(scroll down for prologue, following the cover art...)
© 2012 Eric Diehl
Soot drifted on the breeze, casting a shroud over the brooding night sky and layering all exposed surfaces with its gritty texture. When the wind would shift the murk would sometimes clear, and stuttering flashes would become visible on the horizon, far enough removed that one might imagine it a distant display of fireworks. Or if one were lulled by the almost soothing rumble he might fancy it a thunderstorm off the sinking horizon, observed at a distance from this remote corner of the world.
Or if one were to dwell upon the reality of it, the horror would tear at his mind, stripping away sanctuary like the bark from a tree felled and made ready for the sawmill.
The breeze did shift and the near sky cleared, and in Kel’s mortal world the far horizon was rent with streaks of mayhem; savagely beautiful and reflected off the water like an ultimate shower of meteors. Even at a distance he hunkered low in the bow of the cargo boat, his teeth gritted and eyes squinted narrow. He knew this was no celebratory display but rather an Armageddon in its latter stages. Like a loyal dog gone rabid and at the throat of its master, chaos now set the norm.
Neither was this confined to ethnic or territorial clashes; it was an entire world hemorrhaging from a violence that spread like a bio-engineered virus designed for zero immunity. The weapon systems were all brilliant designs in their own macabre, masochistic right; the most advanced devised before having been negotiated out of existence.
It had begun with a few tactical strikes, precisely targeted and with minimal spread, but those who had presumed themselves the only rogue to have kept a weapons store in violation of treaty soon learned otherwise. In short order it had escalated into a dirty war, introducing bio/chemo satiation and self-replicating nanopaths, and though none would argue that such an escalation allowed the possibility of victory from any quarter, the war was fought on.
The inexorable spill of dominoes.
Kels rubbed at the ache in his neck and shoulders, still having great difficulty coming to terms with the full implications. So much time had lapsed in the building of an advanced culture—a society approaching idyllic in many ways—and in little more than the blink of an eye it was all being destroyed.
A stray phosphorescent burst turned his world monochrome; he clapped his hands over his ears but before he could brace himself the discharge was followed by a concussive wave that physically slammed him to the deck. He tasted blood where his lip split on the rough planking, and he scrabbled shakily to his knees. The flash burned across his retina made discerning the transition from the lightly rolling sea to the dark sky virtually impossible.
Kels could shape no words for the total breakdown of everything that he knew—it was like ice over deep water giving way underfoot, offering up nothing but a plunge to cold oblivion. But it was, of course, so much worse than that.
As his vision returned he held a hand up before his eyes, blocking the distant frenzy that reflected as brilliantly off the water’s surface as it blazed in the pitch-black sky. The freshwater Sea of Guron shone with a mirror image of the inferno—a reflection distorted only by the wake pushed forward by the flat-bottomed boat in which he sheltered. The vessel he used to ferry supplies was an antiquity, of the type typically preserved only for the sake of nostalgia, but to take to the air in recent weeks would mean near-certain death. Anything clear of the surface was a sure target for the self-contained drone-bots unleashed by all the Rules; they roamed patiently, untiringly, across nearly the breadth of either hemisphere.
With the passage of time and distance the frenzy faded to a faint if nearly constant reminder, and a boathouse on a far shore finally became visible. He watched a figure emerge from the blacked-out structure and slink forward to meet the cargo barge. On closer approach he recognized Sera, followed by other shadowy figures.
“Kels?” She spoke in a hush, and Kels thought that odd, considering their very remote location. But then what was normal anymore?
“Sera—I have missed you so very much. How do you fare? Do our preparations proceed on schedule?”
Her stern countenance was briefly lit by a genuine smile, making him remember a very different life, not so terribly long past but irretrievably lost.
“I have missed you also.” She continued to warily scan the monotone scene, lit by a triplet of veiled moons and the distant flicker of unnatural lightning, and she nodded once. “Circumstances are as good as could be expected, though I’d become worried at the length of your absence. Why did you choose to bring supplies in by barge, when a shuttle would have been so much faster?”
He tossed the bow cable underhand and she caught it and made fast to a dock cleat, and they walked to the stern separated only by the narrow moat between the dock and the deck. He threw the rear line to her, and spoke over the faint, distant rumble.
“Acch. To fly now would be suicidal, Sera. The severity of damage inflicted continues to cascade, if you can believe that. It is no longer safe to take to the air—not here, not anywhere. Anything and everything above the static of ground clutter is now targeted by all the Rules, indiscriminately; or, more accurately, targeted by any Rule, or portion thereof, that still functions.” He shook his head ruefully. “The black irony is that it most likely would have been our own drones that would have blown my ship out of the sky; at last report it was our province that had the most active vision still live over Guron.”
Kels walked down the gangplank extended onto the dock, and he motioned the loaded pallets forward. He and Sera watched in silence as the crates were wheeled off the barge, and they turned to follow the final piece toward the ground-skimmer where they were being loaded.
“This was definitely your final foray, yes?”
“It was the last, I am more than happy to say.” He laid a hand upon her shoulder, and she turned to face him. “My role in the preparations is mostly finished,” he said. “We’re a little ahead of schedule. Dens has completed the knowledge dump inland, overtop the primary geothermal power tap, and has set up double-encryption code sequences to make them ready for programming at the habitation site. The key to it all is the structure of the genetically engineered sub-matter, which serves double-duty as the agent for securing a recoverable water supply.”
“So… time aboveground truly does grow short, perhaps forevermore.” Sera looked very unhappy, and Kels shook his head.
“You know that part of our preparation is just a last-ditch safety, insisted upon by Dens. The artificial genome will lie inert, made so by the water in which it immersed, and it will remain that way unless activated by a distinctly unnatural energy pulse created for that sole purpose. Knowledge of the key is stored in the aura, for future generations should the worst befall us here. But none of that will happen; we’ll simply need to spend some months, or perhaps years, in the habitat, waiting for the surface toxicity to abate to tolerable levels.”
He gripped her shoulder firmly—reassuringly, he hoped—and tried to put his best face on it. “It will be a rough period, but we will survive, and when we emerge we’ll be able to remake the world as we wish. As it should have been. But for the present we must prepare for the worst. Dens and his group will be joining us soon; it is near time for the closing descent.”
With lips pinched tight, Sera turned to resume her course toward the skimmer. Kels followed.
“Sera, why are you so distant? I understand that you are upset—under the circumstances, who is not? But…?” He caught up and turned her to face him, hands on both shoulders, looking intently into her eyes. “What else would you have of me?”
“Kels.” Sera’s tone was spent frustration. “I understand that you do what you think is best, but I cannot help but harbor grave doubts. We are to leave behind all that we know and love? Leave behind all that we care for, to descend into a strange, cold realm for a time indeterminate?”
Kels nodded fervently. “Yes, Sera. That is exactly what we must do. What else is there?” As if to emphasize his point, an unusually close detonation flashed on the horizon, its faint concussive wave following several moments later.
“You see?” He said, nodding toward the fading echo. “How can we have any reasonable expectation of surviving that, if we remained aboveground? The conflict continues to expand. We know that a significant portion of the population has already perished, and the bunkered Primaries appear intent on escalating to an all or nothing finish. I’m not certain that they still retain control of their own actions; it may all be a programmed response now, firing automatically as thresholds are exceeded. What else might we do, but take deep shelter in the most remote locale?”
“I do not know, Kels, but this just seems so extreme, and to what purpose? If I am to perish, I would choose to face my last days on the surface, someplace I know, rather than huddled belowground like a blind rat in its burrow.”
“But Sera, we will not perish. We will survive, as monotonous as our tenure below might be, and we will endure whatever time required until it is once again safe to venture aboveground.”
He saw that the skimmer craft was ready, and gripped her arm to firmly direct her toward it. “Come now, we are far from the war zones, and the rough terrain will make us very difficult to pick out from a distance, so long as we stay low to the ground.”
They boarded and the craft began its transit. The shallow beach fronting the Sea of Guron fell behind as they headed inland—the landscape became more difficult with the rise of the trailing edge of the Qualor mountain range. Evidence of the havoc reigning over the ‘civilized’ world lessened with distance gained into the vast unpopulated region.
As promised, the coastal plain quickly devolved into craggy outcroppings and deep ravines to be avoided, forcing them to rise to a slightly more vulnerable height in approach to their destination—the Plunging Chasm. They sat quietly, Sera disconsolate and Kels distracted by thoughts of what remained to be done, until the skimmer began its vertical descent into the cavern system. The craft landed on a sloping plateau and they disembarked. Kels moved toward the inner chasm wall to observe the equipment and supplies being ferried through the circular, descending channel cut through stone, and Sera came to join him, placing a hand on his chest.
“I... I am sorry, Kels. I do not mean to sound overly critical. It’s just that I don’t feel right about any of this.”
He cupped her cheek and smiled valiantly.
“I know, and I understand your concerns. But I assure you, in time—I cannot say with any certainty how long—but in time we will return to a semblance of normal life on the surface.” He watched as a motorized hovercraft stacked with foodstuffs entered the arched passageway and began its curvilinear descent. They had already stored the equipment used to foster algal growth; not the most tasteful prospect to consider but one which might prove necessary should their stay extend beyond their stock of food stores.
“I understand,” she murmured, sounding less than convinced. “But we both know that a return to the surface may never be possible. The prospect of being forced to relocate to one of the barren moons; that seems as bleak a life as any, with no atmosphere and scant gravity.”
“Sera.” Kels took her chin gently in his hand and turned her eyes to him. “There is only one reason that such a move would even be considered, and the self-replicating viral poison, supposedly developed by the Armatrad province, is nothing but a rumor. A fear-mongering tactic. And even if it were true, Armatrad would understand they would be fouling their own nest, for a very long time, if it were put to use. Surely they would not be so stupid as that.”
“Kels, you just said that all the Rules are putting everything they’ve got into this stupid war.”
Kels grimaced at his previous choice of words, and Sera continued.
“And if it truly was a certainty; that Armatrad would never use their planet-scouring poison—then why have we developed this contingency plan, this plan for lunar relocation?”
Kels shook his head. “It is not my plan, it was Dens Herdt’s doing. To gain the cooperation we needed from him, that option had to be a part of the larger schema. He believes that Armatrad has that capability, and that they would exercise it when all other cards were played. I disagree.” He nodded his head thoughtfully. “Still, I must admit—it is not foolish to have the ultimate backup plan. There could conceivably be other reasons, complications the like of which we have not even conceived, that might require a permanent relocation from the planet.” He heaved a deep sigh, and he put a hand on her shoulder.
“Whatever we think of his contingencies, we needed Dens for this. I don’t know if anyone else could have engineered such a complete knowledge dump into a manufactured, psuedo-organic planetary formation. Not to mention the creation of a unique form of sub-matter that coalesces into a genetic code different from anything that exists in the natural world, and the means to convert it from inert matter into a workhorse of our bidding.”
He shook his head. “It will not be so, Sera; we’ll not have to raise the water nor redirect the aura, but there is some comfort in knowing that we could survive even if worst came to worst.”
She sighed and leaned against him, and her tone carried little enthusiasm.
“The crystal is now under power. The secondary deep magma bore was completed two days ago, and the conductive tap was lowered into place. After the functional tests were completed the bore was filled in with liquified Kryon and hardened in place. The installation is essentially permanent, near indestructible, and the crystal is now at full power.”
Kels’s eyes lit up.
“That is excellent! I had thought we’d need to finish that up after our descent; to have it functional beforehand is one less complication!”
She nodded gloomily. “Yes, we are slightly ahead of schedule. Also, control of the crystal has been set to interact with the encryptions that you have devised, and it’s ready to be changed over to them when that time comes. The virtual control panel is fully functional, awaiting our descent and the activation of the shielding over the mouth of the chasm.”
She tried to smile but failed miserably, and Kels pulled her close.
“It will not be final, my love, in some months we will rise to a New Day on the surface. You will see.”
Dens Herdt arrived the following day; they saw his convoy come into view on the monitor of the holographic control panel maintained by the geothermal tap. Kels had just finished programming it with his encrypted sequence of command codes, and he now waved an assistant over.
“Pol, where is Anan, or Rellen? I need one of them to watch over the panel while we go to the surface to meet with Dens and his people, and when I return we all need to step through the programmed code sequences.”
“Anan has gone down below, to oversee the placement of the remainder of the stores that you brought in yesterday. I think Rellen is there also.”
Kels was momentarily irritated, but shrugged his shoulders.
“All right, it is of no consequence, nothing more needs to be done here for the moment. You, Pol, will remain here while I am aboveground. Send word to Anan that he is to come relieve you as soon as he is able. You are not to do anything with the panel, Pol, simply make sure that no one fiddles with it.” Pol was a little slow but he knew his limits; he was a safe bet to watch over the panel to make sure that no one did anything with it the short time that he and Sera would be on the surface with Dens. Kels intended to secure the holo-panel only after all the extended-stay subterranean-dwellers were safely below and the shielding was up.
He and Sera boarded a lift and ascended to meet Dens. Their pilot dropped them off and joined the task of shuttling the many score of people that Dens had brought with him down into the chasm, while Kels and Sera remained aboveground with Dens to watch over the final preparations. As the next to last group boarded the lift, Sera sighed.
“It is almost time for us to descend, for the final time, and it tears my heart to think that I’ll not look upon the sun anytime soon—perhaps never again.”
Dens clapped her on the shoulder with out-of-place enthusiasm.
“Sera, I believe that the end of the war is closer than the Rules would admit. The conflict has been accelerating predictably, but the use of ‘conventional’ weaponry is nearly played out now, and with no resolution in sight. I believe that it will not be long before one of the weaker Rules resorts to the use of a ground-breaker type of device. When that happens—even if it’s a device of minor capacity—I would bet that all the remaining Rules will fear obliteration of their domain if they do not respond in-kind. That moment, I think, will mark the end of our society on the surface of Endar. All the Rules will launch their ultimate arsenals, probably near-simultaneously, and in just a few incendiary minutes it will be finished.”
Sera looked at Dens with a raised brow. “I’m to take consolation from that?”
“In a way, yes. It is, of course, the greatest of tragedies. But if it is to be so, then it is better if finished soon. I believe that a quick finality is preferable to a prolonged and even more horrific war, when both tactics will ultimately resolve to essentially the same outcome.”
Kels shook his head, wishing that the man would refrain from his brutally frank commentary. It was certainly not improving Sera’s mood. Dens continued, peering down upon her.
“Do you not agree? My point is that under those circumstances we’d spend a lesser period of time in our underground haven. Of one thing we are fairly confident, and that is that all the Rules have developed disruptor weapons with short-lived radiation spreads. We’ll very possibly have no need to remain belowground more than a few months, before ascending to a calm and quiet surface world.” He nodded encouragingly. “That’s assuming, of course, that Armatrad has not developed its long-term viral poison.”
“It will surely be quiet, if and when we reemerge,” murmured Sera glumly. She turned and walked to the jet-boosted lift that was now returning to the surface to collect its final passengers. The others followed, and they strapped in.
“Before we descend this last time,” said Sera, “can the carrier raise us a modest distance, for just a few moments, to get one last look at the colors of the grasslands bordering this region? We’re quite far from the war zone here.” Her tone was plaintive.
Dens shrugged when Kels glanced to him, and so they requested that the pilot climb to a low altitude for just a minute or two—no longer. The pilot took the lift up fast, pressing them back in their padded seats, until he slowed to a hover.
“You see over there, beyond the coarse rockiness of this region?” Sera pointed out her window to the green grasslands beyond. “I wonder if there will be any color to the world when we come back to it?”
She gazed wistfully out the window as they began to sink back toward the mouth of the chasm, and Kels patted her shoulder consolingly. Then the floor seemed to fall away.
“Incoming seeker!” shouted the pilot. “Hold tight for evasive action, I can’t be—”
Pol stood at the control panel chatting idly with his friend Uli, when a sudden blinding flash lit the holo-display, followed almost immediately by the sound of a thundering detonation above them.
“What was that?!” Uli screeched over the rebounding echoes.
“I don’t know,” yelled Pol. “I th—” He screeched and leapt to one side as bits of debris began to rain down from above.
“We’re being attacked!” wailed Uli. “The Rules have learned of our plans to come to the chasm! What will we do?”
“I don’t know…” whispered Pol, frightened and confused.
“Put up the shields! Or else they’ll send missiles into the cavern! Don’t delay—the lift’s already been destroyed!”
Pol was shaking so badly he could hardly stand. He looked to the holo-display; it was true, the carrier seemed to have been reduced to rubble. There was nothing to do now but put up their defenses—and fast. But how? He wasn’t at all familiar with the workings of the control panel, and had no great talent for science. Then a light went on behind his eyes, and he leaned in to the panel keyboard. His thinking might not be so great, but his memory was. He remembered everything he heard spoken, and he had overheard Kels tell Sera the command password. He typed it in.
A S C E N T
An immediate change came over the panel, sections that weren’t previously visible now came into view, and the green light marked ‘Full Active’ was blinking.
“Do something now!” pleaded Uli, his voice cracking with fear.
Pol stared at the panel in blank desperation.
All I need to do is activate the shielding, but how do I do that? It must be marked somehow. I wish Anan was here, but he’s not, and we might not have much time left. What can I do!?
He scanned the markings on the panel. The first virtual button was marked CAP—that made no sense. The second was marked RAISE, and the third—
His eyes flickered back to the second button. Raise! That must be it! Raise the shields, of course! He thrust his finger forward to press the button, and the flashing green light went solid. A message appeared on the holo-panel.
‘Reenter command password to confirm RAISE’.
Pol’s fingers flew as he reentered the code. Another message appeared.
‘Shield control panel now?’
Pol groaned as he looked at the message and its ‘ye’s and ‘no’ buttons. He just wanted it to stop asking him questions, and put the shields up. His eyes went wide.
Wait! It asks if I want to ‘shield’ the panel! I want shielding up, so of course I want the panel shielded also!
He reached forward and punched the ‘ye’s button, and a look of confusion crossed his face as the panel disappeared from view. Looking to the side he could see the ceiling of the chamber had begun a syncopated flashing—that was good. At least it was raising the shields.
“What are you doing?!” Pol spun around to see Anan racing toward him. “What have you done?!”
“I… I raised the shielding, we are under attack. The lift was destroyed at the surface.”
Anan clapped his hand to his forehead.
“I heard that detonation; it was twenty seconds ago. If any Rule was launching an attack on the caverns there’d have been dozens of missiles here by now, not just the one. The carrier must have been picked up by one of the roaming seeker missiles that lock onto anything in the sky bigger than a vulture.”
Anan’s expression of anger turned to dismay as he gazed at the spot where the console should be visible. “What… happened to the console panel?” He said, a note of dawning desperation twisting his voice.
“I… It disappeared after I raised the shields”
Anan turned a fierce glare onto Pol. “How... Oh, cursed be the dark gods…How did you raise the shields?”
“I used the ‘raise shield’s button, and then I told it to shield the control panel also.”
Anan looked dumb-struck. “Shielding the panel basically means disabling it, taking it out of the path of harm or interference until its services are again required.”
Pol nodded uncertainly. “Oh. Well… I guess that’s OK, isn’t it? We can bring it back now?”
Anan’s wild-eyed gaze scanned the caverns, but he spoke very softly. “Where’s Kels? Or Sera? Or the man Dens Herdt?”
Pol was horrified as the enormity of it began to sink in—his response was a weak whisper. “Kels and Sera… had gone to the surface to meet Herdt and his people. The three of them were on that last lift—when it was destroyed.”
Anan slumped back against the wall, and slid to the floor. He sat with his face in his hands. His voice was faint; Pol had to strain to hear him. “No one else... No one... knows how to reactivate the control panel. Kels and Sera had just programmed the encrypted codes, and no one else had yet learned them. Even if we knew the codes, we don’t know how to enter them without using the virtual panel.”
He turned a dead gaze onto Pol, and he spoke with the voice of resignation. “We… have no means of reactivating the control panel. We have no control whatsoever over the crystal.”
There were several minutes of dead silence between them before Pol spoke hesitatingly. “I’m… I’m sorry. I thought we had just moments before being destroyed. That’s why I raised the shields.”
Anan shook his head from side to side. “No. You did not raise the shields, Pol. For that there’s the CAP button—as in capstone.”
“What… What did I do, then?” A fist clenched Pol’s heart in a dreadful grip.
Anan’s dead gaze pierced him through.
“You…” He shook his head in disbelief. “Curse the seed that begat you… You initiated the energy pulse that activates the artificial genome. Even as I speak it chemically bonds with the water it is immersed in, essentially gasifying it. Evaporating it. The chemical transformation won’t reverse until temperatures are well below freezing, and by then gravitational pull will be just strong enough to hold it frozen in place.”
You’ve begun the raising of the water, and I… can’t… stop it…”
Uncounted Aeons Forward
“Vardra, it’s not as though Miira is still a child,” said Dirc, “dependent upon us, or upon anyone else. She reminds me, at every opportunity, that after Shala married and moved to Tyrgon, Miira has assumed increasing responsibility for the affairs of House Lindal.” He turned to Neilai. “At your behest, is that not so?”