The Omega Legend

Of all the tropes, the ‘Last of a Kind’ concept is one of that rare theme, plot and character devices that has evolved into mythical existence with one perfect master stroke. Richard Matheson’s classic vampire novel towers over them all. ‘I Am Legend (1954)’ is an ingenious hybrid of two previous classics, such as Mary Shelley’s ‘The Last Man (1826)’ and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula (1897)’. Vampirism and plague, a combination that captures the definitive pretext for a last man alive narrative, grounding the myth of the supernatural with the reality of pathogens.

Matheson also deploys another trope in the finale of the story, one that is more devastating in its social commentary. The vampires, the pandemic, and the last man on Earth are just the setup for the novella’s central message, and it’s the one element shunned by all the film adaptations to date.

Continue reading “The Omega Legend”

PANOLOGY OF SCIENCE FICTION: E

Economics

The field of economics probably bores the average lit reader, and probably most sci-fi readers as well. Yet the best sci-fi reads are the ones that construct plausible alternative economic environments. Whether we like it or not, our lives are immersed and enslaved to whatever the current economic paradigm is in place. So much so that most people don’t even know that alternatives exist. They don’t comprehend that the economic system that they are bound to be only an invention, and that other (maybe better, possibly worse) systems can exist.

The whole point of science fiction is to question our own current political, economic, social and scientific situation. Economics can influence how power is distributed, how society becomes structured, and how technology develops. Science fiction seeks to introduce readers to new ideas, and the subject of economics is by far the most effective in terms of changing society for the better, or worse. It can be the root of all evil, and the driver of all that can be good.


Objectivism Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.


Anti-property anarcho-syndicalism, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin


Ration stamps, enforced consumption, Midas World, Frederik Pohl


Wooden coins, The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey


Sentient High-Frequency Trading algorithms, Accelerando by Charles Stross


Criminal economyWhen Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger


OverpopulationStand on Zanzibar by John Brunner


Psychohistory, Asimov’s Foundation series.

Daybreak over the Valley

First chapter from the novel

No Absolution

“The cat,” says a familiar voice.
What cat?
In the darkness, you are flying. You feel motion, yet you’re are sitting at a table, opposite a dirty, unshaven guy pointing a burning cigarette at you.
I know this person.
When an angry Bruce Harvey says, “Where’s my cat, fucker?” you conclude it’s a dream. The has-been movie star is interrogating you in a grimy, run-down room surrounded by four cracked, windowless walls, but the only question running through your head is…
Why this actor?
Harvey karate chops you across the back of your neck. It’s not the pain that wakes you, it’s the warm light bleeding in through your eyelids. The nightmare fades, fizzling away, back into your brain’s nether regions, dying alongside discarded aspirations and forgotten memories. Drool runs down the side of your mouth, but you are unable to move. Your face feels numb, due to your cheek pressed against the cold glass. The tinnitus in your ears stops, replaced by the hum of ute’s engine, the friction between tyre, road and air, enters your awareness. You open your eyes, just wide enough to squint, focusing on the golden countryside sweeping past outside.
For a moment, reality is a blur.
You attempt to shift your head and are relieved it moves with little pain. Your arm is cramped, and your neck feels broken, but you know this is temporary. The breaking dawn illuminates the narrow, unmarked road, winding around a chain of hills. A clump of trees obscures the misty valley beyond, sending intermittent shafts of copper light to warm your face. Once the trees go by, you marvel at the spectacle, at the amber clouds cruising along the horizon, at the auburn fields, smothered with whispers of mist, rolling up and down between chestnut coloured forests.

Continue reading “Daybreak over the Valley”

Sonic Crab

First published on writing.com for a scifi flash-fiction competition, but the moderator never called a winner, in fact, the forum just disappeared. So, this could be the winning entrant.


Victor heard the sonic-crab.

The short bursts of ultra-bass tones echoed across the night-bound, dead quiet city. He suspected the auton may have already detected his presence when he entered the supermall district. No matter how discreetly he travelled, these autons were sound sensitive. As well as emitting audio, these things detected it.

Listening.

One beep on the horn would hush them all to silence.

Victor stopped the F-550 at every desolate street corner, listening to the dark city for clues for the demonic sound’s direction. He drove in a wide circle trying to pinpoint its epicentre. Like cicadas, these things haunted him for the past few nights. They seemed to be spread throughout the uninhabited metropolis, their true purpose unknown, their function a new mystery.

Capturing one would be helpful, but deadly.

The sky brightened, no longer a deep black. The shadows of the city skyline emerged from the vast nothingness. Passing an intersection, he spotted the six-legged metal critter, hiding among a pile of debris just beyond the railway overpass. He eased off the accelerator allowing the F-550 to slow down to a halt.Fear was not an option. Victor lost all remnants of it years ago. He had nothing to live for. He managed to save his family from the robocaust, but during the aftermath, fate, deathtoasters, and flying blenders took them away from him. Though Victor methodically patrolled the rendezvous points, especially the supermall district, his pragmatic spirit had given up on finding his son ever again. Staying alive or finding another living human was a futile exercise now. Even if he did find someone, it would mean nothing, achieve nothing; the thrashing that self-design technology gave to humanity had been a decisive, binding blow. Victor feared not for his safety, for he sought the nuclear option. Mutual obliteration. He intended to inflict the same destruction upon System One and did not plan to stop till he himself was resoundingly dead.

It’s not that big, he thought, having imagined a monster. Its legs were retracted but the cone-shaped dish above its white semi-circular body protruded vertically. Sitting motionless on the curb it looked like a twentieth-century hi-fi stereo on roids was about to cross the road. Victor could not discern what it was designed to do. The thing gave out energetic bursts of sound waves at either super low or ultra-high frequencies.

Why? Who the fuck knew.

Seeing that sonic-crab possessed no obvious weaponry, Victor hit the accelerator. The F-550 leapt forward and hurtled down the street. The sonic-crab remained still. Victor aligned the bull-bar and dropped a gear. As soon as the F-550 mounted the footpath the robot’s legs sprouted and sprang outward, the dish folded down and the unit launched into the air. The F-550 hit the pile of rubbish, swerving in time to match the trajectory of the sonic-crab.

Let’s see how fast this thing is.

Victor changed gears while white-knuckling the steering wheel. The sonic-crab, bouncing sideways, abandoned the hard surface of the road seeking rougher terrain. Its six legs seemed more accustomed to it. Victor did likewise, his eagerness to down run this malcreation undeterred. They machine sprinted up a hill and headed for the railway tracks. Victor took a shortcut through a backyard, smashing up fences till the F-550 ascended the grassy slope. He did not bother looking about for any oncoming trains, there were none and would never be any. The railway sleepers on the track rocked the F-550 but failed to hinder his speed. The sonic-crab could run fast, but it was no match for the three hundred horse-powered F-550.

That was the System One’s weakness. Battery power. Sure, the capacities of batteries were impressive, even pre-doomsday ones, but these ever-evolving killer autons were drawing more and more amps. This sonic-crab had spent all night bellowing out low-frequency tones at a hundred decibels. It would be due for a recharge. When the petroleum guzzling F-550 began gaining on the sonic-crab, Victor throttled it some more. He didn’t want to damage it; he planned to smash it into little pieces. The sonic-crab slowed, then suddenly stopped and turned. Its feet dug in and the disk flipped open.

BWEOOOORRRV.

The sound pressure wave smacked his ears,

The bull-bar collected the robot, ending the horrid, deafening roar. Victor swerved to the side as smashed robot bits were flung everywhere. The F-550 skidded to a stop. Victor jumped out to inspect the mess. Squatting, he turned over what was left of the chassis. Lots of wires. Heavy magnets. Big servos. What he wanted was the identity tag.

He found it inside the battery shell.

SYS10.M230994.T0002.S:RrOrrRgzJ

System 10.

“I knew it,” he said. Another new factory had come online. He suspected it a long while but now, faced with confirmation, Victor had one more abominable killbot facility to add to his takedown list. If only he knew where any of them were located.

The dawn sky presented him with another more profound horror. Deep into the solar-power territory, where System One used each domestic solar panelled roof to fuel its presence here, Victor only had around five hours before a horde of autrons were charged up enough to recommence their hunt and destroy directive.

Then he heard it.

The echo pounded the sky above.

“Victoooor.” A grumbling, demonic voice.

It came from all direction.

Laughter. Multiple sources.

Other sonic-crabs.

“Dad?”

Victor recognised his son’s voice.

A trick.

Dismissive, Victor climbed back into the F-550 and sped away, headed south, towards the relative safety of the inner suburbs. He could hack away at the energy grid all day and night, but System One always found a way to get electricity to its minions. Down south, where older, poorer neighbourhoods neglected to upgrade to solar, he managed to destroy enough of the grid to knock out a thirty block radius.

For now, it was the safest part of town to live in.

For now.

Permian Spring

Apparently, they aren’t even reptiles.

With skin covered in scutes, boasting a vertebral sail and powerful jaws, this thing looks like a fat, bear-sized lizard, but Russell Hansard seems to think the wildlife around here predates the dinosaurs by fifty million years. Out of the two thousand surviving passengers on board the Cruise Ship Eudora, Mr Hansard is the only one who claims to be schooled in palaeobiology.

Too bad he isn’t here to see this monster. Somehow it managed to get into the ship and feast on a couple lodging in one of the balcony cabins.

“It’s the biggest one yet,” I gasp, having abandoned living in fear; embracing this impossible, marvellous world.

“What the hell is that thing?” Guillermo Michalik, a bartender, never let go of his fear.

“Corner it,” yells Kelly Slade, clutching her makeshift spear. The ex-manager leads our brigand of volunteers up to the next level.

I move closer to Guillermo. “Russell called them pelycosaurs.”

Killing the beast proves difficult. Like always, the forty-five degree incline of the decks makes hunting it difficult. The Eudora sat tilted on her starboard, sunk deep into a sand dune. The desert around her stretched out forever, as far as the eye could see. A primordial sun beat down onto the white hull, heating it up, pushing the nuclear-powered climate system to its limits.

Both factions work together. The Upper Deck Bloc — comprising mainly of crew and workers, and the Lower Deck Coalition — mostly tourists who got more than they bargained for. With pikes fashioned out of mop handles, the two brigands force the creature to the open air terrace. Hissing, it tramples over a fitness instructor, killing him, and launches itself through the plate glass fence, splashing down into the algae and dragonfly infested pool.

The decrepit state of the swimming pool inflames the despair I’ve been suppressing for the last thirty-eight days. One minute I’m floating on sapphire waters, sipping a Raspberry Mojito, next minute… madness.

Cronostorm.

That’s what I heard the captain, Lorenzo Bannerman, refer to it as. To most of us, it felted like the mother of all hurricanes. The ferocity of the wind, the violence of the sea, the towering bolts of lightning, left us all in a state of shock and panic.

It all began with a star exploding, turning night into day. Then the storm hit us, followed by a maddening descent into an oceanic hell. An hour in, the Eudora struck something hard, jolting everybody aboard. I broke my nose and fainted. When I awoke, the world was upside down or at least slanted at an insane angle. Sliding down to the promenade I climbed up a davit and looked out at the world. I discovered a vast red desert stretching out into the grey/blue sky. The air that was hot and foul. I knew right then this was not the Earth I knew. On the very first day, before the slaughter and factional struggles, Captain Lorenzo assumed command. He explained to all of us what he thought the flash of light up in space was.

The SinoPac Orbitor.

It made sense. The three supranationals were engaged in an arms race. This rivalry had been pushing science to its limits for decades. When news broke out that the time-barrier had been breached, the newsbots were less than impressed. Sending particles back through time seemed like a novel way to spend trillions. Few people were interested; fewer believed such a stunt were possible. When rumours of time-bombs surfaced, public hysteria waxed and waned. Humanity’s deep-rooted fear of atomics only existed because mankind had unleashed upon itself such titanic power.

With time-bombs, however…

No one understood the technology, let alone feared it. Time-tourism speculators positioned themselves to make a fortune, competing supranationals built massive Higgs-field displacers in orbit, and I took a vacation away from my scientific-data-appropriation business.

I knew enough about high-end technology to be on Captain Lorenzo’s governance team. That’s how I got to meet Hansard, Slade and Ottoman. We were charged with coming up with answers in a desperate attempt to restore order among the terrified passengers. But answers were difficult to attain, and even more difficult to explain to hundreds of families, paralysed with fear. Every day a new creature would attack the settlement, preying on us. Each night brought another horror.

Giant red cockroaches invaded. One bite and you bloat up until you die of heart failure.

Carnivorous dragonflies swarmed, attacking victims like piranhas, fluttering away with chunks of human flesh between their mandibles.

Rogue mammal-like reptiles terrorised and stalked us at night. Tusks. claws, spikes, the variety of these animals defied comprehension.

A small marshland due south is thought to be the source of this wildlife. The stranded cruise ship attracted them all, a ready supply of sustenance for all the carnivores in the area. A handful of passengers died during the cronostorm. A few hundred have been killed by these creatures. The rest perished during the infighting. A group of passengers, particularly a lawyer named Bobby Kost, didn’t like the idea of Captain Lorenzo rationing out food and supplies, so they instigated a coup. The riot lasted two days. Kost and his clique managed to overrun the lower deck storerooms, and rally most of the paying passengers behind him. But they were unable to secure the bridge or win over any key company engineers.

Standoff’s been in place ever since.

The pelycosaur relaxes in the murky pool, liking the shade and moisture. Only its spiky fin and snout and a spear remain above the waterline.

“What do we do?” I ask.

Slade looks at me, gives me a rare smile. “It looks happy, until it’s hungry again.”

Commotion from the below decks distracts us. We follow the shouting, downwards to the starboard; where white steel meets rusty sand. I can see a small crowd running out onto the dune, towards three pitiful-looking human beings.

Hansard’s Expedition.

Eighteen days ago, two teams set out to explore this strange new world. One, Kost’s team, went north to determine whether or not that dark, jagged landscape over the horizon were mountains. The other team led by Hansard, headed east, towards the never-ending lightning storm. He and the captain were convinced the cronostorm was still active. A gateway back may still be open, and possibly accessible.

Kost returned five days ago. He lost all his team but he found the mountains. Great, tall ranges, the largest he’d ever seen. The corporate lawyer had travelled the world; seen the Andes, the Himalayas, the Rockies, even the Alps, but never had he seen mountains this size. He also discovered a vast system of lakes. From the pictures he shared, it looked like paradise. Valleys covered in conifers and ferns.

Most likely, crawling with wild pelycosaurs.

Hansard appears beaten but his fiery eyes are alive with urgency. His two remaining colleagues are exhausted, suffering horrific skin injuries. I catch up with Captain Lorenzo, who allows me to be part of the debriefing committee. He even allows his mortal enemy, Kost, to join.

While the two are hospitalised, Hansard is eager to speak. Captain Lorenzo offers him a chilled bottle of Coke. “Russell, we can do this later.”

“We have no time,” he grumbles. He’s a changed man. Bitter and determined, a far cry from his inquisitive nature. He looks at us like he’s about to tell us all some bad news. “We came across the coastline.”

Each member of the debriefing committee reacts in two ways. They are either filled with joy or, like me, filled with despair.

“And the cronostorm?” asks Slade.

“Out beyond the sea,” answers Hansard.

Ottoman smacks his hands together. “Right. We’ve got plenty of boats. We can rig up some wheels, no problem. How far is this coast?”

“Yes,” says Captain Lorenzo. “That’s achievable. We can’t let the seashore stand in our way.”

“That…” interjects Hansard. “…is not the problem.”

The committee falls quiet. Hansard rubs his mouth and answers, “We found cities. The entire coast is one big city.”

The moment passes and we start breathing again. Slade puts her hand up. “What do you mean cities? Are we still in our time?”

“They are not human cities,” he replies. “They’re amphibian.”

“Frog people?” asks the captain.

“Walking, talking amphibian/mammal-like people.” Russell Hansard says. “Millions of them; living in shallow waters inside organic type dwellings. At night they have lights. You can see the entire shoreline dotted with them, hundreds of clusters, enclaves along a sprawling reef. We found networks of acid batteries made from some kind of sea creature.” He looks at our surprise. “Yes, that’s right. Electricity.

Normally, I desist from contributing, but I can’t help it. “So we’ve gone millions of years into the future.”

“No,” he says, his tone, uncharacteristically mean.

“Or, we’re on another planet,” says Ottoman. “I knew it. Time-space displacement over a two hundred and fifty million year period puts us in another region of the galaxy.”

“It’s the same moon,” growls Hansard.

He’s right. The moon is exactly the same, slightly larger than I remember. Even the other six wandering stars dance across the night sky the same as they always do. Only the constellations are completely unrecognisable.

“This doesn’t make any sense,’ says Captain Lorenzo.

“Yes, I know,” replies Hansard.

“How have we not found any fossil evidence?” I ask, sparking a deluge of question centred on the same theme.

“Subduction!” Bobby Kost’s voice booms over the manic chatter. He looks at Hansard for confirmation. “Just because some palaeontologist hasn’t found a specimen doesn’t mean it never existed. Tectonic plate activity probably forced that coastline into the Earth’s mantle.”

“Did you find your mountains?” asks Hansard.

Kost grins, “They are magnificent. Bigger than anything you’ve ever seen.”

A fatigued Hansard nods. “The Central Pangean Mountains. We are either in Spain or Morocco. Over those mountains is North America.” His voice trails off, leaving the committee to ponder this piece of scientific trivia.

I just had to break the silence. “They use acid for energy?”

Hansard’s grim demeanour returns. “And weapons. That’s what happened to Gustav and Branden. They were shot at with some kind of acid-thrower. They’re militant. They fight each other. The first day we stumbled upon a war between two city clusters.” His voice grows even grimmer. “They know we exist. Been hunting us all the way here.”

The committee erupts into turmoil.

“Why did you come here?”

“We should leave right now.”

“We’re defenceless.”

“We are screwed.”

Only Captain Lorenzo remains calm and silent. He says to Hansard, “What do we do?”

Hansard glares at him. “You’ve got fuel on this ship?”

“We are not using nuclear weapons. It’s not practical.”

“No, I’m talking about the backup generators. The diesel.”

“We have about a thousand tonnes.”

Hansard turns to the technician. “Bill, we need to arm our brigands with as many Molotov Cocktails as possible within the next hour.”

Bill Ottoman looks at the captain. Lorenzo nods. “Everyone knows what to do. Russell, how many are coming?”

“Many.”

I rush with the others up towards the ship’s port. Kost is already there looking out into the horizon with a pair of binoculars. He hands them to me. I see a dust storm. I see a horde of bipods riding heavyset four-legged animals with hippopotamus-shaped heads.

“You should come with us,” Kost tells me. “The Upper Deck Bloc will be able to fight off these things for a few days. We could get to the mountains. It’s spring now. By summer, this place will become unliveable. We stand a good chance up at the lakes.”

I smell diesel fumes. I look down at the teams filling up Coke bottles and see the irony. The fossil fuel is probably made from the buried remains of this amphibian civilisation.

“No,” I tell him. I look up at the eastern sky, towards the cronostorm raging out beyond the horizon. “I really want to go home.”

The Fright Machine

Hacking robots can be lots of fun. Celebrating April Ghouls Day at horrorscribes.com with this flash fiction entry.


Sawtooth froze.

His clown quartet went from performing a slo-mo at the crossing lights to lunatic postures, ridiculing the angry driver. The black Audi inched closer, but when Mr Axe showed off his plastic hatchet, the motorist reversed and made a wide turn to avoid the colourful foursome.

Continue reading “The Fright Machine”

Off Shore

This flash fiction piece took out the inaugural Punk Out: Wattpunk Contests and Prompt challenge.


Flying sharks? In the middle of the Bass Strait, the crew of an oil rig rescue a mysterious man. When the airborne killer- beasts arrive, there is no time for questions.

When the electrical generator housing got crushed, the power ceased, killing the lights and the offshore installation manager’s hope of sending a warning out to the other drilling platforms.

“There’s a satellite phone in my quarters,” said Owen Browne, the fear was detectable in his voice.

Les Dickson knew that the fear was well-founded. “One of those creatures is still down there. Want to end up like Chadsworth?” He struggled to shake away the image from his mind; those triangular upper teeth biting through her torso, the torrent of blood. Shannon Chadsworth didn’t stand a chance when that monster torpedoed into the dormitory, slapping its leathery bat-like wings against the steel floor and snapping its razor-toothed mouth around until it snatched the second mate by the pelvis. The winged shark-beast wiggled and chewed the screaming women effortlessly like it knew some trick on how to eat hands-free.

“We need to get to the next platform,” Dickson said as he crawled along the deck towards Doctor Ambrisian, who was huddled under the bulkhead.

Browne, the facility’s operations engineer, followed. “Hopefully, they haven’t been attacked as well.”

Dickson reached out and grabbed Ambrisian by the shoulder, pulling the strange scientist closer. “Now, I want you to explain to me what these things are.”

A few hours earlier, the helicopter pilot, heading back from the Kipper Oil Platform, spotted a man drifting in the cold waters of the Bass Strait. A rescue party brought him back, and when questioned, revealed only a tranche of information, mostly gibberish.

Ribonucleic acids.

Elasmopterons.

Alternate timelines.

The man sounded insane, yet appeared resoundingly focussed.

Wearing a filthy white blouse under a brocade vest, Ambrisian looked up at Dickson and said, “That’s not important. What is important is that they are spawning in a nest somewhere out there. Their gestation period is fast. Their metabolism is fast. Their learning curve is fast. We have to destroy the nest.”

“Where is this nest?” asked Browne.

“Laboratory vats inside my research vessel. The Solarcus sank just out over the continental shelf, due south from here.”

“Sank? How?”

The man frowned, “We scuttled it. As soon as the first batch of Elasmopterons proved to be…” A horrendous scream cut him off, followed a powerful thud. “We need to get back and warn your people.”

“You created these sky sharks?” Dickson’s anger boiled, as he was beginning to suspect the man, with the mechanical copper watch and quaint beard, may be genuine, impossible as it may be.

Ambrisian replied, “Once the Elasmopterons figure out that there’s a coast full of carbohydrate snacks, they’ll be nothing stopping them.”

Through clenched teeth, Dickson said, “Then let’s get movin’.”

The three men scuttled toward the upper decks. Bloody guts and eviscerated humans littered the gangway. A dark cloud dominated the sky, sending down a thick drizzle. Dickson looked up and spotted the colony of bat monsters descending from the eastern heavens. With wingspans twice as long as their shark-tailed bodies, they looked more like flying foxes. Only when these beasts flew close did they resemble bull sharks. A hundred metres out, they folded their wings and dove into the sea. They went in and out, sailing across the platform, taking out anybody unlucky enough to have decided that that was a good moment to make a dash for the red Sikorsky S-76C waiting on the helipad.

Browne launched his arms into the air and waved at the helicopter pilot. Before Dickson can stop him, a sky shark corrected its course and snapped up Browne by the head, sending his body airborne. Mid-flight, the monster thrashed until it severed off the torso.

“We gotta go,” screamed Ambrisian.

Dickson looked at the waving pilot inside the Sikorsky. He ran, pre-empting Ambrisian. They both sprinted up the gangway to the helipad. When they got to the helicopter they were greeted with, “What the fuck is this shit?” The pilot’s terror added to the fear-induced mental paralysis Dickson felt.

“Get us in the air,” yelled Dickson.

The engines groaned to life. “Where?” said the pilot.

“Kingfish B.”

The pilot nodded and pulled the throttle. The blades above turned translucent as the Sikorsky’s engine picked up thrust. When the Sikorsky lifted off the pad, Dickson spotted a sky shark performing a nosedive above them.

“Get moving,” he yelled.

Before the Sikorsky could clear the helipad, the kamikaze shark collided into the rotor blades. The Sikorsky shook, its engines strained, losing torque as the blades shredded the half-tonne sky monster. Blood sprayed the occupants, soaking them, causing Dickson to say an improvised prayer. “Jesus fuck, where dead. God help us.”

The Sikorsky survived and stabilised, soaring above the waves.

“Head to the coast,” yelled Ambrisian.

“Kingfish B is closer,” insisted Dickson.

Ambrisian leant towards the pilot. “Don’t listen to him. Kingfish B is gone, just like Kipper, just like here. This flying machine can outrun these Elasmopterons. We can make it.”

Dickson looked back. The colony of Elasmopterons was pursuing them, but they were losing ground. “What about if they discover the coast?”

“What about it?” asked Ambrisian.

“You said it there’ll be dire consequences if they found their way to the mainland.”

Doctor Ambrisian shoved Dickson out into the void, sending him hurtling down into the grey sea.

“That is correct,” said Ambrisian as he turned his attention to the pilot.

Sub-Level

Narkvosu just wanted to survive. At least long enough to complete his quest. He cared little about the tunnel war raging beneath his sub-level. He cared less about his home city. Alone, he explored the last obstacle to his journey, an ancient cavern carved out long ago. Concrete and steel now dust. Bedrock exposed. Nothing remained, the creek running through, the moister and gangumoss making short work of what was once probably a vast habitation. If one could not define any of the telltale signatures of a past civilisation, the sub-level appeared just like a long natural cave.

A hundred thousand years.

That’s the theory.

When humanity migrated underground.

A hundred thousand theories as to why they did.

A hundred thousand theories as to what the surface is like.

Narkvosu just needed to prove just one. That a way out to the surface existed. That the mythical surface was real. That the Apollogon fables were true. Many like him had attempted this, most now embedded in legend.

The supra-government persecuted all that tried or peddled in the outer-surface sciences. This conflict with the Echelon Renegada offered Narkvosu a chance to get closer to the upper sublevels. Strategically the tunnel networks above the city levels proved to be vulnerabilities for the ruling class for generations. Conquest, piracy, and restrictions made these tunnels impossible to traverse.

Beyond them dwell the plethora of outcast machine men and modified humans.

For two years he travelled upward.

Two years of fighting, surviving and hiding.

Two years of working in mines, of digging, of exploring.

Two years.

He survived so far, and he would be damned if he came so close to breaching the surface only to die in the cold, dark wilderness.

Of the myriad of theories, he held on to one, its importance to his expedition crucial.

This Sun, if indeed it existed, should be warming the lithosphere by now. Science knew and proved that the radiation pumping up from the Earth’s core provided warmth for all life to exist. But the higher he journeyed, the colder it felt. He knew some regions had sublevels ending in rock and ice. The Echelons were a place where no ice had ever been known to exist. Water ran down. Wildlife thrived. No ice. Narkvosu gambled everything.

This was the place. The sublevels went up and up. Cavities, pockets, shafts, all interconnected with tunnels, all man-made.

Somewhere up there he knew was the surface.

Narkvosu also knew the trek upward would get harder, relishing his perseverance in carrying his climbing equipment for two years. He lost colleagues, friends, his sanity, his innocence, but the climbing gear, invented and handmade by that miner he befriended, would survive.

He rested among the mushmush for a day, letting their acrid stench protect him from predators.

Narkvosu began his ascent well rested and in earnest. He could sleep a year but he felt he was close. The sublevel was unusually spacious. He figured it might have once been a public space rather than residential. The bedrock appeared smooth and straight, lacking the twisting contours evident in other, much lower places.

There was no pressure pushing down here, he thought, remembering the lectures of famous Geotheologist, Tarieven Acadamus.

Once at the top, he peered into a square cave, untouched by the elements. Inside, a shaft, soared upward which after a brief climb brought him up to another sublevel. As he peered out into the darkness, he lost some of his enthusiasm. He needed to decide whether to push on with the supplies he had left, or go back and try again with the terrain knowledge he now knew. A risk either way. The tunnel battle destroyed many of the communities he sheltered in, and now that he was officially a deserter, an instant death penalty awaited him. To press on, there was no going back. He would die, or his hope that the one theory in thousands would prove true. That another world existed on the surface. A living world under a living sun.

If proved right, he would find sustenance, recover and head back down. Narkvosu did not consider this fantasy thinking. He survived so far. He had gone from eating people-meat supplied readily and free from the city food collective, to kill for his own people-meat. The war made it easy, but killing and eating were major hurdles for him. Now he ate non-people-meat, grubberts, dliths, even insects. He felt confident; he could eat the exo-biology if they did exist.

And the sun? He bet he could survive that too. The old Geotheologist warned of a painful death from its exposure. Burning light, he called it. Narkvosu felt unconvinced. The cooler sublevels above him defy that logic. The heat would emanate from above, not below.

One theory he could agree held true was that the air thinned the higher the elevation. He could barely breathe now and was forced to slow down.

He decided to press ahead.

For the first time, he noticed that this sublevel was free of any moister. The concrete walls were still intact. The further he traversed he encountered less and less wildlife. This meant that it got darker and darker as the luminescent gangumoss struggled to survive in this dry and cold environment.

Narkvosu, now excited, found a tunnel entrance and ventured inside. For the first time in a long while he trod on steps. He encountered more steps and climb further and further up.

The air grew tighter in the chest, but he persevered.

Narkvosu found a room. Inside he came across nothing but square walls and stains where artefacts once stood but had corroded away. He discovered a narrow shaft and continued up until he came to another room.

Same story, corrosion stains, thin, hardly breathable air.

But this one had something that looked like a hatch.

A glass panel.

Narkvosu gazed into the little window but could see nothing but a black void. He heard a hiss and that is when he noticed the crack forming near the edge of the glass. He watched and heard air hissing through the tiny aperture.

The pressure is vastly lower out there, he thought as the thrill of his discovery tingled along his spine. He found more rooms, similar in layout. Each with solid steel hatch doors twice his size. He now truly believed the science behind his ancestors, that they were once twice his size.

Narkvosu studied what he could see outside the small round glass panels embedded in the centre of each hatch door. He noticed tiny lights above. Thousands of them, like gangumoss growing on the ceiling, but instead of green-blue. These tiny lights glowed brilliant white.

Was this the sun? he thought, re-imagining every fable he had ever read.

He touched the glass. Cold, freezing, unbearable.

He looked at what he was convinced was the surface but all he saw was a smooth, featureless dark plain. His heart skipped a beat when he spotted the horizon in the distance, a line where the tiny lights ended and the dim surface began. If he strained his eyes he could almost see it glow.

Narkvosu had done it.

He had reached the surface.

But the thrill of it all faded quickly. His fantasy destroyed, he huddled in a corner and rested. His thoughts turned to survive the journey back. He had accomplished what no other man had ever done, but even that triumph felt stale. How many others have reached this spot and discovered the awful truth? How many died returning or if they did return, held back the truth? Did the supra-government know this? Did the Apollogon Geotheocracy also know and suppress it to expatiate their mythology?

Narkvosu remembered the myth about the moving sun. It was why life and language had its day and night, and why gangumoss and chrokar cycle in brightness to accommodate civilisation’s sleep patterns.

The sun moved.

Day and night.

So he slept. Conserving his energy. Counting the minutes.

A mining slave once told him, an anecdote he had picked up along the way, that a cult of scientist believed that the earth was a ball and that the sun rotated ‘around’ the Earth. They had built a gravity machine to detect and prove it. This information was one of the reasons Narkvosu persisted on his quest to the surface.

He waited more than a whole day, drifting in and out of consciousness. Even in the dim light, he could see his skin losing its blue colouring. Narkvosu looked outside one last time. He looked up at the little lights, millions of them. His eyes noticed a dark patch, almost perfectly round. Whatever it was hiding in the shadows, Narkvosu knew he would never find out. Time and the thin air had turned against him.

With a disillusioned soul, he began his journey back down to the city levels, first crawling, then, as the air returned into his lungs, to normal walking. Narkvosu just wanted to survive long enough to get home, even though he knew he would pay a heavy price for his desertion. And a heavier price if he ever told anyone the results of his quest beyond the sub-levels.

Ice Hangar

This short story won 1st prize on TheNextBigWriter → Locked Door Contest


The ephemeris data seemed healthy enough. The storm, on the other hand, ripping across space from the comet’s horizon, appeared hazardous. Transiting through the comet’s coma the shuttle vibrated slightly. Carl Reagle knew the outgassing from the bright-side lacked enough violence to cause any serious problems. The comet had just emerged from out of the frost line, so the sun’s rays were not harsh enough to feed a fully-fledged tail.

“Manual control in thirty seconds,” said the Ixion’s chief navigator, Jasmine Lambright.

“Standing by,” said Reagle. “I have the ice hangar in sight.”

“Be cautious of the rebound, Commander. The landing pads are inactive. Go in too hard and you’ll bounce off all the way to Jupiter.”

Reagle looked at his screen. “I’m easing in at 2.7 kays an hour. I have manual control.”

“We’ve had two months of dead radio. Get confirmation on conditions down there and get the hell back here.” There was a hint of urgency in the Gi Corp hireling’s voice. Reagle intended to do just that, having spent the entire trip from Ceres in an anxious state. These kinds of jobs tended to rob him of sleep, especially when clients like Gi Corp gave him little information to go by.

He looked out into the black sky, hoping to get a glimpse of the spacecraft. He saw nothing. The Ixion orbited opposite his position, beyond the jagged horizon.

The shuttle made contact with one of the three landing pads. Ice gravel and black sand scattered as the module bounced several times before sliding to rest a full three minutes later. With the locking mechanism on the landing pad inactive, the shuttle ended up precariously near the edge. Thirty meters away the cave entrance to the ice hanger cut a deep scar into the sloping surface. Lights illuminated the interior in stark juxtaposition to the frozen night of space.

Reagle suited up and exited the shuttle, hitting the slippery frost-covered gangway awkwardly, the warmth of his life-suit sizzling frost-covered gangway. He hopped onto the gravel which crumbled like charcoal, his boots sinking knee-deep into the surface. He continued hopping, a painstaking task, to the entrance employing, small, soft pushes with his toes, calibrated by the pressure suit. Use too much force and in no time you end up orbiting the comet. Closer in, a series of blue-sticks provided him with a secure handrail, assisting him all the way inside the vast cavern. Mechanical monsters lay dormant in the artificial 4000 kelvin light.

Excavators. Drillers. Nukepumpers.

Along the left side wall, a tall cylinder towered above him labelled with the red and white nuclear symbol. “Power generators appear active. No sign of damage inside the hangar.” Reagle wiped frost from the yellow-painted alloy of a mechanoid. “No sign of any activity, either.”

He headed for the airlock, a platform sized elevator situated towards the rear of the cavity. Below, safely embedded deep within the comet, Lapith/2183 G7, the living and command quarters waited, like an ancient tomb.

Two months.

But the air-lock control refused to comply. The lights were alive, but the ice-encrusted buttons cracked when pressed, doing nothing to activate the elevator.

“Air-lock inoperable,” he said.

“Try hooking into the EAI,” said Lambright.

“Ixion, I’m patching into the local interface.” Reagle uncovered the JX408 portal and plugged his optical line into it. “Should synchronize any second now.”

He waited, studying the hangar around him, auditing the slumbering industrial space machines.

Nothing happened.

“Ixion, what’s the EAI’s name?”

The clarity and closeness of Chief Navigator Lambright’s voice soothed his nerves. “The environment control entity is called Hesper Copy Seven Seven Zero. It’s a clone of the master entity at the Gi Corp HQ.”

Reagle gave it a go. “Hesper Copy Seven Seven Zero. Do you copy? Does anyone copy? Hello, somebody.”

“Let me try the maintenance portal.”

Reagle felt cold. He knew his life-suit was good for another ten hours, but the inactivity, plus the frozen stillness around him, sent chills along his skin.

“I’ve got a response.” Her voice sounded excited.

“Is it from any of the crew?” His voice matched her excitement.

“No. Hesper responded.”

“Ask it what happened here? Where is everybody?”

“It… doesn’t know. It’s telling me that all systems are normal. It’s asking me if something’s wrong. It doesn’t know.”

“Tell it to open the airlock.”

“It’s asking for authority. I’m punching in the codes as we speak.”

Reagle looked up at the electronic eyes planted everywhere. “Can’t it see me standing here?”

The platform shook and started to descend.

“It says it lost its audio-visual and sensor-array functionality. Speaking of which, we will lose contact once the airlock closes. I suggest you find…”

The massive doors grumbled shut above him. The pressurization process began sending steam at him like a hurricane. Icicles of carbon dioxide and methane boiled and evaporated instantly. Reagle took advantage of the manual override to access hatchways. He kept the life-suit on as a precaution as he entered the staging hall. He noted nothing out of place. The storage compartments were neat and tidy. The low-grav training quarters were lit up but empty. He made a mental note to check the equipment in there, though his first priority was to re-establish contact with the Ixion.

The command centre.

Designed to withstand anything, the central nexus of the outpost would be the most likely place to seek refuge in case of a disaster. Reagle made his way there, hopping and bouncing off the walls. He knew where to go; these Gi Corp rigs were all based on the same template.

He found the hatch sealed, yet its port window remained transparent. He peered inside only to find the unmistakable red liquid splattered over the white interior walls and trim. He expected something like this to some degree but felt totally unprepared for the grisliness he faced. Blood and tissue. Warped, flattened bodies. Crushed bone. Mostly stuck to the walls. Pieces of human littered the control panels.

Reagle fought hard not to go inside, but his range of choice was limited. He needed to access the communication network. When he opened the door, the air disturbance sent a quiver among the shredded pieces of flesh and ruined uniforms. He stepped inside and thought about dimming the bright lights. He located the comms and punched in the channel code. “Carl Reagle to Ixion. Do you copy, over?”

“We copy, commander. Any luck with the crew?”

Reagle struggled to find the words. “Negative. Situation is not good. There’s been some kind of… accident.”

Radio silence followed. No one wanted this type of outcome. They expected it, but optimism felt like the right attitude to have. “I repeat. The situation is not good at all. We have multiple fatalities. Cause unknown as far as I can tell.”

“How many? There were six crewmembers on the manifest.”

Reagle looked at the mangled mess. He knew he had to be clinical about it. He counted the separate bloodied masses, trying to distinguish the different uniforms. He saw body parts; fingers, ears, shredded skin, but he chose to sort out scalps instead, differentiating between hair types.

Between the uniforms and scalps, he counted half a dozen individuals. “I have six.”

‘That’s….”

“That’s all of them.” Reagle counted again to be sure. “Are we certain this is how many got on this rig?”

“When the mission launched, six human beings entered the Lapith 7 outpost. We’ve sent no other manned missions to this comet ever since. This outpost would have been constructed by robotry before the crew got there. When this 80 kilometre-wide comet began its propulsion sequence, the chances that another third party interfered with the mission are as remote as the space this chunk of ice is hurtling through.”

“That’s all I needed to know.” The implication, that this had been a tragic accident, weighed heavily on his mind. With not much time to establish the cause, he needed to move fast.

“Telemetry update has just come in,” announced Lambright. “Looks like Lapith 2183 G7 is off-course. Instead of hitting Venus orbit, this ice mountain’s going to end up closer to Earth’s backyard. Our options have narrowed down.”

Reagle paused to let this sink in. “Just come in, my ass. You knew about this before you enlisted my help.”

“We didn’t enlist your help, Commander Reagle, we bought your service from the Ceres Port Authority.”

“You also knew I would not be leaving here without an answer to what happened. Gi Corp launches ten of these monsters every year. The terraformation business is in full swing. We can’t have accidents like this without knowing the cause.”

He received no response.

He said, “I have eight hours of life support at least. You have months to sort out this trajectory.”

“What part of this don’t you understand? This is a 20,000-ton meteor aimed at Earth. In a month this thing will be close enough to heat up. The coma storm will make this cube a difficult, unstable intercept. We are here, we are doing this now.”

“What? Correcting trajectory?”

“No.”

He knew what she meant. He suddenly had little time. Destroying this comet would require him to mobilize and activate all the nukepumps. “Have you uploaded the data syncrode from this place?”

“I’m looking at it now. All audio-visual content went blank at the time of radio silence. You want me to go through ten months of recorded media.”

“No.” Reagle avoided looking at the bloody entrails and focussed. “Can we track oxygen levels?”

“There was a sharp load drop off at the time of radio silence.”

“How sharp?”

“Within the space of an hour, 30%, then to 100%.

Reagle considered the ramifications. “That means all of Lapith’s crew exited the compound. How long?”

“No atmos activity till your arrival.”

“The incident must have happened someplace outside. How the hell did they end up in here?” He tried to rub his forehead but the helmet prevented him. “When did the EAI lose visual input?”

“According to the logs, two hours before the first event. Server went into fail-safe mode.”

“Did somebody do this?”

“The logs indicate an abrupt shutdown. Without accessing the server, we can’t know for sure.”

Reagle looked at the terminal. The server ran all the domestic sensory inputs for the crew and Hesper. “I’ve gotta talk to this AI.” Using his Sideral-tool he opened the panel. He un-patched the mini-powercore, force-booting the terminal and waited for the sequence to commence.

– corrupted xentro.sys file –

“Jeezes, this piece of shit won’t boot up.” He wanted to talk to this machine brain. Reagle found a comm-portal and began typing awkwardly with fat-gloved fingers.

>Hesper. Why did you not activate the emergency beacon at the first sign of trouble?

>There is no emergency.

>Have you not noticed climate parameters indicated that you have had no inhabitants for two months?

>Climate systems are normal.

>Are you not responsible for the wellbeing of the habitat?

>Yes.

>Then why are the crew splattered on the wall in here?

Reagle waited the epic seconds for an answer.

>There is a slight increase in humidity, 3 per cent above normal. Sanitary system is normal. Thermal system is normal.

>You haven’t noticed anything out of order.

>No. There is nothing out of order.

Reagle wondered how Hesper would react if it could see the carnage. He spoke out loud, “Hey, Lambright. Any clue as to when this comet’s trajectory got altered?”

“Not yet.”

“Hey, Lambright. Any chance this EAI could have gone bomb20 on us and did something fucked up?”

“Can it hear you?”

“AV server is dead. This thing can’t see or hear anything.”

“Answer to your question is, no. Environmental AI’s are physically disconnected from the navSystems, heavy mechanoids, and this comlink, even if they were somehow connected, the languages are incompatible. Hesper uses a vastly different programming language than automatons do. Even if it learned the language, there is no interface to bridge them together and allow it to accomplish something like this. The course correction was man-made. A nukepump rig would have to be manoeuvred into position and ignited. As for the deaths, I have no theories. How did they die?”

“Terribly. They were crushed, almost shredded.”

A thought entered Reagle’s mind. How long before flesh decomposes? He resisted the thought but he needed to know. He unsealed his helmet and removed it, expecting that horrid stench. Instead, it smelt like a slaughterhouse. “These bodies are fresh. This happened recently. I’m checking out the rest of the outpost.”

He left the death behind and headed to the rec room. There he found nothing out of order.

They left in a hurry, he thought. Yet everything here is clean, tidy — lived in, yet not messy.

He looked up at the ceiling at a robotic arm tucked away in rest mode.

Articulated Envirobots.

Every living module had one built in. Each was controlled by Hesper. Reagle noted to investigate these robots, but he postulated that if clues existed they will more likely be located somewhere outside. He returned to the airlock and headed back outside. “Lambright, are you still with me. You haven’t left me here?”

“No, I haven’t abandoned you yet. I’m tempted.”

“What is on the manifest in regard to heavy equipment?”

“Two rocket dozers, a digger/cutter, one borer, a Snake-class platform drill, four nukepumps and a buggy.”

Reagle accounted for all except… he was missing a pump and the buggy. “There are only three pumps here. Nukepumps are used to propel this chunk of ice, right? One of them must have been deployed.”

“By whom?”

“Or what? Can you spot it from where you are?”

“We are lookin’.”

Reagle hopped across the hangar toward the entrance. Outside, darkness reigned. He surveyed the landing pads, relieved to see his shuttle still there. Not being secured to anything, he was paranoid it would float away into space.

He looked out into the void, his eyes adjusting to the dim light. The gray ice dust and charcoal slush covered a broken, rocky surface. The landscape glowed under the twilight. A series of blue-stick markers lit up a trail heading down a steep depression. The uneven, bending horizon unnerved him. He spotted no tracks leading away from the hangar. Another mystery he could do without.

“Who’s a mining expert?”

“What do you need?”

“I got no tracks. If a pump’s been deployed surely there’d be tracks.”

“Not if it kicked up a snowstorm when it ignited.”

Makes sense, he thought. “I’m heading out there.”

“We haven’t spotted anything yet.”

“I’m following these markers.”

“We see those. They lead to nowhere.”

“I’m running out of time.”

“You are. We need to deploy the other pumps.”

He knew what this involved. The nukepumps were going to be used to drive the comet into meltdown. “Not before I find out what happened here.” Reagle launched down the depression, skipping over cracks and fissures. Each step took a minute. He would lose his balance on occasion but the blue markers were linked via cable, allowing him to hold on to something as he made tiny hops down, or what felt like ‘up’ the slope. Remembering his comet-skipping training, one mistake and he’d be flying off into deep space. Indoors, one could bounce off the ceiling; out in the open….

He kept thinking about the conundrum he faced.

Was it an accident?

Was it far more sinister? A deliberate act? Not knowing compounded his hyperarousal, as the thought of losing his footing frightened the hell out of him. He floated across a sublime yet jagged landscape, the blue glow of the markers enhancing the experience.

An act of nature? No force could do that to human beings. Not without disintegrating this tiny planetoid. What monstrous entity lurked out here in the cold shadows? Fear and paranoia plagued his thoughts. Without answers anything was possible. Reagle ascended a ridge made of a pitted and brittle compound. He spotted the sun in the black sky above. Just a bright star, even at half a billion kilometres away he felt its power radiating through the shielded faceplate.

The comet’s horizon glowed, illuminating the ground before him. He crossed a dune and marvelled at the ripples in the black sand caused by minute winds. For this small solar system body, which spent a few billion years out beyond the frost line, untouched by the sun, this type of erosion was a new phenomenon.

Beyond the dune, the flat terrain appeared scarred and blackened.

A burnt-out crater.

Even in the monochrome landscape, the spot seemed unnatural compared to the rest of the terrain. A rigging arm, embedded deep into the dark cold rock, stood at a slant. A broken, twisted shaft of metal. He spotted other rigging arms, the type deployed to stabilize the nukepump, located around the rim of the crater. But he saw no pump.

In its centre, Reagle noticed a pit, burnt deep into the ground. That is what pumps do, he reminded himself. They plunge a superheated fusion-rod into the ice, the ice melts violently and the ejection of mass basically turns the comet into a rocket. It can change the comet’s velocity, its trajectory, turning it into a gargantuan spacecraft. It took ten years of gravity-assisted manipulation to get these Jupiter-family comets to speeds and trajectories that would ‘safely’ send them to Venusian space. Once there they were broken up and scuttled into Venus’s thick atmosphere.

The terraformation of Venus; a monumental project for the space corporations, but considered a controversial issue by most Earth-bounders for the obvious risks involved. And here Reagle was, gawping into the abyss, the catalyst of a titanic disaster. His instinct was to look up. The nukepump, whatever happened to it, would have been blasted into space.

“The pump’s gone.” Reagle turned back. “Ixion, stand by with the pump deployment procedure.” Remembering his training, he paced himself back to the ice hangar, not wanting to join the pump in space.

“Standing by, Carl.” Again, he was relieved to hear Lambright’s voice, more so than ever. He looked up into the Milky Way and spotted the red star moving across it. The Ixion, orbiting the comet once every two days, disappeared appeared behind a ridge, reappearing again by the time Reagle was in sight of the hangar.

He watched it pass through the Jovian System. “We have a deceased crew of six inside the command module, each crushed beyond recognition. We have an EAI that hasn’t seen or heard anything, or too stupid to notice other sensory data. We have a missing propulsion nukepump, most likely destroyed. What else?”

“We have a copy of the control hub database. Somewhere in the operational data is the information you need. Now deploy those pumps and get the fuck off that block of ice .” Her voice sounded desperate. Reagle could not fathom why.

She had time.

As he climbed up the slope, the red star glowed rapidly brighter in the sky. The Ixion suddenly exploded into hundreds of little stars.

Carl Reagle’s heart sank.

He did the rough calculations. The nukepump, or heavy fragments from its disintegration, could still be orbiting the comet?

“Ixion, come in.”

The enormity of his situation spurred him on.

How did they not… It dawned on him. She knew about the danger. They probably located the orbiting junk but decided not to tell him.

Who knew what else she withheld from him?

He resolved not to think about it, nor mourn his colleagues. Marooned as he was, millions of kilometres from anywhere and travelling at fifty kilometres a second, his mission now focused on averting a disaster.

When he returned to the hangar, he felt alone. To ease his apprehension, he headed out to the shuttle and secured it to the mooring clasp. He easily lifted the normally half-tonne vehicle into position. A needless action but it made him slightly less paranoid.

Back at the hangar, the airlock frustrated him. Without some kind of keypad interface or audio capability, he had no way of getting Hesper to let him re-enter the facility. Containing his panic, he resorted to scavenging. First, he hit the nukepumps hoping to find any useable life support material. He entered the cockpit of the nearest pump and activated its airlock. As the cabin pressurized and the lights went from amber to white, he observed it right away. Food wrappers, clothing, and sanitation packs were strewn everywhere.

Hope and dread seized his throat.

They lived out here in a harsh, airless environment the whole time.

For two months.

Reagle could not begin to fathom what kind of ordeal these Lapith 7 crew had endured. For the first time, he felt their presence.

He booted up the pump’s systems and checked the logs.

Reagle found confirmation that the pumps were deployed at the time of radio silence. He looked at the tags. The command script was labelled ‘trajectory rectification’.

They were trying to correct the comet’s trajectory, he thought. He looked at the activity spreads. Each task had been completed. Reagle attempted to piece together what went down. The crew was acting on some information that prompted them to instigate an emergency course correction, yet the outcome turned out to be the negative result. Had they been given the wrong information, he wondered. That data would be still in the NavSytem, inside the habitat.

I need to get in somehow, he told himself, pounding his brain for ideas.

Reagle felt something under his boot. He looked down to his feet and noticed several cylindrical objects rolling around. He also found a pack of blue-sticks wedged under his seat. Their use seemed obvious enough, but the cylinders…?

Upon closer inspection, he figured out what they were. Quite heavy considering the low gravity, these were battery packs. The label read, Lasedrill. He knew right away what the crew was up to. Anyone familiar with the Rig’s engineering and stranded outside would come up with the same game plan. Most mining habitats orbit around the host asteroid, but during planetoid displacement operations the habitat is generally embedded inside the celestial body, inside ice caves, strategically carved into vertical inclines located on the dark side of a comet. In Lapith projects, the habitat modules are buried under the ice in a donut shape linked together, and join to a central axle, the airlock lift, by radial tubes. They do this to protect the habitat and equipment from the comet’s volatile environment. These modules all have maintenance hatches, accessible manually from outside.

Reagle ventured back out again, wasting no time. He knew what the crew was up to. All he had to do was find evidence of excavation works. A hexagonal container caught his attention so Reagle crossed the hangar with one long leap. He opened and entered to find it well-lit and stocked up with everything a space miner could ever need or want. Tools, perishables, all neatly stacked in storage rails inside the hex.

Blue-sticks were scattered everywhere.

What is it with these markers?

He did not spend too much time thinking about it; instead, he explored the rest of the hangar, searching out feasible spots where the crew could have begun digging and melting their way down to the hatch doors.

Nothing.

He climbed aboard the Snake-class platform and entered the control deck. To his subdued delight, he found an operator controller-pack. He pressurized the deck and hastily checked the logs. All instructions since launch date were instigated by the mechanoid’s autopilot, but the last string of text was entered manually via the unit’s human operator.

– [go to waypoint 6] [trav:net 42|93*]

Forty-two metres? Reagle wondered why such a short distance. He looked toward the back of the control deck, at an open manhole that accessed the maintenance shaft. Without hesitation he dove for the opening, squeezing himself through, feet first. Barely spacious enough to crawl, Reagle managed to slide to the end of the tube, finding an open circular chamber. A sealed hatchway ruled the deck. A lasedrill, cartridges and two life-suit helmets littered the floor.

Reagle opened the hatch door.

A makeshift berthing adapter hissing out atmosphere more or less sealed the access between the Platform’s underbelly and the icy tunnel below. It looked a tight fit, so Reagle unplugged and took off his helmet, hoping the connector would not explode.

Reagle entered the tunnel, leaving the slumbering Platform behind. He looked down at the darkness and did calculations on how much leg power he needed to absorb the fall.

Just do it, he scolded himself and let go.

Reagle dropped, picking up speed. The air froze his lungs while noxious carbon monoxide and ammonia left an unmistakable stench. He anticipated the extreme cold but hoped the pressurized air sustained by the Platform above would be balanced enough to keep conditions safe. Too warm and the frozen gasses would overwhelm and poison the breathable air.

He continued descending, using his arms to scrape against the frosty wall, successfully slowing his flight until he began crawling down — or level, it was hard to tell. When he hit the bottom, blue light greeted him. The tunnel, large enough to crouch in, stretched out into the darkness, horizontally. The ground, covered in ankle-deep icy slush felt different under his boot.

Slippery.

He pressed ahead, paying more and more attention to the ground surface. When he came across an outcrop he put his hand to it. Not ice-rock aggregate but solid rock. Even the surface underneath his feet felt rough and serrated. Reagle lit the wall with his Sideral-tool. The white beam of light revealed aggregation of more reddish rock than water ice.

A rocky nucleus.

“We were wrong about everything,” he said out loud. “This thing is a goddamn centaur.”

Centaur, his mind echoed the word. It began to make sense. A cross between asteroids and comets, these SSSB’s were heavier in mass. The Lapith’s crew were using the wrong trajectory calculations.

The nukepump ran out of frozen ice and blew up, he concluded, but the answers uncovered more questions.

Reagle continued along the rock shaft, its surface brittle and crumbling at places. His heart pumped hard, missing a beat each time he slipped on sludge.

Why would Gi Corp go to the expense to send a centaur to Venus? His mind raced with questions, of grand conspiracies, of sickening allegations. And if Venus wasn’t the intended destination, why the hell would they threaten Earthsiders?

The corpora-politics of it all did not make sense.

He slid into a wider space, a cave, lit indigo by a circle of blue-sticks pegged around a massive hatch. A low, heavy hum greeted his ears, its bass frequency working its way into the centre of his brain.

It’s open.

Reagle did not dither. He looked inside. A colossal black ball moved gradually, purposely around a mirror-finished, ribbed spherical interior. Opposite, another hatch, closed but operable judging by the green-lit touch button at its centre.

A magnetic control movement gyroscope, Reagle kicked himself for not factoring in this device. This was how the crew decided to get back inside. But the triumph subsided when he spotted dark, wet-looking patches on the interior surface. In the blue ambience he could not make out the colour, but he knew what it was. The smear and splatter patterns were unmistakable.

Suddenly the ball increased its velocity, spinning in a wild, powerful orbit around the sphere. Reagle felt the intensity. He swore he could feel the small planetoid underneath his feet shift a little.

Then the gyroscope settled back to normal speed.

“There’s my murder weapon,” said Reagle. As he stood there, dumbfounded, the ball spun again, resettled, and then spun again, at seemingly random intervals.

He knew what to do, but the courage to implement his new plan seeped away as fast as heat escaped from his body. Reagle turned to head back into the tunnel. He would go back up to the platform, find some kind of material, return to the gyroscope and toss it inside. The sensors should trigger an alarm and the system should shut down to allow the envirobots to clean out the debris.

That’s how the remains of the crew ended up back at the command module.

Hesper.

But why dump the bodies in the command module and not the trash bay? Reagle could not say, nor offer an explanation. That mystery would have to wait. His main priority was making contact with the Gi Corp base on Deimos; warn them as best he could.

Reagle stopped dead in his tracks.

There was no way to get back up to the platform. He did not even bother checking. Reagle knew the tunnel was too small for him to climb back up, even with low gravity taken into account. Resolved not to succumb to fear, he trekked back to the gyroscope.

The only choice left for him was to make a dive for the hatch door.

When he stood at the entry the rumbling vibrated his chest. He hoped the green light indicated that the opposite hatch was unlocked. He prayed that Hesper was innocent, just a blind deaf mute, clueless of the situation at hand. He gambled that the NavSystem was sending out random commands to the gyroscope, that it was not pre-programmed for something far more sinister.

Reagle glared at the dark monstrous ball and hoped and prayed one more time.