Nic thudded into the ground face-first and felt fine grains of dirt blow into his mouth and nose. He opened his eyes and a bright white light painlessly pierced his neo-cortex. A swirling pattern of orange, gold, and brown, slowly caramelised into a clay desert vista that stretched around him for miles. The hazy red hue of the sky kissed the horizon and merged with it seamlessly.
Nic floated effortlessly to his feet and wiped the dust from his lips, tasting the earthy grains. He instinctively held his right hand in front of him and examined it, front and back. He extended his fingers and clenched his fist, but nothing appeared to be amiss. He scanned his surroundings and noticed several large boulders about twenty metres in front of him. He intuitively approached and rested his palm on one of the cold slabs. The sensation jolted the image of a woman lying on the rock. Her porcelain face was half covered with long red hair, and her one visible eye emanated a faint orange glow, as tears of blood streaked down her cheek.
Odessa, he thought, and a memory returned. The sub-conscious realm.
As her eye radiated orange and gold, Nic saw planets burn. He watched as a star silently went nova. It flashed a brilliant white and its shockwave consumed everything in its path. Planets and moons were incinerated instantly, and so intense were the flares that Nic could feel the heat on his face. Still, they burned brighter, and through the flames Nic saw bodies scorched to ash as their faces twisted into agonised contortions.
A bright orange beam dazzled Nic and snapped him back to the desert. He looked past the rock and located the source. Orange and turquoise lights blazed in the distance, accompanied by the soft sound of crashing metal and shattering glass. He felt irrevocably drawn to the light, yet he sensed pain. He hesitated, but an innate curiosity pushed him forward. A mental symphony of ecstasy and agony, and bondage and liberation pulled him in. As he teetered on the edge of an invisible precipice, a hazy turquoise flash engulfed him, and he fell into another realm and awoke in a different skin.
Nic was in a bustling square. A single bright yellow sun shone from a clear blue sky. Humans thronged the sidewalks beneath huge skyscrapers. Automobiles aggressively weaved through the streets in a cacophony of roaring engines and honking horns. They pumped thick smoke into the air that Nic felt clogging his nostrils. People pushed him left and right.
‘Hey buddy, people are trying to walk here!’ One irate pedestrian yelled as she barged past.
Nic stumbled forward and saw the scene from above. The people and automobiles were nothing but dots and lines whizzing along the streets. The lights in the buildings sporadically flashed on and off and on again in a haze of greens and pinks, blues and purples, and warm whites. He watched days pass in seconds, as the sun ascended and descended across the horizon. He knew it was Earth, but not as he had seen it.
He blinked and was in a large room with a great domed ceiling and even greater din. There were curved rows of seats arranged in divided semi-circles in front of a podium. They were full to the brim with people wearing strange clothes and headphones, who were constantly speaking over one another. One man, whose booming voice echoed around the whole room, stood at the podium gesticulating wildly while others either nodded their heads in agreement or threw their hands in the air in frustration. Behind him was a golden drape that stretched the entire height of the room, and on it was a large picture of what looked like a map surrounded by a large wreath. There were two huge monitors on either side that bore an unusual phrase; United Nations Summit.
He pondered what the words could mean. He looked down and examined the transparent glass desk in front of him. Then, he caught his reflection in the desktop and froze.
The Grand Visigoth!
Nic recoiled, but the image began to encroach. Gradually, the people and room disappeared, and the eyes that stared back at him blazed green-blue. Nic panicked when he felt them searing into his own, and a crippling pain shot through his right hand. He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out. In his reflection, his mouth opened wider than his whole body, and a deafening, high-pitched scream rang through his ears as the gaping chasm enveloped him.
Nic jolted awake in the med-bay disoriented and sweating. It was the second time he had had the dream and the memory sent a shiver down his spine. His vision was blurry and his right wrist was tingling. He managed to gather himself and focus on two hazy silhouettes that were hurrying towards him.
‘He’s awake.’ He heard a familiar soft voice say. Then, he felt a warm hand on his chest slowly ease him back onto his bed. ‘Rest, Nic.’
‘W-w-where. A-am. I-I?’ He croaked.
‘You’re in the mines, Nic. Last stand, remember?’
‘Delfin, I-is that you?’ He managed.
‘Yes, Nic, It’s me. How are you feeling?’
‘I can’t see the features of your face,’ he whinnied. ‘Everything is a blur.’
‘It means the nanoids are working, Nic,’ she reassured. She turned towards the featureless blur beside her and said, ‘he seems lucid.’
‘Can you see me, Nic?’ He recognised Odessa’s voice. ‘How many fingers?’
Nic could just about see three blurry digits extended in front of him and he managed to mutter, ‘th-th-three.’
‘Perfect, Nic. In a few more hours I think your vision will have returned completely.’
The memories of his dreams began to resurface, and he started to panic.
‘The fire,’ he mumbled. ‘The fire,’ he said again and began to try and get up from the bed.
‘No, Nic, relax,’ Odessa soothed.
‘The fire will burn us all,’ he said as he suddenly became animated. ‘He was here!’ He yelled, ‘the Visigoth was here!’
‘He’s not here Nic. He’s ordered everyone in the city to report to the tunnel. He’ll reach the core whatever the cost now.’
‘Not now,’ he cried, ‘before! I’ve seen it in my dreams.’
He began flailing his arms as Odessa held him down.
‘Delfin, give him a sedative.’ She ordered
As he writhed on the bed, he felt a sharp prick in his left arm, and he gently drifted off to the faint sound of Delfin and Odessa muttering as the ventilator whirred softly beside him.
It had been about ten hours since they escaped the roof of Company headquarters, and the Grand Visigoth’s almighty rage, and made their way through the cavernous underbelly of Hallogen. Nic stood on a small cliff-edge inside the cave and watched moisture slowly form into a droplet and begin to snake its way down the glistening white stalactite hanging in front of him.
The old mines snaked into the depths, and it wasn’t unusual during the pre-Grand Visigoth days for mining duties to be disrupted when the ground beneath them crumbled away after they had axed their way through a stubborn slab of granite. The ensuing cave-ins were always at the cost of a squad or two of noble Privates, gallantly sacrificing themselves in the hunt for the precious minerals the General so desperately needed. Nic had been involved in several himself. The network of caves that they sometimes stumbled upon were summarily resealed, fallen comrades were left to rot in their tombs, and the miners were relocated elsewhere. The work never ceased. The fact that Odessa’s rebels had chosen such a place as their final haven was not surprising, as well hidden as they were.
As Odessa had tended his wounds, she had informed him of her first days on Earth. Her painstaking search to find a secure location outside the grasp of her mighty foe had lasted months. She had scouted hundreds of tunnels alone in the cold, dark depths, and finally she had settled on this place. With only one way in, space enough to house several hundred people in its expansive network of tunnels and clearings, and a source of, if not exactly drinkable water, at least that which could be purified. And here they now were, shielded and hidden, for the time being at least.
He marvelled as another droplet coursed its way down the well-worn limestone crevasses. He saw every nook and cranny to the most minute detail. As it dripped into the cloudy turquoise water streaming gently beneath him, Nic felt like he could see every shade of blue and green as the ripples undulated away. He felt that if he concentrated hard enough, he could even differentiate between the molecules themselves, the hydrogen and oxygen, and the array of heavy metals that lurked in the water and blessed it with such vibrant colour.
His eyes weren’t sore any more. Odessa’s nanoids had taken care of that. The microscopic robots she had injected into his eyeball had worked their magic and now his vision had not only returned, but he could see each and every detail with even greater clarity and purpose than before. He slowly rubbed his left palm along the wall next to him and he could see the subtle differences in the shades of rock as his hand passed over them. The calcium-carbonate, granite, and iron ore were all within his field of vision. In a mere six hours, he had gone from being completely blind to seeing more clearly than ever. He glanced down at the sling, and the stump resting in it, and frowned. It hadn’t fully healed yet, although the wound was scabbing over nicely; he was pretty confident the nanoids would leave him with barely a hint of scar tissue when they were done. He only wished they had enough time to regenerate the whole hand. Repairing the cell-receptors in his retina was no trouble at all, it seemed.
The med-bay behind him was filled with bodies laid out on makeshift gurneys, unwitting victims of the Grand Visigoths almighty vengeance. He walked over to Honza and Bagon, and watched as the stolen ventilators, no doubt spoils of Odessa’s insurrection, pumped simultaneously and kept them alive. Their broken bodies proved a bigger obstacle to the nanoids workmanlike perseverance. Every bone had been shattered, their organs crushed under the weight of the Grand Visigoth’s rage.
‘Just one nanoid can repair as many broken bones as you put in front of it…’ Odessa had said matter-of factly, as she held the syringe and examined the volume closely. ‘0.01ml of nanite solution contains over one million nanoids,’ she said proudly, but then she frowned. ‘All they need is time.’ Such a small amount meant their recovery would take far longer than the thirty-six hours Odessa had predicted it would take the Grand Visigoth’s men to locate their hideaway.
As Nic watched Bagon’s chest slowly rise and fall in time with the ventilator, he wondered if it hadn’t all been in vain.
Delfin had just explained how she, and a smattering of other rebels, had been scattered in the crowds at the foot of Company headquarters as Nic and Odessa had made their attack. They returned bearing the bodies of the wounded, who had wailed and moaned as they were sedated, speaking almost in tongues of the hellish vision they had witnessed atop the tower. They mumbled of the enormous hundred-foot-high beast that had exploded through the giant dome, showering the unsuspecting masses with glass and concrete. Hundreds were crushed, lacerated, and trampled. Those who made it back spoke of the blue-green aura that had surrounded its fists as they had slammed into the roof of the tower like giant wrecking balls, and of the explosion of orange and red and gold that had ended the maelstrom.
It wasn’t over for long, though. Within hours everyone left in Hallogen, the entire population, had been ordered to emergency work detail. The drill crews would work non-stop until they had achieved the Visigoth’s goal of reaching and extracting the Earth’s core.
So lost was he in his grief that he hadn’t noticed Odessa enter through the passageway behind him.
‘Glad to see you’re up and about,’ she chirped. ‘How are my heroes doing?’
‘No idea,’ he replied, startled. ‘They look almost dead.’
‘The nanoids will take care of them,’ she said as she swanned around the beds, examining several patients and smiling broadly.
‘What do you have to be so happy about?’ Nic growled and glanced at the mass of bodies that surrounded them. ‘We lost, didn’t we?’
‘Depends what you mean by lost. We escaped the tower, and you’re alive, aren’t you? You look better than I’ve ever seen you, in fact.’
Nic frowned and walked slowly back to the edge of the med-bay and focussed again on the water beneath him.
‘I find great peace in the water, but it disturbs me. When you saved us from the tower, I was blind. Yet, now I can see things in the water as well as my mind.’
‘The dreams again,’ she said and rolled her eyes. ‘I told you earlier, Nic. It’s the nanoids. They don’t only repair damaged tissue, they enhance it. I programmed them to restore the cells in your retina to optimal functionality.’
‘And what if they find other damaged tissue, outside of their programming?’ He probed.
‘They will ignore it unless they deem it to be life threatening.’
‘So, is it outside the realm of possibility,’ he asked, ‘that the Visigoth’s conditioning program, as well as your own invasion of my mind, didn’t leave some rather more serious damage than you expected.’
‘What are you getting at, Nic?’ She asked in mild frustration.
‘Is it not possible,’ he asked, this time in a rather more hostile tone, ‘that the nanoids could have enhanced my mind too?’ He paused, before becoming more agitated. ‘I’m telling you, I entered the sub-conscious realm!’
‘It’s just not possible Nic.’ She insisted, as she continued to examine the wounded. ‘It took many hundreds of millennia for humans to develop these skills. My own people only honed them after the technological intervention of the Terran pioneers in our evolution. It takes many centuries to master these skills as I have. To accidentally fall into the sub-conscious realm is unheard of.’
Nic moved quickly around the bed so he was facing her.
‘And what of your battle?’ He challenged. ‘The power that was witnessed by everyone at the foot of the tower. Couldn’t that have pushed me over the edge?’
‘I gave you the nanoids after that Nic. After I brought you here, and anyway, the battle people witnessed was merely a mental projection. The Grand Visigoth is a powerful telepath. People see whatever he wants them to see. It seems that now he’s reverted to the way of fear, given our recent success.’
‘I saw you on the rock,’ Nic insisted, ‘where you guided me from your prison, and I felt your battle. I saw planets explode and burn and I saw the Visigoth on Earth, but not my Hallogen, it was Earth, before!’
Odessa sighed in exasperation and turned away.
‘Maybe your nanoids just reactivated the same parts of my brain? Maybe that’s why I keep having the visions.’
‘I guess it’s possible Nic,’ she sighed, ‘the nanoids are quite remarkable little things. They enable me to host all of my cybernetic implants. They constantly manage the fine balance between my natural organic self, and the upgrades I’ve added on my journey.’
‘You asked me once how it was possible for it to unfold from within my own skin, do you remember?’
‘Well, now you have it, Nic. Nanoids. And unfortunately I need them back.’
He looked down at his stump and frowned again.
Before he could speak, she continued. ‘We don’t have long Nic.’ She sighed and walked back towards the bodies behind them. ‘I must keep a surplus of nanite solution in my system at all times. Otherwise, I can’t deploy my armour or utilise many of the mechanical components of my body.’
‘How are you able to give them to us at all?’
‘Like blood, I have more than I need in case I lose some. I can donate some to help others, but ultimately I need them back. I can’t survive without them.’
‘Can’t you make more?’ He asked earnestly.
‘If we were on my old ship, I could show you the medical bay. We had a terminal to create nanoids but it was resource intensive. It required astronomical energy to create just one millilitre of the solution. My body contains about five hundred. We had a full-body nanoid saturation chamber too. It took us over three hundred years to build.’ She looked at his stump. ‘It would’ve made light work of that injury. It could’ve regenerated your whole hand in minutes.’
‘What happenend to it?’
She removed a syringe from her pocket and manoeuvred herself between two unconscious patients.
‘We almost succeeded in defeating the Grand Visigoth a century ago.’ She began, as she started checking the patient’s vitals. ‘He tried to convert an entire star system to his cause. The Andromicronian star had three planets and about twenty colonised moons within its habitable zone. The human civilisation that developed there was advanced in its own right. It had yet to develop interstellar travel, but they had colonised the outer reaches of their own system.’
She inserted the needle into the neck of one patient and extracted a miniscule amount of her nanite solution.
‘Will he die?’ Nic enquired morosely.
She gave a wan smile and muttered, ‘he’s out of the woods for now.’ Her sombre tone returned as she continued her story.
‘The Visigoth wanted their fleet to join him; his mental trickery and gifts of technology had already swayed the rulers on Andromicron Prime, but the people of the outer colonies resisted. The concept of religion was long forgotten on their worlds. The idea that a master alien race had seeded the universe was downright offensive to many. They had advanced so far on their own ingenuity and technological development that they possessed a certain arrogance that comes with such technological prowess. Even the presence of the Visigoth and his gift of interstellar travel couldn’t assuage their doubts, so they formed a ramshackle alliance dedicated to halting the Grand Visigoth’s recruitment of their sister worlds to his intergalactic search.
‘The last of the Alphanians, myself included, arrived as their rebellion was in its infancy. We forged an alliance with the rebels, given our common enemy, and together, we almost defeated his entire fleet.’ She paused and continued grimly. ‘But his rage was fierce and his retribution unprecedented. As his ships were destroyed and his followers vanquished, he sprung his trap. Our allied fleet made its final advance on Andromicron Prime, and we offered our terms for his surrender. His response was quite simple. He detonated the Andromicronian star.’
She bowed her head as a tear streaked down her cheeks.
‘He sacrificed his own fleet?’ Nic asked, incredulous.
‘Aside from the four ships in orbit of your planet, yes.’
‘How did you escape?’
‘The Visigoth opened a quantum rift,’ she said in a manner that appeared as if she expected Nic to know what she was talking about, but he just looked at her blankly.
‘It’s a form of unstable wormhole that can propel you across vast distances. The technology is incredibly advanced and there are few in the galaxy that possess it. The only downside is that you don’t always know where you will end up.’ She let out a soft chuckle and bowed her head. ‘I saw his plan too late, and I alone managed to follow them through. We were scattered into a distant quadrant of the galaxy, and I spent the best part of a century tracking them here.’
‘So he destroyed an entire system, rather than concede it you?’
‘We’d been a thorn in his side for too long, Nic. He sacrificed a star system of twenty billion people to destroy us. What few Alphanians remained tried to scramble the fleet and escape the supernova, but after I entered the Rift, all contact was lost.’
As Nic processed the information, he could almost feel the neural pathways in his brain firing and all manner of permutations began to crystalise in his mind. He’d never experienced such a thing before and the sensation was unnerving, but it left him in no doubt as to the effectiveness of Odessa’s nanoids.
‘Don’t you see, Odessa,’ he blurted. ‘It all makes sense.’
‘I know,’ she retorted quickly. ‘He left no such chance for rebellion here. Your devastated planet and small population was perfect. He enthralled what was left of your people and set up The Company to maintain control until he could get at your core…’
‘No, no, no,’ he interrupted. ‘I see it clearly now. I saw the Andromicronian star go nova in my vision…’
‘Nic,’ she cut him off. ‘Not the dreams again.’
‘I saw a star explode and engulf three planets in flame,’ he insisted, ‘and through the fire I saw scores of people incinerated to dust…’
‘Nic…’ She tried to interject, but Nic continued,
‘Then I saw an unfamiliar looking Earth through the eyes of the Visigoth. I’m sure of it.’
‘Nic!’ She cut him off again. ‘It can’t be. Neither myself nor the Visigoth saw the destruction. We flew into the quantum rift almost immediately the star detonated. Through whose eyes do you suppose you saw such events?’
‘You said there were others, no?’ He said, smiling.
‘Yes, Nic, but…’
Now it was Nic’s turn to interrupt.
‘Is it not possible that one of your compatriots, another Alphanian, witnessed the destruction?’
‘Well, yes. Technically speaking, but…’
‘Then couldn’t I have witnessed it through their eyes?’
‘I guess it falls within the realms of possibility, but Nic, I don’t see how it could even be possible in the first place. And without a brain scanner, we have no way of knowing for sure. Although given the logical deductions you are making right now, I am rather curious as to the state of your mind.’
‘And why may I ask is that? Aren’t you the very person who enabled me to think in such a way? When you freed me of my mental shackles and allowed me to follow my own wishes and desires, is this not what you had imagined?’
‘Well, Nic, of course. But for someone to go from a lifetime of conditioning and mental enslavement to the level of cognitive function you are now displaying is perhaps more the mystery. Ok, let’s say, hypothetically, I believe you. What do you suppose it all means?’
Before Nic was able to begin his summation, the entire cavern was rocked by a thunderous BOOM!, which shook the walls and almost knocked both Nic and Odessa to the ground.
‘Damn, they’ve found us already, Nic,’ she panicked and hurried to the next patient and quickly extracted her nanoids.
‘I thought you said we had at least thirty-six hours?’ Nic yelled.
‘A most optimistic estimate, it seems. But we still have some time; the entrance is cloaked. But we have to go. Now! Your deductions will have to wait.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘You remember Delfin said that they had brought the wounded here to the caves.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘What she didn’t mention was that among their number were thirty-three Officers, and I need you to come with me and enlighten them.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘As you’ve seen with your own eyes, Nic, I can enlighten the Private class reasonably easily. They’re just about all with us now. But the Officers, as it was with you, my friend, are not so easily drawn to our cause. We are currently holding them under guard.’
‘What am I supposed to do about that?’ He scoffed.
‘Well, isn’t that obvious?’ She paused, and Nic stared back at her blankly. ‘I need you to convince them to join us!’
Nic didn’t have any time to panic at the request, as another almighty BOOM! shook the cave’s walls and knocked him onto his backside.
Odessa retained her balance and towered over him. She extended her hand and said with a sly grin,
‘Come on, Nic, we haven’t got all day. I guess you can keep the nanoids for now.’