‘Yes,’ he said, and the Devil smiled.
‘No,’ came a voice from the back – the boy’s voice, exhausted and desperate – and then there was the cough, hacking and wet. The Devil reached forward, with its spindly red arm, and took hold of the man’s hand.
(Was the thing’s hand really that cold, that hard? Or were the nerves in his arm damaged from the crash?)
The ambulance arrived as soon as possible; afterwards, the crew were commended for even saving one person from such a disaster. It was a miracle.
Whomp whomp, looks like I’m slipping just a little bit on the ol’ schedule for these posts. But, well, I’ve written the stories eventually, so here you go:
‘Oh, this is bad,’ said the administrator. Mina clicked her tongue at this understatement.
‘This just goes to show that I’m right – we let the workers have too much free time, and this is how they reward us. Work and worship and sleep – that should be their whole lives—’
‘Shut up,’ said the planetary governor, reading the same page of the report for the third time. ‘This is nothing to do with the workers. Five out of twelve patrol bases have fallen, two out of five Habitations have rebelled and opened their doors to this new greenery. It’s the Mountain. Those… [beasts]… are behind this.’
‘They’re dead,’ said Mina. ‘Two hundred years dead. The One Above All and The Merciless Fire themselves defeated—’
‘If the Patrons were truly sure that the Mountain was dead, they would not have left a garrison on this world.’
‘Mother! You presume too much – it is not our place to question the will of the Patrons—’
‘Have you made any progress in restoring the link to Earth?’
‘No, miss,’ said the technician. ‘Our equipment is in working order, but there appears to be something blocking us.’
‘Mina, you are here to observe and learn to craft of leadership. When I am dead, everyone will have to listen to you. Until then: shut up.’
‘Miss,’ said the technician, ‘there’s a… I’m not sure what, it looks a bit like a metaspace disjoint, centred around the Mountain.’
‘You scum,’ said Mina, red-faced. ‘How dare you speak to a superior without—’
‘Yes, miss. It looks like…’ The technician tapped a few keys, frowned, then tapped again. ‘It looks like there is – there was a Craft in orbit. But we don’t have anything scheduled to arrive… it looks like it’s been destroyed. Miss.’
‘This day just gets better and better. They can shoot down things in orbit, even.’
‘It’s these rebel workers,’ said Mina. ‘One of them – a scavenger, most likely – must have got into the Mountain. Or one of those off-world scientists. The original rebels are dead.’
‘I don’t see that it makes much of a difference now,’ said the planetary governor. ‘We do not have reliable communication with the patrol bases. I have less than five hundred soldiers available to me. What can I do?’
‘Retake the Habitations,’ said Mina.
‘And leave ourselves undefended? No. No… no.’ The governor brought her hand up to her mouth. There was one way, maybe.
‘You have an idea,’ said Mina.
‘I suppose. I suppose I do. You,’ she pointed to an administrator, ‘Get citizen of highest rank from Capital Habitation. I’m calling an emergency planning meeting.’
Rashid scream. His lover, the Patron known as The Goddess, Eternal One, Beneficent One, and a thousand other names, squeezed him tight and whispered ‘shh, dear heart,’ into his ear, but Rashid screamed and screamed and his throat was sore and he screamed and mucus slicked his upper lip and he screamed and he couldn’t hear himself scream and the stars whirled past them and the collapsing husk of the Craft receded.
And finally, his voice gave out, and Rashid continued to hurtle through the vacuum of space with only the embrace of a god for protection.
‘You’re scared, lovely one,’ she said, her soothing voice somehow carrying across nothing. ‘I understand. But you are safe. You are with me, so you are safe. Do you understand?’
As his voice was gone, Rashid nodded. The Patron loosened her grip, just a little, just enough that she wasn’t crushing him. The Craft receded over the curve of the planet, and it was crumbling to pieces.
‘You are the only one I had time to save,’ said the Patron. ‘I will have justice for this crime.’
‘How?’ Rashid managed, meaning: how could anyone destroy a Craft of the Patrons?
‘The have a weapon I did not anticipate. I thought I would be facing two-hundred-year-old archaeotech, but it seems that the beasts have been busy since the last war. Singh.’ – she hissed that last word. ‘I will have justice for this crime. I will lock them away in tiny black boxes, each alone in the dark and the cold, and I will leave them to turn mad for the rest of time. This I swear.’
And then she was silent for a long while, as the two of them fell through the dark around the world.
Chun pushed down, hard, on the guard’s windpipe. The guard thumped him, on his arms and sides and head, but Chun continued to push; his thumbs broke through skin and blood trickled down his arms. The guard clicked and gurgled, his blows slowed and grew weaker, he stared at Chun and slowly, slowly, he died.
He let the corpse fall to the ground, its traitor soul leaving to be consumed and tormented forever. He spat on his former jailer, then went through the man’s pockets: there was the key to the laundry-room they had repurposed to hold him. They were idiots to bring this to him, but it was their very idiocy that made the rebels such a threat.
No weapon, though – not even a knife. Chun cursed under his breath and went to the door.
His first priority, he knew, was to find some way to contact the upper levels of the Habitation to warn them of the upcoming attack, to warn them that those rebel fools intended to open the main doors and let the poisoned air of Paradise in.
Chun put the key in the lock, turned it, and pushed the door, hard.
‘We should offer a prayer first,’ said Mina. None of those around the table offered any objection; the planetary governor did not look pleased, but she kept silent. Mina closed her eyes. ‘Patrons above,’ she said. ‘We, the greatest of this world, are as nothing before you, we are lower than dirt and each of our thoughts that are not dedicated to your glory are worth less than a mouthful of shit. We are shit. For our crimes, we are not even worth of the worst punishments you decree for us. We are stupid, and weak, and small, and we pray that you will guide us to the correct course of action. W—’
‘Thank you, my daughter,’ said the planetary governor. She turned to the woman on her left: ‘Colonel. Would you kindly lay out our options?’
Colonel Reeves cleared her throat.
‘The enemy have taken control of a majority of the Habitations and an unknown number of patrol bases. We do not have reliable communication with and conventional forces outside of Capital Habitation. We cannot win a conventional battle. As I see it, we have two options: firstly, we could surrender.’
‘Blasphemy!’ shouted Mina, her chair clattering against the floor as she stood to point at the Colonel.
‘Surrender cannot be an option,’ said the Freetown Habitation overseer. ‘As citizens, we have duties. What is your other suggestion?’
The colonel breathed in through her nose, then sighed.
‘We cannot win a conventional war. We do, however, have the ability to send the nanospores in Paradise’s atmosphere into Total War mode. This will render survival suits useless – only the active defences of a fully-sealed Habitation would offer any protection. Everyone on the surface, in the compromised Habitations, and in the patrol bases would be killed.’
Mina opened her mouth, but found that she couldn’t say anything. It was as though her stomach had dropped out of her body – this was too much. It was too big. She stood, and the others sat, in silence, for several minutes.
‘Under the law,’ said the governor, eventually, ‘this is not a decision I can make alone. It requires a majority vote of the uppermost rank of Paradise to declare total war.’
‘You’re asking us to sign off on thirty thousand deaths,’ said the Freetown overseer.
‘Closer to fifty thousand,’ said the governor.
‘They’re traitors,’ said Mina. ‘Death is more mercy than they deserve.’
They are not all traitors,‘said Reeves. ’I have two thousand three hundred and ten soldiers out there.’
‘It’s necessary,’ said Mina. Then, more confidently: ‘It’s our duty.’
They were silent, after that, for another few minutes; and then they reached their decision.
Ong awoke under an open sky for only the sixth time in his life. It was strange, still, opening his eyes and not finding a ceiling above him – only ash-clouds and the Sun.
He felt the same moment of panic he’d had on the previous five mornings; but it was less, and shorter-lived. He reminded himself that he didn’t need a survival suit outside – not any more, not while he was in a green space. He ran an un-gloved hand over a leaf, to prove that it was real.
‘Are you awake?’ asked Alice.
He rolled his head and looked at her; she was sitting propped up against a piece of rubble that was covered in some sort of climbing plant, and was checking the bandage at her waist.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I’m healing faster than normal, I think. Not that I’ve ever been shot before.’
‘I know. I wouldn’t be coming with you, otherwise.’
Ong sat up, and looked at the Mountain.
‘I reckon we’ll make it there today.’
‘…are you sure you want to see it?’ She wasn’t referring to the Mountain.
‘Him. And yes.’
‘His body. Are you sure you want to see him that way? Wouldn’t you rather remember him at his best?’
‘I need to see, with my own eyes,’ he said. ‘I can’t…’
Ong bunched his hands into fists; his vision blurred, just a little. ‘I can’t believe Booker is… dead… until I see it. And I owe it to him.’
‘No,’ gasped the overseer, trying to squirm away from the woman in front of him. The two men holding him in place tightened their grips on his arms, so he worried that his survival suit could be punctured.
‘It’s all right,’ she said, putting a hand on either side of his helmet. ‘I understand: you’ve spent your whole life sealed away, either underground of in one of these suits. You have feared the open air, and you have had good reason to fear. But, now, in this green place, you are safe.’
‘Safe,’ spat the overseer, and he laughed nervously. ‘It was you apostate rebel fools who burned Paradise in the first place! And you – scavengers – the Patrons defeated these beasts even at their full power, and they showed no mercy to traitors. Do you have families? Parents? Children—’
The woman twisted, and off his helmet came. He screamed – he was going to die, he was going to be turned against the proper order of things.
And then he breathed in, and the night air was cooler and smoother than anything he’d ever tasted.
‘Well, that’s not so bad, is it, overseer?’
‘Beast,’ he said, and he collapsed on the floor; the two scavengers let him go. ‘You devils cannot win. The Patrons are gods. You are dooming us all.’
‘There are no gods,’ said the woman, and she put a hand on the overseer’s back, ‘but those that we make for ourselves.’
He looked up. She was smiling.
‘We have already taken your habitation – we only need to open the front door to meet up with our people.’
‘Yes. You see, overseer, this is what happens when you treat people like shit.’
‘You can’t win.’
The woman tilted her head back and breathed in deeply through her nose. She turned and pointed to the Mountain.
‘A Craft bearing one of the Patrons emerged from metaspace into orbit around Paradise less than an hour ago. Watch this.’
There was nothing, for very nearly a whole minute; and then the sky cracked in half, as if it was a painting that had been torn, and out of the tear poured all the light of a sun, and the overseer screamed and screamed and screamed.
Welp. Looks like I’ve let the schedule slip a little bit lol. Ah well. I did have these written up, honest, I just didn’t get around to posting them. Anyway:
Jo didn’t respond. The lights were on overhead – two days ago, Singh had sent what he called ‘members of the repair team’ to ensure that her way was well-lit – but there were still plenty of alcoves, corners, and piles of rubble.
‘However. The next room I wish you to enter is not only outside of my control, but there appears to be something actively blocking my attempts to gain access.’
‘More of your monsters?’ she muttered.
‘When we were forced to abandon this facility, some of our comrades were left behind. Those left outside were destroyed or, worse, captured. Some of those who were inside, however, are still active.’
‘Right,’ said Jo. ‘So, it’ll be a friend of yours.’
‘The situation is not that simple, I’m afraid.’
‘Of course it isn’t.’
‘It has been very nearly two centuries; I am afraid that I cannot make any guarantees as to the pliability – or, indeed, as to the sanity – of whomever you are about to meet. Please, be careful.’
‘Well, that’s just super, doc.’
Singh didn’t respond to this. Jo pressed the three buttons on the right of her helmet simultaneously, and the tone of the beep told her that the connection had been severed.
‘Well, shit,’ she said, and then she turned a corner to find a pitch-black chamber. She paused at the threshold for a good three minutes, toying with the idea of turning back. ‘Hell,’ she said, eventually, and flicked on her helmet’s torch. At least she wasn’t being monitored by the Devil Himself anymore – if the gun he gave her still worked, maybe she could do some damage to these fuckers.
‘Well. Hello there.’
Jo reflexively raised her gun; the voice laughed right into her comms system.
‘My dear, I seriously doubt that your weapon could harm me.’
‘Well, why don’t you step in front of me and find out?’
Laughter crackled in her ear. A figure stepped into the path of her torch-beam.It had the broad shape of a man, but any features were obscured by hundreds of cylinders ending with lenses. All of the cylinders were pointing directly at Jo.
‘Shhit,’ she said. ‘You are one ugly mess, fella.’
‘You are trespassing, little girl.’
‘Maybe I am. What is this place?’
‘This is the Azin Hapheastus research facility. It was founded to study the technological remains of the indigenous species of this world. After twelve years of operation, it became the focus of the rebellion against the tyrants that call themselves “the Patrons”, and we attempted to replicate their abilities with that technology.’
Jo breathed in, deeply, and then breathed out again
‘I think you know what I meant: what is this place? Tell me.’
‘Or you’ll shoot?’
‘Yup,’ said Jo hoping that she sounded more confident than she felt. The thing laughed again.
‘Truly, I am terrified. Very well: this room contains a metaspace field generator, which is the primary reason that this facility still stands – it would have cost our enemies too much to break through.’
Jo clicked her tongue.
‘So. If I shot the place up a bit, that’d probably put a crimp in whatever Singh’s planning, right?’
The figure was silent for several seconds. Then:
‘…Vijai Singh? Has Dr Singh returned? And the rest—’
Jo smiled, licked her lips, and pulled the trigger.
‘Is that it,’ said Rashid, looking down at the grey world beneath them.
‘That is correct, little heart,’ said Sam, draping herself over him, her chin resting on his shoulder. ‘That’s Paradise.’
‘It looks dead.’
‘It is dead.’ She yawned – it was an affectation, Rashid was sure, to allow herself to feel tired. With the thumb of one hand she traced a circle on his belly; with the other hand she pointed to the southern continent, where Rashid could make out a handful of lights. ‘There is a small military presence, to monitor and resurgence, and so we also permit a smattering of civilian settlements. It takes far fewer resources than shipping in supplies and people would.’
‘Truly,’ he said, and he ran a middle finger up her arm, and he turned his head to look at her, ‘you wisdom knows no bounds, O Patron.’
Sam grinned, baring all her teeth ‘Don’t you forget—’
The Patron, who had never stumbled over a single word in Rashid’s entire life, fell silent. Her smile twisted into a frown.
‘My love,’ he said. ‘Beneficent One. Is something wrong?’ Was it something he’d said, he wondered, his stomach knotting – had she taken his playful irony for earnest insult? ‘My love – my life – my light – have I spoken out of turn?’
‘No,’ she said, and held him tight – but her word was not a response to his question. She squeezed him, hard, so his chest hurt. Then he saw a white flash out of the corner of his eye. He looked down at Paradise and saw a great white arc reaching up from the surface, and then there was nothing but light.
‘Open the door,’ she said.
‘Do not open that door,’ said the Captain.
‘It’s safe,’ said the scavenger. ‘The toxins and nanospores have bee neutralised – as long as you stick to the green spaces.’
‘Shut up, private.’
‘She’s not wearing a helmet,’ said Corporal Ong. The Captain shot him a venomous look.
‘Nanospores,’ she said. ‘Total War-tech. That scavenger’s dead.’
‘But – what about the plants?’
The Captain ignored this question and turned to the woman at comms.
‘Get me regimental.’
‘That won’t work,’ said the scavenger.
After a few seconds of effort, the comms-operator grunted.
‘She’s right, sir. We seem to be locked out of the system.’
‘How?’ This was impossible, the captain knew: the line to regimental was a hardwire, running deep underground and with active defences against nanotech. The redundancies for the redundancies had redundancies. It should not be possible to sabotage it without setting off a dozen alarms. She looked at the scavenger. ‘Who the Hell are you? Where are you from?’
‘My name is Alice,’ she said. ‘I was born in Freetown Habitation, and four months ago I was banished for stealing from a citizen. Wrongly, by the way.’
‘No. I don’t care about the sob-story of a dead criminal. Who are you?’
‘Are you from the Mountain?’ asked Corporal Ong.
‘No,’ she said. ‘But I stand with them. We fight for the liberation of humanity, Corporal Ong.’
‘Cut the external microphone,’ hissed the Captain.
‘You can’t,’ said Alice.
‘She’s right,’ said the comms operator. ‘We’re completely locked out.’
‘Hell,’ said the Captain, turning white. ‘Hell. Check the door systems. No – everyone – suit up. If she can—’
‘Do you know what has happened to Sergeant Booker, Alice?’
‘Corporal, if you speak one more word to that thing I will have you shot.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Alice. ‘He’s dead.’
‘Everyone,’ said the Captain, ‘put on your survival suits. If she can control our comms, she can control our doors.’
‘Fine,’ said Alice. ‘I told her that just asking wouldn’t work. Get ready for a breath of the freshest air you’ve ever tasted.’
‘Oh, Hell,’ said the Captain, as she fiddled with her neck-seal. The light on the external door switched to yellow, indicating that the outer part of the airlock was open.
Corporal Ong didn’t bother with the suit. If this woman could gain control of a patrol base so easily, how was a survival suit supposed to help? This was Total War-tech.
But, still: nanotech couldn’t stop a bullet.
Huh. I just realised that I never actually posted this on Saturday. Oh well, here you go:
‘I’m sorry,’ said the kid, clinging to the wall beside Lieutenant Chun. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know—’
Another blast of machine-gun fire set sparks flying past them; the boy whimpered, and this time Chun didn’t blame him. They were trapped. Chun pushed the button on his communicator, which hissed static.
‘I don’t know if you can hear me, guys, but I could really do with some help here.’
‘I— I— I—’
‘Shut up,’ said Chun, and punched the kid’s arm.
‘You have to believe me, I didn’t—’
‘Lieutenant Chun,’ came a voice from his communicator – but not a voice Chun recognised. ‘You’re surrounded. We’ve blocked your comms. Why don’t you come on out? I promise we won’t hurt you.’
‘Who the Hell are you, and who gave you a military comms unit?’
This elicited a chuckle from the voice.
‘Is that really your greatest concern, under the circumstances?’
‘Give me the name of your contact in the military, and I promise you a quick death.’
There was another rattle of gunfire, then, twice as long as the last. Chun winced, and his nose wrinkled at the smell of urine rising from the kid.
‘We fight for the liberation of humanity, Lieutenant.’
‘By getting children to scrawl obscenities on the walls.’
‘…that’s why you came to us?’
Frantic whispers came from the communicator. Chun just about heard ‘Barry, you tit,’ and he burst out laughing.
Mina did her best to ignore the braying laughter of the Freetown Habitation overseer, which was drifting over from nearly the other side of the dome, and smiled politely at the administrator in front of her.
‘Earth.’ The awed tone in his voice was sweet, like that of a child. ‘How was it?’
‘Simply marvellous,’ she said, hand unconsciously moving to the seal at her throat – the unforgeable proof of her pilgrimage. ‘I spent a year near the eastern coast of the Eurasian continent. A long time ago, there was a country there that dug hundreds of miles of tunnels. To honour the Patrons, we were excavating these tunnels by hand. We worked hard, or in silence.’
The administrator made an appreciative sound; his husband chose this moment to pipe in:
‘Did you see… you know…’
‘Once. One of the Patrons came and inspected our work.’
Mina smiled, and chose her words with care.
‘The stories are all true. He was beautiful, magnificent – he emanated power, I could feel it as he passed me. I cried at that feeling – I was at complete peace, in my proper place, on my knees in the mud – until long after my throat was sore. He was divine. I have no doubt of that.’
The husband offered Mina a tissue, and it was only then that she realised a tear had trickled down onto her cheek.
‘You’ve changed on your pilgrimage,’ came a familiar voice. The administrator and his husband bowed their heads; Mina turned to face the speaker, then did the same.
‘I believe I have learned much, mother.’
‘I see,’ said the planetary governor. ‘And do you believe that your lessons on Earth can be fruitfully applied on Paradise?’
‘I would never have returned otherwise: serving the Patrons on Earth was a far greater honour that I could ever deserve. But I will be of more use to them here, I think.’
Mina raised her head and looked her mother in the eye. The planetary governor seemed to have aged much more than three years during Mina’s pilgrimage: her hair was grey and her face was lined.
‘We have grown soft. Decadent. The workers treat the Patrons as a joke – their children scrawl obscenities on our walls. On Earth we worked until our fingers bled and our clothes were worn to rags. On Paradise the workers sing as they go about their chores, and take breaks as they will. It’s wasteful. Criminal.’
‘You think we should be more harsh towards the workers? That this would produce superior outcomes?’
‘It’s not just the workers, mother. We citizens of Paradise have duties to attend to, and what are we doing? We have the gift of life from the Patrons, and how do we spend it? We shirk and we drink and we party. It’s disgusting.’
The planetary governor didn’t say anything, and Mina became aware that the whole dome had gone silent. She felt a hot blush creep up her cheeks, but she held her mother’s gaze. Mina knew she was right – work was the sacrament, and only through unceasing labour could they show the Patrons proper devotion – and anyone who stood in the way of that, who stood between the people of Paradise and salvation, no matter who they were…
Someone gasped, from behind Mina. ‘Look at that,’ came a voice – the overseer of the Milan Habitation. Quickly, a murmur filled the dome. Mina’s mother’s gaze shifted, and her jaw dropped.
It had to be something big to warrant that sort of response, Mina knew. So she turned around and saw a miracle: amongst the black and grey of the surface of Paradise, where nothing had grown for two hundred years, there was an arc of green stretching from the Mountain to one of the civilian habitations.