I felt empty inside as I sat on that rock ledge, staring at the ruins. Empty, because the world I thought I recognised wasn't there any more. Even if I was asleep for more than a week, which seems to be the case, could everything have changed so much in two or three weeks? Or even a month? The place was still. I couldn't see from this distance if anything was actually moving, but as it looked .. there was no way anything could be alive in there. At least, nothing human ...
"Not what you were expecting to see, huh?" Konstantin leaned up against the rocks, his voice coming from just below me. "Of all the places your parents might be, this has to be the last."
I didn't reply.
His voice lifted slightly as he continued. "I confess, I do not like to visit here. Seeing this town so destroyed is a monument to our failure. It reminds me of what humanity did wrong in confronting the infection."
Just what DID humanity do on Lucere? I would have preferred to be left alone, to find a fresh evaluation of the reality that existed before me. Yet despite my desire for solace, the need for answers was ever present. My voice cut through, small and weak from the strain of it all. "What happened? To this ... to this place, this town?"
There was a long pause before Konstantin said anything, but a response came. "Well," he began, slowly, "I was not here when it happened, of course, but people will not quickly forget how Palatus was destroyed. It is second only to Aspira in raw tragedy. Make no mistake, it was a necessary act; but necessity makes extreme solutions no less evil. People remember because of this."
Aspira was hit as well? A necessary act .. of evil? "Please .. just tell me. I thought ... there was something left here. I didn't know ... "
Without replying, he pulled me back gently by the arm, easing me off the outcrop and to the ground, putting the ruined town out of view. Guiding me back towards the bike, Mira trailing us like a noiseless phantom, he changed the subject.
"Taking you here is not enough. You saved me so I am offering you a place to live, at least until you can find your parents. I will not take your refusal seriously." He motioned for us to join him as he climbed onto the bike. "Please, come. I do not like to stay here long, this area has always had plenty of those things wandering it."
I did as he asked, Mira following me onto the back end. Even so, I could not drop it and the question stuck in my mind, a burning firebrand of attention. "Konstantin ..."
"Shay," he sighed, not looking back at us. He started the engine. The response came out in a mumble, the whine of the propulsion kicking in as we began to move. "It was the military. They bombed the town and killed every living thing."
Then he gunned the accelerator and the pitch rose, the bike jolting as we leaped forward and away.
The house that Konstantin lived in, the 'Andropov Villa' as he liked to describe it, was a tiled Mediterranean style home in the secluded hills well to the northeast of the town ruins. A garden and a small area of open pasture which had sheep, pigs and cattle grazing on it was glimpsed as we pulled up on the bike, leading me to instantly wonder how it could be safe to run livestock openly while there were so many predators around.
Ushering us into the foyer, I noticed my friend had stopped, waiting just beyond the door jamb. His eyes darted around the room, staring. Because .. he's never been inside before? Well of course, no wonder he's hesitating. "Mira," I called to him, "it's safe, okay?" His eyes flicked to me and I smiled, beckoning him. He stepped in, tentatively, the distrust of this new situation softening as I followed Konstantin through into the living room.
We were treated to a quick tour of the premises. From the living room, there was an exterior door to a terrace overlooking the lawn and garden, hemmed by a balustrade with a short set of steps down on either side. The kitchen adjoined the living room and both had entrances into the hallway to the sleeping quarters, as well as exterior windows towards the garden. There were two bathrooms, a laundry and at least four bedrooms although Konstantin mentioned that there were more, as the building continued down towards the other end of the section. The tour ended there as he simply described that wing of the house as 'work space' and left it at that.
Then, we adjourned to the kitchen and he bade us sit. I knew he could tell I had questions for him, just as he did for me. Our eyes met as he moved to a cupboard to grab glasses and plates; again preempting me just as he had at the Palatus ruins: "I know. There's a lot to be talked about, but first you must eat. Also, I will introduce you to someone. Then we can talk."
We watched as he retrieved a pitcher of water, loaf of bread, meat and cheese from the fridge, poured four glasses and began to slice the bread. All I could feel was anticipation as I watched him construct the sandwich, though Mira, sitting on the stool next to me, seemed to be observing with a mixture of curiosity and confusion. Konstantin placed a plate and glass in front of each of us and turned to wash the cutlery in the sink.
I picked up the sandwich, gave it an admiring look and took a hefty bite. Cooked rabbit is one thing, but a real sandwich. Actual food! The meat was ham, slightly tough but very flavoursome, and the cheese was salty, but right then I didn't care about the imperfections. It felt like an eternity ago that I was inside a normal house eating normal food like there wasn't a care in the world. No idea what's to come, so I'm going to savour this moment. I'm going to remember this sandwich as the best fucking sandwich I've ever eaten. Right now, it is.
I glanced across at Mira who hadn't touched his own, his eyes riveted on my reaction. Then he looked down at his, picked it up gingerly, examining it like it was some kind of foreign object worthy of great trepidation. I tried not to laugh as he studied it, still mistrustful of the cold meat and cheese. His brow crinkled slightly and he sniffed it as he held it aloft. Yeah, I know, it looks nothing like our glorious rabbit flambé, but it's good. Just try it. Then, he opened his mouth. Delicately took a bite. Chewed. Swallowed. His eyes went wide in surprise. I stifled a giggle as he eagerly took another bite.
"Dimi, I dug the carrots this morning, I didn't know if-" A female voice came through the hallway, stopping suddenly as the speaker entered the kitchen. Konstantin turned and fondly greeted the woman standing in the doorway.
"Lily! There you are. I want you to meet some new guests of ours. This one is Shay," gesturing towards me, as I put down my half finished sandwich and said a hello; "and this one is Mira," with a nod towards my friend, who was meticulously licking his fingers in front of an empty plate. Wow, that was ... fast. He looked up at his name, innocent and wordless as ever. "Boys, this is Lily Parker, a good friend of mine."
She was slightly shorter than me, with long light brown hair tied into a bun, a curvy but healthy figure, and a somewhat homely but not unattractive face. As soon as she spoke, another odd feeling of relief ran through me. She was an English speaker by nature, a northern American accent I thought. I don't know why I feel so happy every time I come across something familiar. It must just be the shock of how everything is. She was very surprised, clearly not expecting company, but recovering quickly. "Oh, I .. uh, had no idea you were bringing anyone back with you. Welcome to the both of you."
"Yes, I know about the carrots," continued Konstantin pleasantly, sitting back down at his stool. "I found them in the vegetable crisper after we got in. Come dearest, I made sandwiches."
As they started theirs and I finished mine, Konstantin told the tale of how we became his unlikely heroes. Lily expressed her amazement and admiration at the story, thanking us for having the courage to do something to help him. Quite soon, the sandwiches were gone and as we wiped our hands on the napkins, the nod he gave me was the signal I'd be looking for. It was finally time to find out some answers. I had been thinking about this for a while; what to say if someone asked me about my circumstances. If he questions me, I need to have some kind of cover story, one that fits. Mira also. I can't say I don't know what's been going on, because no one would believe that since the world has clearly gone to hell.
"So," he began, "the first thing I wish to ask you is why neither of you carry the disease? Also, where on this continent are you from, since anyone who lives within a hundred kilometres of here knows that Palatus is a pile of nothing."
I took a deep breath. This is a lie - mostly - but you need them to buy it. Be convincing. For now, at the very least. "Well, I was born a long way from here in a place you probably haven't heard of. It's a small village near Straalfidjar. Well, hardly even a village really-"
"Straalfidjar?" Lily cut in. "That's the other side of Aurum. Long distance to travel."
Good, she recognises it. This will make it easier. "Yeah, it is. It's on the coast. We were cut off from everything. I mean, we knew the disease had happened, but it never made it to us. So we were never exposed to it. I guess that's why we don't have it at all."
"Mmm," said Konstantin, thoughtfully. "This is plausible. I would like to know how you were separated from your parents, if you don't mind telling me."
"I was .. sick, and we had to travel across L- .. uh, across Aurum, and they put me into a drugged sleep so I could .. rest, and when I woke up, they were gone. All I knew is that they had talked about Palatus, so I thought that was the best chance I had of finding them." Out of context, but pretty much true.
Lily nodded, seeming to accept my explanation. She looked pointedly at Konstantin, who hadn't replied, still thinking. "That answer your questions Dimi?"
"I think, yes, for now," he murmured. Dark eyes fixed on me and then, an apologetic grin. "I am sorry, I do not mean to seem like the Spanish Inquisition. Whenever I see a mystery, I seek to unravel it, and you boys are one of many mysteries. But .. fair is fair. Ask us whatever you wish to ask."
The Spanish Inquisition? Not a chance, I already met them. Well, the most basic stuff first. Start from the bottom. "How is it that you have water and electricity? What about the garden and the animals I saw outside? Don't you have problems with intruders?"
"An easy one for starters. The house has its own water tank, which is supplied from natural sources in the hills and underground. Electricity is gathered from a large number of solar panels that are hidden around the property and connected to several industrial batteries, allowing us to collect and store electrical charge. It is more than enough to keep the house comfortable and functional. As for protection, the perimeter of the estate has a security fence. It is .. how do you say .. deadly effective?"
So far, so good. I guess that means everywhere else has no power and no utilities. Okay, what's next? "What do you guys do? You have your own food, electricity and water. You can't spend all your time sitting around here. I mean, you were in the middle of that um .. quarry, I think it was, when we met you. The area around here isn't safe, you said so yourself, so you must have a good reason to be out there on your own."
A look passed between the two of them, communicating something in a flash, and Konstantin nodded sagely. "You seem to be smart and observant, Mr Andersen. I would guess you are at the younger end of your teens, but your perception seems more like that of an adult, so I will not insult your intelligence with basic answers. Just tell me if I go beyond your understanding, okay?"
"Good," he rumbled. The Russian accent was still strong, and it made me wonder how it came to be that way when he clearly had excellent and fluent ability with English. That thought was put aside as he continued on. "We are both scientists. Lily can tell you what she does better than I could describe it, so that is up to her. My focus is on human biology. You might have called me a doctor in another time, though I possess no doctorate and no formal training as one. Nor do I have any patients to cure, unless you consider the entire ailing world as a patient base."
The entire world? So it really has reached everywhere on the planet then. "Hold on a second. Did I misunderstand you or are you ... are you trying to .. cure this?"
"Yes, I am." He shrugged. "The Sharpe virus all but finished this world. It weakened us, destroyed us. It is a horrible irreversible plague that has torn the heart from Lucere, but there are still living humans. While that is true, there is reason to hope, and I am still compelled to search for a lasting solution."
The Sharpe virus. That's what it's called. An irreversible plague. Then, a second of dizzying clarity. Irreversible?! My gaze flicked momentarily to Mira, who was patiently listening to this exchange, even though he couldn't understand it at all. His eyes, of course, caught the movement of mine away from Konstantin as we'd been talking, and the knowledge that he was paying so much attention to me that he noticed the smallest things I did caused a rush of butterflies in my stomach. If it's not reversible, then just what the fuck is he? I have a .. a duty to him. I can't let them know. I ... can't let anyone do anything to him.
"What do you know about the virus? I mean really actually know."
"The indisputable facts? It is highly contagious. It is not lethal, but the mutative transformation of human physiology is permanent, so it may as well be. At the time of the outbreak, there was no medication that could vaccinate against it or inhibit the rate of propagation once it is active inside a person's body."
"So, there's no way so far to slow it down or stop it?"
"That's right. The only notable change over time is that there are now carriers who have it lying dormant, hibernating in the host until something triggers it. Before, it was only contractable as an active pathogen, with the progression of the disease beginning immediately. How long it hibernates for hasn't been established either. It seems different for everyone and I'm not sure what governs this."
Okay, so he's working on the virus. That's important. What about the quarry though? What's the point of that? "When we found you, what were you doing? I mean, there was nothing really there."
Konstantin leaned back, and looked at Lily. "Do you want to answer this one, dearest?"
"It's best that I do. His background is biology. Mine is physics."
I frowned. Physics? "So what does this have to do with-"
"Patience," she interrupted me. "As Dimi said .. uh, well, Konstantin as you know him, my only training is a family passion for science, something that I inherited from my father. Now, you were going to ask me: 'what does physics have to do with all the crap that's going on here?' Right?" An ironic smirk played across her mouth as she said this.
"You will not have heard of this anomaly before but you certainly will have seen it. It is the main reason this planet is a fascination for scientists, and was the origin of its name. Meteorologists used to call it solar diffusion, which is a true description but too simple. The media .. well back when there still was a media, they popularised the term 'aurora luceris' but again, misleading and inaccurate. It shares a few basic characteristics with an aurora, but they are very far from being the same thing."
Solar diffusion? Aurora luceris? The words seemed familiar and my mind strained to recall from where. Then, unbidden, an image of my father sitting next to me, our belt constraints firmly in place. I was staring blankly out the window as he talked with an academic fervour, the shuttle descending all the while. The jab of loneliness was quick and jarring; the anger quite unexpected. Yeah, I remember it. His fucking annoying fascination with the sky. The glowing sky, a rarity found on no other human colonised world so far. Why did he even care so much about that stuff? I pushed down the emotion, hiding the futile weakness it stirred in me. The academic part of my brain seized the initiative, taking over.
"You have to be talking about the sky. I guess different because maybe it isn't caused from solar wind like an aurora, but from normal sunlight. That's why you can see it anywhere too, right? Not just nearer to the north or south poles."
Lily's jaw dropped a bit and Konstantin raised his eyebrows. Yeah, not just a clueless kid after all, huh. "Your parents educated you thoroughly. That's .. well .. it's completely correct. An aurora is produced by charged particles from the sun colliding with atoms near the planet's magnetic poles, as can happen on any world. This is different. Light hits matter anywhere in Lucere's atmosphere and can create that glow. How? The planet's natural electro-magnetic field is spontaneously fluctuating and making bubbles of variance - all by itself. These bubbles cause sunlight to interact with matter in the air so that it scatters, reflects, even sometimes refracts across the visible part of the spectrum."
That much sounded vaguely similar to what little I could remember from my arrival. More words echoed in my head, a morbid robotic tour guide voice narrating it: 'Unexplained ripples in the ebb and flow of the global energy field cause the fantastic interplay of light and matter that is the aurora luceris!' It seemed like a contemptuous taunt from fate that this information had been sitting all around me in brochures, on info-terminals and easily accessible on the local internet at the time and I hadn't even given it a second thought.
"Okay. Then if the glowing sky comes from these bubbles in the EM field, where do the bubbles come from?"
A smile crept across her face and it seemed like she gave a little tiny nod of approval, her eyes skimming my expression, still calculating. Definitely a very intelligent woman. I'd hate to play her at chess. "Those are the sort of questions we need to ask. It isn't about the sky nor the bubbles. They are just the end result of .. something else. Some process .. or .. some event that is occurring beyond our detection and understanding, that creates these disturbances as an observable side effect. That's why physicists named it for what it actually is, not some false notion. They called it ambient electro-magnetic field distortion or for less of a mouthful: the aemfid phenomenon."
So before the world was destroyed by mutant lion-people from hell, this was already going on all around us constantly .. but .. unexplained? "Do you think that .. um .. that the Sharpe virus and this 'aemfid phenomenon' are actually connected?"
Lily shook her head. "If you mean: 'aemfid is somehow responsible for the virus' then that's not true. However ... there is a connection. I'm just not sure exactly what it is yet."
"How do you even know?" My scepticism was more than obvious to her, and I didn't bother to keep it out of my voice. "I mean, you don't even fully know what the aemfid is yet, so how can you tell if it's linked to a human disease?"
"Because of one thing. He told you that, over time, the virus has become a bit less aggressive, hibernating and delaying onset. Before the outbreak happened, the regularity and brightness of visible aemfid in the sky was consistent, for decades. Then, after the outbreak," she leaned forward, a glint in her eye, "dimmer, less frequent. The difference is even possible to tell with the naked eye. There is no way this is a coincidence."
Wow. So there is *some* sort of link ..
Out of nowhere, Konstantin began to laugh. "She can take a while to get to the point when it's about the big topics. Passionate, indeed. Brief? Not so much." Lily frowned at him and swatted his arm. "It's true, dearest. Don't deny it. Shay, to complete this circle of conversation: I was out in that quarry to take EM readings for her research. The problem is that all the field work in the world is still useless without the GSPI data."
Before I could even ask it, Lily answered. "Right before the outbreak, some important data was recorded by the researchers at the Gillespie-Salford Physics Institute. It was the latest batch of information on aemfid, but the disease destroyed any chance of it being analysed. The thing is, I think that the computers systems at the GSPI are intact and the data could be retrieved. Dimi doesn't agree and won't risk trying to extract it."
Wait ... a computer system that goes?! A new spark of hope flared in my thoughts. If a local network is still around, maybe there are still working connections to the planetary data-net? If that's true, there could be a gold mine of knowledge there!
"Damn right I don't agree," he growled. "You have no way of knowing that. That data may be important, dearest, but is it really worth my life? That is no task for a lone Russian."
I looked sideways at Mira. Poised, aware, completely immersed in what was going on. He's a better defence than almost anything out there against the nightmare of this world. He has a natural awareness of his surroundings, of all this stuff. Maybe I need to use that.
"Konstantin," I said, taking a deep breath. "Maybe it doesn't have to be be that way ... "
The following afternoon, we rode northward to the GSPI building from the Andropov villa. Travel was uneventful and took about an hour from when we left. My mind wandered as I sat on the rear of the bike, arms around Mira's waist for balance. Steep forested hills and limestone formations flashed by, the remnants of sleeping vulcanism. The aemfid phenomenon and the possibility of finding technology that worked and might also be connected to the planetary data-net was the dominant fixture in my pondering. It was only sidetracked by the feeling of Mira's shirt rubbing against my fingers, the material shifting from the inertia of movement. Lily had slipped into some kind of mothering role as soon as she saw what Mira was wearing and had led him off to find clothing. What he wasn't wearing, more like it. The image of boxer shorts and t-shirt clinging to skin drifted insistently and inexplicably through my thoughts, and I gave my head a slight shake as I rested against his back. What's wrong with me? Need to focus. This place could be dangerous .. and I can't be .. daydreaming? Wait a sec .. was I actually daydreaming about-
"Shay, remember," said Konstantin, as he killed the engine, "as little noise and motion as possible. Your friend is very discrete, as you told us, but we all need to take care, okay?"
We were parked next to the exterior wall of a building that had to be at least five stories high, a solid dark-blue concrete expanse with a smattering of windows, a fire exit adjacent to both of the corners. The others were dismounting the bike, Konstantin shouldering a backpack while Mira's attention seemed to jump across the landscape and the wall, absorbing everything he could see. Hiking the pack up on his shoulder, he motioned us over to the right-most fire exit, our point of entrance.
His voice was hushed. "This is the southern wing of the building, what Lily described as the 'theory wing'. We shouldn't need to leave this part of the institute, and I don't know what's going to be inside, if anything, so don't wander and be very careful. Do you understand me? I was never eager for this trip, but I have come this far and with both of you, I think we can do it."
"Got it." I affirmed. He nodded curtly and pushed the fire exit, the electrical lock being completely disengaged, door swinging inwards freely. The stairwell smelled stale, the air seeming thick and redolent of mould, though the walls and doors were fairly much clean, defying the motes that floated in the air from the little outside illumination we had. Konstantin split off from us, saying he would search the third floor and above, not before warning us again about the need for secrecy; while I looked, Mira trailed me through the first and second floors. The first floor didn't have much of interest in it, though someone had clearly been through it a while back and ransacked each room. Books were left unceremoniously in piles all over the floor and it was at this point in my mind that the facts were indisputable, realisation dawning. I never really thought about Volkov that much but .. this place .. it must be deserted for months now. It really is a mess. Has to be months.
It's the warm season too, or maybe later in it, maybe autumn. I never really thought about that either. I walked like a robot up the rear stairwell at the other end of the wing, Mira bounding noiselessly up the steps ahead of me, light shoeprints in the film of dust the only testament to his passage. Months. It was late through winter when I went into stasis, early in the year. The day was February 12. It was .. a Tuesday. We'd arrived .. three days before that. So .. five or probably six months?
It didn't seem possible.
He was tugging my sleeve and I blinked, once again forgetting all the internal crap that was going on. Pay attention, you can have a crisis over how fucked-up-impossible this is later on. Focus!
I focused. This was the first room we had entered that wasn't trashed in some way. It was still pretty messy, but the bookcase was relatively untouched. More importantly, a desktop PC was sitting squarely and comfortably in the middle of the office desk, a swivel chair parked in neatly behind it. The wires from the back of the case all looked intact and undamaged as well. All in all, it seemed to be .. fine.
So far so good. I sat down at the desk, brushed the filth off the keyboard and mouse, and looked down at the indent of the power button on the case. Here goes ...
Defeated, I sat back, then a second later, as if teasing me with the delayed reaction, the case burst into life, fan whirring, and the screen turned itself on.
Well, holy shit.
Using the details Lily had provided me with, I input the user name and password, again holding my breath. Seconds later and the desktop was visible, a sparse collection of icons to one side. Not wasting any time, I flicked the cursor down to the main menu and opened up 'Network Management'.
Gillespie Info-Net Server 1: Disconnected.
Gillespie Info-Net Server 2: Disconnected.
Gillespie Info-Net Server 3: Authenticating...
Gillespie Info-Net Server 4: Disconnected.
Local PDN [Lucere-Primary]: Unavailable.
Local PDN [Lucere-Secondary]: Unavailable.
After a second's pause, the third line changed, suddenly turning green, the suffix refreshing to 'connected'. So the local network is still going, at least a part of it ... but there is no access to the planetary data-net. Fuck! Disappointment washed over me. That was the biggest hope I'd had. I should have known that I'd not be able to reach it. Fists clenched, I calmed myself as I stared at the harmless little list on the screen. Use your brain. You have no control over this, and just because it's inaccessible here doesn't mean it's down for good or that you can't find some other way from somewhere else. Just do what you're here to do.
Closing the Network Management window, I searched through the icons and starting delving through the applications and saved data. Lots of modelling and simulation software, data compilation and a bunch of other very specific physics related programs. Not one single folder had anything about aemfid either, and just when I was about to give up the search and move on to find Konstantin, I opened up the email client. It was unable to connect and retrieve any new mail, but there were three unread items in the inbox.
I clicked on one. A short news article instantly popped up on the screen.
Public health warnings tar Valentine's Day, doctors downplay concerns.
By Henry Miller, Published 14 February.
PALATUS - Aurum's busiest tourist province may be in for a difficult post-winter season when it comes to staying healthy, according to medical personnel from both Highland Park Clinic and Palatus General Hospital.
In a statement from Palatus General, Dr. Francois Martine, clinical director and practitioner, said that while overall cases of last spring's Pyropian Influenza have decreased by more than 40% this year, vigilance is still the prudent option. "It is worth remembering that we are still periodically discovering and isolating new microbial and viral strains, some of which could potentially evolve into very nasty diseases if left undocumented. A good example of this are the cases we have heard of today, right here in the city."
The cases mentioned by Dr. Martine were initially described by Dr. Daniel Sharpe, attending at Highland Park Clinic. Dr. Sharpe is a virologist, employed by the Lucere Health Commission as a locum for various medical research programs in provincial centres. He says the case studies of this new sickness are different from any he has seen before, but he is unfazed by the characteristics it displays.
"So far, the earliest symptoms are typical to low-grade influenza strains, with dehydration, nausea and slight dermal discolouration being of note. While it does seem to be contagious, the prognosis doesn't appear, at this stage, to be adverse," said Sharpe.
However, he advises residents on and around Meridian Ave., and the Vienna Blvd. eastern approach to the city to take extra care when outdoors. "This disease has not been well investigated yet. Until we know more, we encourage citizens to be aware of any erratic behaviour, and to contact the Health Commission or hospital if any unusual symptoms are experienced."
Staring at the screen and barely able to breathe, I clicked on another unread email. It was a second news article, even shorter and much more disturbing.
Earth cuts link, panic mounts as Sharpe epidemic rages
By Malcolm Tennyson, Published 28 March.
ASPIRA CITY - After more than a fortnight of increasing silence from governing super-federal agencies on Earth, the orbital gate link to the home planet was terminated late Thursday evening, said Brian Cosgrove, Chief Operations Officer for the Space Transit Authority.
When questioned about any final communications received, the STA would not describe the nature, content or quality of Earth's last messages to the Lucere office. Cosgrove declined to elaborate, claiming he did not wish to further politicise an already delicate situation. No department and secretariat positions were available for comment and none responded to Chronicle reporters, with only the Secretary of Education offering any government insight, describing the situation with Earth as 'abandonment of Lucere' and alternately, 'tragedy of historical proportions.'
Meanwhile, southwest and west Aspira experienced a second consecutive day of rioting and civil disobedience, with widespread protests and vandalism occurring in residential and commercial zones. Crowds took to the streets across Belle and Mannheim West suburbs, acting in fears fuelled by the continuing spread of the Sharpe virus across Aurum. Military and police units were dispatched to contain civilian insurgency.
Finally, in black and white, there it was. It was only the briefest snapshot of what had happened, but it told me a lot. My eyes though were drawn back to the first email and the title on it. The date, specifically. Valentine's Day. The outbreak started two days after I was in stasis. I missed the global apocalypse by two fucking days. I let out my breath. Now I had some idea, but I still didn't know how long I had been asleep for .. or how I had survived it. What about the other email?
I clicked on the third to find it was a couple of lines of text from someone else in the institute.
Date: Wed, 27 Feb 2104 13:22:43 -0200 (AET)
From: Michael Hull [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Subject: puzzle pieces
pieces of our big EM puzzle are in the lockers by hardings office upstairs. i didnt check with him but it looks like all the datapiles from '96 right through to '03 are in teh mix plus all the new satcam images. just dont forget .......... KEEP BOTH COPIES!!!! we need to make sure this stuff is safe. you saw the news .. no one could miss it. theres some seriously crazy shit goign on. i wont be back after this afternoon .. heading for aspira on friday.
take care! hope to see you when the government has got a good handle on it and this all blows over. godspeed.
Bingo. That was exactly what I was looking for. It wasn't right here, but it was close by. In some lockers on the next floor, according to what I'd just read. Looking up, Mira caught my attention. His eyes darted across the room, directly towards the doorway and a fraction of a second later, Konstantin popped into view, making me jump. How in the hell does he do that?
"Shay," he called in a conspiratorial half-whisper. A happy, exuberant tone was there, plus there was a buoyant grin spread across his face. "I did not think it would be so easy."
Recovering from the fright he gave me, I laughed nervously, tension dissolving again. "Let me guess, a locker upstairs?"
His eyes widened. "Ooh, it looks like both of us were making hay under the sun, huh? Yes indeed. We have what we are after, in no time at all. Lily will be very happy. Let's get out of here."
No arguments from me.
He turned, heading back towards the rear stairwell. My friend was out of the office after him, flitting down the hall, and I was close behind them, intent on not wasting any time at all in escaping. So intent that I didn't notice the shadows next to the lockers, in the corridor that led away from the research wing towards the institute's administration centre. Nor those shadows moving swiftly in my blind spot as we passed by that corridor towards the stairwell.
Not until a hand came out of nowhere and latched firmly onto my arm.
His fingers dug painfully into my muscles, unrelenting. The grip was too strong for me to move before the shock of it could even fully wear off, I was immobilised from the iron grasp alone. The second he spoke, however, I knew exactly who he was.
"Well, amigo," the dulcet predatory speech began, "I thought you were dead for sure, huh? You are certainly full of surprises."
I was terrified. León was the last person I wanted to see again, and this time he had some other 'friends' with him. No Carlos, no Sofia, but two fully grown adult males. The bigger of the two fell into position next to me, his hand landing on my other arm, a manacle on my left shoulder; the other goon on León's right. Half a dozen metres away down the corridor, Konstantin stood, unmoving, probably not knowing what to think about what he was seeing and hearing, what the hell had just happened. Lastly, perfectly still between us, like a rabbit stuck in the headlights, Mira, frozen in place.
Not completely frozen though. His eyes were on me. Fixed, as they seemed to be so often, but now with an uncommon shine, a glaze to them. It was almost like a sibilant breath of a word in my mind, as if he were sending an intangible transmission of support since nothing else could suffice: I'm not going to leave you. I will not. I *cannot*. I could feel that sentiment, even if I imagined it in his body language out of pure fantastic hope. It didn't matter, because in that moment it felt quite real to me.
Somehow, despite León's intrusion, I managed to feel some calm.
"And who do we have here?" He stepped forward, casually, Mira still keeping the same pose as he looked the boy up and down. "Another untouched kid, huh?" With nobody responding, he circled around the statuesque figure until he was at his starting position again. "Very quiet, very obedient. I like this."
The hand came up to the face, and I remembered him doing the same to me, the double check for lesions. Finally, this produced a reaction from Mira, his head turning away from León's hand, shying from the touch. The man chuckled and leaned a little closer to the boy, almost breathing on him. "Hold still, chico," he rasped. Then again, the action repeated, the hand coming up to Mira's cheek.
The instant his fingers touched flesh, the head snapped around and teeth sunk into León's hand. He gave a cry, yanking it away, blood already running over his fingers. The other arm came up, rising and then down again, backhanding Mira across the face heavily. The blow would probably have knocked me over, but he didn't lose his balance or even change his footing, standing back up again how he was, a streak of blood across his mouth, expression unchanged, his cheek bright red from the impact of the blow.
"MotherFUCKER!!" Rage burst from me and for the first time, I tried to struggle, but the thug tightened his grip on my shoulder, and my movements were fruitless. FUCK. I wanted to kill him right then. What sort of cowardly son of a b-
"That was most uncivil," came the measured, serious voice, a sonata to the horrible disharmony on display around me. Konstantin was unruffled, his body language seeming perfectly at ease. "Did your mother never teach you the courtesy shown to women and youth?"
Bleeding fingers ignored, wiping them contemptuously on his pants, León snorted. "You are too concerned with being polite, padre," he sneered. "Manners? What are they worth in this world, huh? Not much any more. This world is run on superior force. Manners died some time ago."
Konstantin's expression did not change for a moment, then he cocked his head slightly. "Have you ever heard of the Soviet Union?"
His opponent stared at him as if he'd gone quite mad. "What?" León snapped irritably, impatience and anger as clear as could be. "What in the hells are you talking about?"
The Russian nodded amiably. "Of course not. I doubt you have heard of anything outside the confines of Lucere or even Aurum. Well, I will let you in on some of Earth's history. The USSR or Soviet Union, if you like, was one of the Earth's great empires in the 20th century, for many decades. An ancestor of mine, his name was Yuri. He served in the secret police and in the government for quite some time. A smart man in a volatile period of cunning and deceit."
León snorted again, his disdain open and unmasked, but Konstantin hadn't finished. "From him, I learned that one must always be prepared for the unexpected to strike, and when in doubt, plan accordingly."
The other man laughed. "Plan?" He scoffed. "You did not plan very well then for this trip! Maybe next t-"
The boom of the pistol and sudden release of pressure from my shoulder as the goon fell away gave me a second of opportunity, his skull busted open by the impact of bullet meeting head. I lurched forward in that moment of hang-time, almost tripping as I scrambled up next to Konstantin. Mira's reflexes were sharper and his reaction was the same; in a second we were both away from the men and León stood there, mouth ajar, him and his remaining goon rooted to the spot in shock and fear.
"That was for laying a hand on someone under my protection. I did caution you."
His face screwed up in anger. "Puto! Me and all of my men will make sure you pay for this. You will WISH you had died after I am finished!"
The Russian shook his head smoothly. "You do not possess guns. I know your type. A man such as you would point his weapon, with great pride, from the start. If you had power, it would be an open threat."
"It does not matter." He growled. "You think you can kill all of us with a single clip? You got to load that little gun and protect the chicos at the same time. Think you can manage this?"
Untroubled, Konstantin flicked his aim across to the other goon and shot him in the lower leg. Immediately the man felt to the floor, crying in agony. "Your men are not here right now and we are leaving. You have to chase us and avoid being shot at the same time .. on your own. Think you can manage that?"
He couldn't, but his cursing did manage to follow us all the way outside, an unending outpour of mixed English and Spanish cussing and slang. It was even audible as the bike took off, the stark, imposing outline of the Gillespie-Salford Physics Institute fading into the background along with the sound of his ranting. As we sped away from the building, I leaned into Mira, my arms tightly around his stomach just we had been on the ride in. For something to hold on to, but also, as a tiny part of my mind was ever so gradually beginning to admit, it felt good to touch him.
Hooray! Another chapter done! A lot starting to happen here. Shay gets to find out a bit more about the whole disaster that went on while he was napping, Konstantin gets to shoot another redshirt (he is definitely a cowboy at heart, as well as a gentleman) and Mira gets to .. um .. sink his teeth into a dramatic scene Sorry, couldn't resist that one.
Oh .. and if you want to show your appreciation, please hit the "Like" button on any/all chapters that take your fancy. Also, reviews are very much valued. I read everything even if I don't comment.