, yoghurts, toast, fruits and meats as a selection to eat from. Did she feel a pang of regret? Surely she did not, after all that had happened and the risks they had taken. She put all thoughts of the facility out of her mind, and focused on what Clyde was saying.
“I think we should carry on”, he said. “We’ll find somewhere today where there are people who can help us. I’m sure of it.”