The elevator announced their arrival in a robotic monotone drone.
‘Level ninety-six, prepare for identification.’
Nic and the fat bureaucrat waited as a camera positioned above the shining steel doors directed a blue ray of light slowly across the fat bureaucrat’s face from top to bottom. The fat bureaucrat’s bulbous eyes reflected the light and Nic watched as he didn’t even blink. His face looked empty, like one machine was scanning another.
‘Level ten clearance, accepted,’ the computer confirmed, ‘access granted.’
The camera flicked sideways towards Nic and the blue light flashed across his eyes. He did everything could to maintain his composure. He’d never experienced such a scan before and was determined to hold his veneer of indifference. In the days before his awakening, the old Nic wouldn’t have flinched an inch. He would have done whatever he had been ordered to do, especially if his reward was a meeting with The General. The blue light wasn’t invasive as such, but it was strain to hold his eyes open. He couldn’t be sure if the fat bureaucrat was aware of his discomfort.
‘Clearance rejected, access denied,’ the robotic monotone deepened and became more aggressive, ‘stay in position and await judgement.’ Two mini-turrets emerged from the upper corners of the lift and trained in on Nic’s position. The red dots of their laser sights converged over his heart, which Nic felt jump into his throat. He stood tall, regardless, stiffened his pose, and focussed all his energies into maintaining the calm expression on his face. Nic could feel the stare of the fat bureaucrat burning through his façade. Then, without warning, a different voice rolled out of the speakers.
‘Override, clearance alpha one,’ the soft honeyed voice echoed around the lift and each syllable was enunciated slowly and deliberately, ‘welcome gentlemen, you may proceed.’
The turrets whirred back into their slots and the doors slowly opened.
‘At ease, Lieutenant,’ the fat bureaucrat said as he stepped out of the elevator, ‘follow me.’
The top floor of Company headquarters was certainly a spectacle unto itself. Nic looked up and saw that the entire ceiling was a magnificent dome composed of glass. Giant hexagonal panels curved across the whole roof. It was thirty meters high at its peak and Nic could see the faint red hue of the energy shield glistening in the night sky above. He struggled to keep his mouth from the floor. There were two drop ships, the same drop ships he had seen on top of the hill, sat atop launch pads to the left of them. He scanned the room as he marched closely behind the fat bureaucrat. Mind-boggling technology was scattered everywhere. There were any number of indiscriminate machines and computer panels that dazzled Nic with their flashing lights and buttons of all shapes and sizes, yet there was not one person on the floor. The humming of the machines seemed to echo off the glass dome in eerie silence. They walked passed a giant control centre that consisted of an array of monitors two meters high and arranged into a U shape atop a set of panels whose buttons flickered in an array of oranges and reds and yellows. The screens were blank and the cushioned chair that sat in the centre was empty.
The fat bureaucrat strode past it, and as they rounded yet another unrecognisable piece of technology, they came to a viewing area that appeared to be at the front of the building. There were no walls as such, just rectangular glass panels that extended about three meters straight up at the edges, before transforming into the magnificent geodesic dome above. From the outside it was nothing but a dull grey speck a hundred storeys high, but through this one-way glass there was a panoramic three hundred and sixty-degree view of the entire city.
Nic suddenly felt his heart-rate increase as he saw the man himself just a few meters in front of him. The General was standing with his back to Nic beside two ornate leather armchairs and a small table between them; his arms were crossed behind him, and golden insignia on each shoulder gleamed under the starlight. He was staring out of the window at the scene unfolding below. Beside him, emanating iridescent blue light, was his great prize. The ovoid energy case that contained Odessa.
The fat bureaucrat stopped abruptly. Nic stopped behind him and stood to attention. He gripped the EMP ever more tightly.
‘General, Sir, I have here the Lieutenant whom you wished to meet,’ the fat bureaucrat said in his most obsequious tone.
‘Yes, yes, comrade. I’m aware of our guest.’ He didn’t turn around.
‘General, Sir, he informed me that the Doctor is dead, Sir…’
‘Pity,’ he interjected, ‘he was a loyal servant.’ He paused, and then under his breath, ‘and most effective.’
‘… and that he has crucial information regarding the insurrection. Are we still to proceed with our arrangements?’ The fat bureaucrat sounded nervous.
‘Why, yes of course, comrade.’ The General turned and grinned. ‘Inform the others that the Grand Visigoth himself will be joining us.’
‘The Grand Visigoth, General, Sir,’ the fat bureaucrat’s eyes widened at the prospect, ‘of course, Sir.’ He bowed his head.
‘Now, leave us,’ The General turned and looked at Nic, as the fat bureaucrat briskly tottered towards the lift. ‘Welcome, Lieutenant, you’ve had quite the week, I hear.’ His silky voice oozed charisma.
‘General, Sir,’ he saluted and stomped his foot on the ground, maintaining his rigid stance. Fortunately, he hadn’t forgotten the rigmarole involved in a formal greeting along with his conditioning. ‘It is my great honour to be granted such an audience, General, Sir. It is the dream of all loyal servants to be in the grace of your presence.’
‘Yes, yes, thank you, I appreciate your service, Lieutenant.’ His voice was as smooth as fresh honey; he waved away Nic’s fawning comments and approached him. He was taller than Nic, yet sleight in his build. His swarthy complexion, pointed features, and shining blue eyes gave off a familiar appeal. Nic almost felt at ease just being in his presence. ‘Please sit.’ He motioned towards the two armchairs and sat down.
‘It would be my honour, Sir,’ Nic fawned, as he followed his lead. The leather creaked as he sat and the soft cushions absorbed his weight. Nic almost gasped as the supple material moulded to the curves of his body. A mere Lieutenant could never know such luxury.
They both sat at an angle to the window so they could see one another and admire the majestic view at the same time.
Nic saw the black void of the tunnel stretching far into the distance. From their elevated position, they were at least four hundred meters high, the mountains of rock that were piled high on the other side looked magnificent, their great peaks a testament to the labour of the masses. The smashed corpses of the comrades that littered them momentarily slipped from his mind as he turned and looked into The General’s eyes. He saw shades of blue and green swirling together under their shiny glazed shells. It reminded him of images he had seen in his youth. The once turquoise seas of the world before had slowly darkened into the irradiated oceans of the present day. Nic broke eye contact and suddenly remembered Odessa and her power to transfix him.
Careful, now, he thought. Remember your mission, not the conditioning. He clenched the EMP and focussed.
‘Now what of this dreadful news, Comrade?’ The General leant forward and lifted a patterned china teapot from the table and poured two cups of steaming yellow-green liquid. ‘Please, drink.’ He took a cup for himself, leant back into his chair, and crossed his legs as he silently sipped. Nic remembered the conditioning serum, but he couldn’t risk not following his lead. He took a cup. The herbal fragrance was light and fresh, unlike anything Nic had ever smelled, it was a world apart from the sludgy brown liquid served in the mess hall.
‘The rebels are manoeuvring into position, Sir. They are planning an attack imminently.’ Nic said as he sipped the divine liquid. He felt its sweet warmth flow over his tongue and descend all the way down his gullet.
‘Green tea.’ The General said, grinning from ear to ear. ‘Delightful, isn’t it?’ He seemed to ignore the news.
‘It truly is, General, Sir. I feel unworthy of such a drink.’ He tried to sound as servile as possible.
‘Nonsense, comrade,’ he reassured, ‘and what of the Doctor?’
Focus, Nic! How could I forget my own ruse. Nic could feel himself losing control. His memory of his own mission was becoming hazy, and he felt an overwhelming urge to drop to his knees and beg forgiveness. An image flashed through his mind. It was a picture of three red suns setting over the smouldering skyline of Odessa’s home planet.
Odessa! He concentrated and remembered. Come on, Bagon, bring on the show. Nic wasn’t sure how long he could keep up his facade. It was already beginning to crack.
‘Dead, Sir. I awoke in the chair to a filthy rebel standing over his corpse. He was spouting nonsense of liberation and revolt. He was under the impression I had betrayed the Company, Sir.’ Nic shook his head a spat on the floor in disgust. ‘I played along with his charade in the hope he would reveal their plans, Sir. There were hundreds of them, heading down into the depths of the building. He brought me to the elevator, Sir, and told me it was time for me to play my part. Luckily, the Troopers intercepted us there and I made my escape…’
‘But, why didn’t you inform the Troopers, Lieutenant?’ The General interrupted gently.
‘General, Sir, as mighty as your forces are, they were just two men. No match for the legions I saw flooding the stairwells.’ Nic looked directly into the General’s glazed blue eyes. ‘I would never betray the Company, Sir. Since we apprehended that devil woman,’ he nodded towards the ovoid case behind them. ‘I had hoped we could get back on track with the search. Having my recovery interrupted by such beastly creatures engendered an opportunity to learn yet more about what they were planning. An Officer is forever at his post, Sir.’
‘Of course, Lieutenant,’ The General soothed, ‘please do continue.’
‘The rebels revealed themselves to me with great candour, Sir. They are deluded. They spoke in riddles of the end of the world and a great conspiracy to destroy our very planet. They mocked the search. It was all I could do not to vomit, Sir. Such sacrilege should be punished with death. They revealed a plan to attack this very evening. Your audience with the masses. I think it would be prudent to cancel, Sir.’
‘Nonsense!’ He exclaimed. ‘We have nothing to fear, Lieutenant. See for yourself.’ He stood and walked to the window. ‘Let us marvel in the wonder of our cosmic friends and the gifts they have bestowed, just for a moment.’
Nic followed and positioned himself between the General and Odessa’s glowing tomb. It was just two meters away now. He held his hands behind his back and awaited his chance.
The General removed a communicator from his pocket. ‘Frontal display formation,’ he barked, and he peered upwards.
Nic looked up, and to his horror, he saw through the soundproof glass dome that four of the Grand Visigoth’s warships were silently descending to the front of the building. The blue flames that scorched from their jet boosters were practically licking the windows. They positioned themselves so their noses were pointing towards the crowds below, and the contours of their angular jet-black fuselages reflected light in shades of red and silver. Nic saw the reflection of the building looking back at him, a dull gray dome that hid the technological wonders within it.
‘Fully automated, Lieutenant.’ The General sounded gleeful. ‘And voice controlled.’
Nic gulped. He knew whatever Bagon and his friends had organised, they’d be no match for one of these attack ships, let alone four of them. Nic had seen what they could do in Odessa’s visions. ‘A truly wondrous gift, Sir,’ he finally managed, ‘I’ve never seen such a craft.’ His voice had almost dropped to a whisper, the lie barely concealed.
Dejected at the sudden drop in their fortunes, Nic glanced westward and noticed the jagged form of the rocks that indicated the entrance to the mines.
We’ll put our backs to the rocks and make our stand there, Delfin’s words in his head brought a sense of urgency. Maybe it was a fool’s errand. He thought of the last remnants of their resistance huddling in the abandoned caves as they awaited their fates. From the corner of his eye he glimpsed a speck rising from the void. He looked again and he saw another, and another. After a few seconds there were a small group of maybe ten of them coming closer and closer. Drillpods! The utter dread he felt as they slowly ascended and increased in size was compounded as the General turned and saw them too.
‘What’s this?’ He said sarcastically. It seems your information was accurate, Lieutenant.’ He raised his communicator again. ‘Destroy those pods.’ He pressed his hands onto the glass and watched with glee as the warships did his bidding. They barely had to move. Their blasters extended and silent flashes of orange streaked down through the sky. One by one, the drillpods were vaporized in flashes of orange and red. The last flaming embers slowly turned to dust as they floated down towards the unsuspecting crowds below. The General was practically drooling on the glass.
Some show, Nic thought as his heart sank. Bagon and the others blasted to dust before they even fired a shot. The crowds probably think it’s just fireworks. He firmly pressed the button on the EMP. Let’s give them a real show. He spun around desperately and dived towards the tomb beside him, but he froze in mid-air, his outstretched fist barely a centimetre from the red hot energy of the tomb. From behind him, he heard an unfamiliar voice, dark and ominous.
‘My loyal comrade, indeed,’ it cackled. The General’s voice had changed from honeyed wine to a guttural boom. ‘Tell me Lieutenant. Do you take me for a fool?’
Nic felt himself gradually begin to lift and rotate. He was as rigid as a block of lumber on the factory floor. As he slowly moved upright and into the view of The General, Nic watched, terrified, as his form slowly shifted and changed in front of his eyes. The blue-green swirls in his eyes were gone and the colours began radiating fiercely out his sockets, like the flames from the jets of his ships. He stood with his legs apart and fists by his sides. He unfurled his hands to reveal jagged circular stones buried in his palms. They were glowing the same vibrant shades of green and blue. He seemed to grow two feet taller and his face slowly shifted. His dark complexion became grey and his face contorted and stretched into a long, gaunt horror. The General was no more and the looming presence of the Grand Visigoth drove utter terror into Nic’s soul. He knew now without a doubt, too late of course; Odessa’s visions had been real. The General was nothing but a tool of The Grand Visigoth’s box of wicked designs.
Created to manipulate an entire world, Nic fretted, hell, even the galaxy itself. He tried to recoil but couldn’t. The Grand Visigoth’s demonic thrall made a mockery of Nic’s own machinations to get close to Odessa. The stones in his palms grew brighter and brighter; Nic felt their light burning into his retina. How he wished he could just close his eyes and stop the searing pain. His floating body remained upright as his arms and legs spread from his body. He was now floating like a human star enveloped in a cloud of green-blue cosmic dust a metre from the ground. He felt his limbs straining apart from his torso; his very skin felt as if it was being stripped from his body. The pain was excruciating, but he couldn’t so much as scream.
‘Do you really think you can presume to lie to me with such gall?’ The Grand Visigoth boomed. His face was a picture of twisted malevolence. ‘Why would I need to spike your tea? I am a destroyer of star systems! I enthralled your whole planet in a mere heartbeat.’ He smiled wickedly. ‘So they’re in the mines, are they. I thank you, Lieutenant. I will ensure that every last one of them dies in excruciating agony. You will watch as I strip the skin from their bones, knowing that their fate awaits you.’ He looked at Nic’s extended right arm. ‘So, you wish to free the Alphanian monstrosity,’ he sneered, ‘even she is no match for me. She failed at Andromicron Prime, and she has failed again today.’
Nic listened to his diatribe, powerless to move and despondent at his failure. The Grand Visigoth’s words became meaningless. It was an endless stream of insults about the human’s of Earth’s lack of evolution, and the boundless might of his own galactic order. At the moment when Nic had all but given up, he saw something in the distance outside slowly rise over The Grand Visigoth’s right shoulder. A second wave of drillpods! He marvelled in frozen silence. In The Grand Visigoth’s distraction, they had ascended the entire height of the building and were manoeuvring into position. As he ranted and raved, Nic watched as they silently moved in front of the warships. No firepower, Nic pondered, and no match for blasters, but they’re damn near indestructible when it comes to mining. Nic could do nothing to brace himself for what he realised must be coming, he just watched and hoped.
The Grand Visigoth’s haughty snarl was finally silenced with a thunderous roar, as the pods charged the warships and smashed them into the outside of the dome. As ships and pods exploded, the whole room shuddered violently in a hail of fire and broken glass.
Nic hit the floor with a violent thud, as the Grand Visigoth spun around at the deafening sound. The EMP rolled out of Nic’s hand, along the floor, and bumped into the side of Odessa’s tomb, before rattling to a stop on the ground.
Nic looked up, heavily winded, and watched as two drillpods smashed through the glass directly into the Grand Visigoth. They careened across the room leaving a trail of destruction in their wake before crashing into the lifts on the far side of the room and coming to rest.
Nic limped to his feet as fast as he could and dragged himself to the tomb, holding his stomach all the way. He looked at the wall where the ships had come to rest. That won’t hold him for long, he thought as he saw the two pilots clambering from wrecks, Bagon and Honza! He grabbed the EMP, its green activation light was still flashing, and tried to push it into the pulsating blue energy of the tomb. He could get his hand within about half a centimetre of its surface, but as he tried to get it closer, he felt his skin begin to burn. In a panic, he looked up again and saw Bagon and Honza running towards him. Behind them, the wrecks of their drillpods slowly began edging outwards and the sounds of metal grating on metal and the tile floor echoed around the room.
‘Do it now, Nic!’ Bagon screamed from across the hall as he vaulted a burning control panel.
‘Now Nic,’ Honza yelled, ‘what are you waiting for?’
Nic looked at the EMP and back at the shield. ‘A fool’s errand, indeed,’ he muttered, before clasping the EMP in his fist and punching with all the force he could muster into the sea of blue fire. The smell of burning flesh, instantly cauterized, seared into his nostrils as he screamed in sheer agony.
As Nic’s fist disintegrated into the shield, the EMP made contact and emitted a violent screeching sound as the pulse was emitted. It knocked Bagon and Honza from their feet and enshrouded the entire room in darkness.
There was a light thud as a body hit the floor beside Nic, but he was too preoccupied writhing on the ground and clasping at his burned stump in excruciating pain to notice.
The creaking metal scraping along the ground slowly became louder. Eventually, there was an almighty din as the Grand Visigoth freed himself, and the remains of the drillpods were thrust to the sides of the room. The radiance of his eyes and palms glowed in the distance in a soft blue-green hue, and gently lit the room. The ambience it created, combined with the starlight and soft breeze coming through the smashed dome, belied the wrath he exuded. He bounded quickly across the room in a blind rage. He smashed everything in his path with a wave of his hands. Burning chunks of metal and pieces of heavy machinery were flung into the sides of the dome and through the gaping holes onto unsuspecting masses hundreds of metres below.
‘Insolent swine,’ he boomed, and he thrust his hands into the air.
Nic watched as Bagon and Honza flew into the air and were held in turquoise clouds of energy. ‘You will die in agony!’ He screamed in fury, and Nic watched as their throats began to constrict and they started choking, their hands and feet slowly crunching into broken contortions and unnatural angles, followed by their arms and legs. The Grand Visigoth’s face was a wrinkled picture of evil as he slowly crushed their fragile bodies. As Nic watched in terror, he held the arm of his dissolved fist in agony and awaited his own fate, but from beside him, a familiar voice resonated through the darkness.
‘Release them!’ Odessa screamed, her once soft voice projecting a booming authority.
Nic saw the orange light from her eyes slowly glow brighter and raise from the ground as she stood. Her demand unanswered, she thrust her fists forward and a powerful beam of orange light blasted across the room. When it made contact with The Grand Visigoth, the bodies of Honza and Bagon fell to the floor with a sickening crunch of shattered bone. The Grand Visigoth’s blue-green emanation merged with the orange brilliance of Odessa’s laser blast. Such was the brightness of the flash that Nic momentarily forgot about the pain in his hand. He was instead consumed by a piercing pain in his eyes, as his retinae were finally burnt out.