Nic, still dazed, stumbled as he followed Bagon into the narrow corridor outside his cell. Only two metres wide and two and a half high, it curved ahead in semi-darkness. The fluorescent wall lights in Nic’s old cell lit behind them, and an LED ceiling panel flickered just around the corner. They waited for a brief moment and listened.
Thump, thump, thump. Thump, thump, thump. Odessa stood, back to the wall, and waited about ten metres ahead of them. Her armour shimmered, and she vanished into the shadows.
What in the hell is that creature? Nic thought, as he stared at the space she had left.
THUMP, THUMP, THUMP! THUMP, THUMP, THUMP! The Troopers rounded the bend and approached.
‘Two bogies ahead!’ One said into his radio.
‘FREEZE! In the na—‘
In a flash of bright white light, Odessa smashed to the centre of the group, three men wide and 5 men deep, and their bodies crunched into the walls like bowling pins. A remaining Trooper engaged her, but her armour rendered his cattle-prod useless. She feinted left, flashed an arm, and despatched him with ease.
‘Come on!’ She yelled and motioned for Bagon and Nic to follow.
The Troopers were strewn along the corridor, and puddles of blood slowly ebbed towards Nic. He followed Bagon closely, stepping and tripping over bodies. In his fugue state, he couldn’t distinguish dream from reality as layers of conditioning flaked away.
He heard the fuzzy sound of a radio among the carcasses on the ground.
‘Come in, Unit Leader, Come in. Have you engaged the enemy? Over.’
‘I repeat, Come in, Unit Leader. Have you located the Alphanian? Over.
Nic focused on the man as he stepped over him, and reached down to lift his visor.
‘Keep bleedin’ movin’!’ Bagon prodded him in the shoulder with his blaster.
Unfazed by the carnage, Nic shuffled forward. The image of the dead troopers blended with the dead of his vision and turned to dust in his mind.
Odessa had disappeared around the bend and a loud explosion shook the walls. Then, before they reached the corner, an orange burst of energy, three inches thick, hissed in front of them and exploded into the wall. It threw them onto the pile of bodies behind, and Nic cracked his head on the armour of a fallen Trooper.
‘Take cover!’ Bagon yelled as he scurried off the ground. He darted to the wall just before the corner as blasters zapped and sizzled against the shards of metal that once lined the wall.
Nic rubbed his head and motioned to get up, yet he couldn’t but look at the expressionless face of the dead man beside him. He stalled and instinctively slipped the dead man’s cattle-prod into his back pocket. An eerie silence descended, and he fell in behind Bagon.
‘You first,’ he said, ‘wouldn’t want you runnin’ off now, would I?’ He turned towards Nic and motioned with the blaster for him to round the bend.
As they followed Odessa’s trail of destruction, Nic retched at the sight of such wounds. Several bodies had holes through their abdomens and chests that Nic could see clear through. Others were missing limbs and even heads. Their cauterized wounds had reduced the stream of blood to a trickle, and body parts littered the shadows.
They waited three more times for Odessa to clear the way, and three more times they followed. As they progressed, Nic slowly regained his senses and was appalled. His feet were heavy as he lifted them over body after body. He thought of the General, and the day of rejoicing when their cosmic brethren blessed them with wonder.
‘Our struggle has been rewarded!’ The General had announced it, four years earlier, to a baying crowd of millions. The people stood in front of his podium, in front of the old Company building. He stood tall with his chest thrust out, his uniform impeccable. Nic tried to remember his face, but light reflected from the array of medals on his chest, and his features were blurred.
Nic turned and looked at the corpses on the ground.
These are real Company men! He thought. You can’t save them by killing them!
He remembered the Grand Visigoth landing in front of Company Headquarters. A human-sized shining blue orb floated slowly towards the General’s Podium and landed. The crowd gasped as the outer shell retracted within itself to reveal the robed figure of the Grand Visigoth. His face glistened a ghostly white as he faced them.
‘My Brothers!’ His smooth voice boomed. ‘Your struggle has inspired me from across the galaxy, for I too, am human!’
A deafening roar exploded from the crowds.
‘Your unity, your resilience, and your fortitude have brought you far!’
The crowd roared again.
‘Your bravery, your loyalty, and your strength are a blessing that deserve more than this burden, this wretched wasteland of a planet.’ He spoke faster, ‘I come today bearing a holy gift, my brothers!’ He paused.
The crowd waited with bated breath.
‘Help us mine your core, and we will build you a ship the size of a city!’ He paused again. ‘So you can join us… …on the greatest search the galaxy has ever known!’
The crowd were delirious. They stamped their feet and began to chant, Nic included.
‘The search, the search, the search! The search, the search, the search!’
‘Millions of years ago,’ the Grand Visigoth continued, ‘a master alien race sowed the seeds of humanity throughout the cosmos. Join us, for we must find them. They created a universe filled with life. And only they can truly answer the question…’
The crowd were drooling in anticipation.
‘…Of what it is …to be a God!’ He exclaimed it with venom, and the crowd erupted into throes of ecstasy.
Lost in the memory, Nic tripped over a corpse. As he hit the ground, Odessa’s vision flashed through his head again. The seared memories of children’s corpses, and the smell of charred flesh burned in his nostrils. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.
Blasted tricks and parlour games, he convinced himself. That freak can’t have me!
Bagon grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and dragged him to his feet.
‘We ain’t got all blinkin’ day!’ he hissed.
Nic rose and silently continued. He knew better than to plead for Bagon to see sense. He’d already succumbed to her whim.
When they turned the final corner, the corridor widened, and a soft light flooded in through a large circular hole two metres in diameter. It had been cut through steel blast doors ten inches thick. Odessa was crouching beside it. She glanced from cover as pale moonlight glimmered off the smooth contours of her suit.
‘They’ve retreated!’ She gasped and turned to face Nic and Bagon. As they approached, her helmet retracted into the neck of her suit. ‘Not a bad fighting bunch,’ she grinned and stepped outside. Nic followed Bagon and waited for his chance to strike.
He surveyed the battleground. The surrounding streets were pockmarked with tiny fires, and holes smouldered in the buildings in front of them. He turned to face Odessa.
‘You sure do kill a lot of people,’ he said, ‘…for a savior.’
‘The Troopers are past saving.’ She said, gravely. ‘There’s much more at stake than you know.’ She turned to face Bagon, her voice serious. ‘Bagon, section 98392 is done. Purged. Find any stragglers you can. You know what you have to do. Understand?’
‘Yes, m’lady.’ He nodded and motioned to leave.
‘Bagon,’ she held him back and spoke in an ominous tone. ‘Tread carefully my friend.’
He nodded again and disappeared into the shadows.
Nic, meanwhile, noticed that his hiding place had been an old bunker set in the Southern cliff face of the Eastern habitation sector. Company headquarters dwarfed the sky in front of them.
A cunning place to hide, Nic thought. In light’s shadow.
After Bagon had left, Odessa turned and faced Nic.
‘We need to go, too!’ She nodded her head and pulled Nic close. ‘Hold on!’ Before he could speak, her helmet re-enveloped her head, and she blasted off with him in her arms. The metal of her suit felt cold, yet it was strangely soft, and it fit perfectly over her figure. She shot to the top of the cliff to reveal an unnatural red sky arcing towards the horizon.
In his shock, Nic barely registered the warm electric glow, as they careened above barren land to a hill covered with the skeletons of spindly grey trees. Less than a minute after they left the ground, she had landed on the highest point in the new free city of Hallogen, on the Southernmost point of the radiation-free zone.
Odessa landed on the top of the hill and released Nic. He stumbled to the ground and looked up at her in frightened awe. She retracted her armour and stood in front of him. Again, she was dressed in the beige overalls of the Drilling Corps.
‘Are you human?’ He asked.
‘Of course!’ She said. ‘Are you?’ She rocked her head back and laughed.
‘That armour came out of your own skin.’ He warily placed his hand on his back pocket.
‘Let’s just say I’m a little more…’ she chose her words carefully ‘…evolved.’
‘Nic, I want to show you something.’ She led him to the edge of a viewpoint overlooking the entire free city of Hallogen. The city was illuminated under the moonlit sky, and the corrugated iron roofs of the habitation quarters to the West and East were clearly visible and stretched for miles. To the North, Company headquarters loomed large directly in front of the tunnel. The giant void stretched far into the distance, and Nic marveled at the height of the mountains that peaked in the dumping grounds beyond. To the Northwest, he saw the old farms and the mines. He felt pride at the achievements of The Company in building such a city, so soon after the bombs had fallen.
‘Nic, follow me.’ She said softly and turned to face South.
With her back facing him, he gripped the cattle-prod and prepared to attack. But something stayed his hand. A lightning strike flared in the distance, over her shoulder. He strained his eyes and could see thousands of them flashing into the ground. Black clouds filled the skies, and powerful electrical storms raged. He blinked and slowly relaxed his grip.
‘Can you see it?’ She pointed at the sky above them.
‘The red glow?’ He nodded and took his hand from his back pocket. The colour was not as vibrant as before, but it still rippled faintly through the sky. ‘What is it?’ He asked.
‘It’s an energy shield. Hardly visible from the surface.’
‘The radiation?’ He said, perplexed.
‘It can’t penetrate it.’ She spoke seriously. ‘And beyond the red? Can you see the storms?’
He said nothing.
‘The drilling is depolarizing the Earth’s magnetic field,’ she said solemnly. ‘The entire planet is not only experiencing a nuclear winter, but also some of the most violent electrical storms this planet has ever seen.’
‘So our comrades …protect us?’ Something made him hesitate.
‘They protect themselves.’ She shook her head. ‘When they get the iron ore from your core,’ she explained, ‘the planet’s magnetic field will destabilize. Then, the mantle will rise and every volcano on this rock will erupt simultaneously. If anyone manages to survive that, solar winds will raze the unprotected surface to dust and ash.’ She paused. ‘Unless they decide to put you out of your misery first, that is, with an atom-blast to the empty core.’ She laughed. ‘They’ll call it ‘poetic justice.’’
‘We don’t need the planet.’ Nic said flatly. ‘They’re going to build us a ship.’
‘They’ll leave you to rot like everyone else,’ she shook her head.
‘Is that what happened to your planet?’ He asked sarcastically.
‘Not exactly.’ She said sadly. ‘I’d love to show you, but we just don’t have time. I haven’t disengaged the tracking implant in your wrist.’
She interrupted him. ‘Nic, take that cattle-prod from your pocket.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘I know you have it.’
He held it and looked at Odessa. ‘But we have to join the search!’ His voice was proud. ‘The most noble cause in the entire galaxy!’
‘The Grand Visigoth has been searching for five thousand fricken’ years!’ She blurted in frustration. ‘Nic. We’ve no time for this now. Your mind is almost clear.’ She held his shoulders tightly. ‘We were so close. I know you question the world around you. It’s not quite… right.’
‘My loyalty is to the the company and the General,’ he proclaimed and pulled back. ‘He’d never agree to--’
‘Nic!’ she cut him off, ‘the residual energy on that shield tells me it’s been operating for nearly a century!’
He paused, shocked. ‘Lies!’ He yelled. He knew what that meant. It couldn’t be!
‘I’m sorry, Nic, but we have to move fast. We only have a minute!’
Nic struggled to process the information, as his head was flooded with questions. One pressed to the front of his mind.
‘What’s an Alphanian?’ He blurted.
‘An ancient race of humans,’ she smiled, ‘all but lost to the depths of the galaxy.’
‘So not all, then?’ He asked.
‘Absolutely not!’ She winked. Suddenly, she grabbed his hand, thrust it into her own neck, and ten thousand volts floored her. She lay unconscious at Nic’s feet in the pink-red hue of the moonlight, and he towered over her, cattle-prod still in hand. Almost immediately, twenty jet-black light aircraft with familiar angular wings hovered over the crest of the hill and surrounded Nic, their lasers firmly locked on their target.