This is one chapter in one of my WIPs which is a sci-fi piece set on a future Earth with mystical overtones. Cults? Hidden Agendas? Pawns in a Bigger Scheme? Of course … I hope you enjoy. Let me know in the comments.
Captain Johnson grabbed Steve’s arm and yanked him round. Their eyes locked but Johnson’s grey-blue eyes seemed oddly lifeless to Steve.
“Cover’s blown! They know we’re here,” he shouted above the frantic activity of his squad, and raised a memory crystal in front of Steve’s face. The rabbit’s foot tattoo twitched on the back of his left hand like Thumper’s did in Bambi at the first sign of danger.
“Steve, you’re the strongest here.” Distracted by the skin twitching on his hand, he wrestled with the words. “Get this code back to beta-two and maybe we’ll all stand a chance. You’re our only hope.”
He thrust the crystal into Steve’s hand and pushed him away, turning back to the rest of the squad.
“Hold the junction,” he commanded as shots ricocheted off the walls.
The back of their comms officer’s head exploded into a cloud of red mist and the body arced an involuntary volley of machine pistol fire as it collapsed, killing another of the squad.
Steve turned and ran, fastening the crystal in an inner pocket as he fled: through the door of the base, into the freezing night, and down the rocky mountain ridge towards beta- two. He couldn’t place it, but Johnson’s corny line had kept him going: You’re our only hope. He kept playing it over in his mind.
He dropped into a hollow, slamming his back against the outcrop. Concealed, he hoped, but for how long? He felt the cold seeping through his winter fatigues sending an icy chill through his sweat-soaked base layers and numbing his nerves. His breath steamed into the freezing, inky darkness. Red symbols flashed in his head-up goggles: PR, QRS, QT.
“Myocardial ischemia and bradycardia,” added the goggles through his earbud. “Which means?” He subvocalised. “Remember, merc not medic.”
“Low blood oxygen and slowing heart rhythm,” replied the goggles in an almost condescending tone.
Fuck. Onset hypothermia, he thought, heart skipping a beat. He tapped the goggles to bring up the map overlay, praying it was a glitch. And still over a mile out from beta-two.
Invisible voices echoed around him, stalking him amidst the snow flurries like auditory shadows. Swirling around. Inside his head? Outside. Definitely outside.
Next to him.
He flinched, jerking his pistol towards the sound. A shape materialised in the flakes of snow but his fingers would not tighten.
“Too cold,” he cursed to himself.
The wind whirled and disintegrating eddies laughed at him as the phantom vanished. He spasmed; the gun fell and clattered on the rocks.
The voices stopped. A shout went up from the darkness, somewhere. He heard boots. Heavy boots.
How many of them were there? How many of the damned Da’at had they sent out to find him?
His goggles flashed another reminder: PR, QRS, QT.
“Shit. Not a glitch.”
“You have to keep moving,” his goggles urged.
“Can’t you give me a booster?” he subvocalised, scooping up the pistol and fumbling to clip it back in his holster, his hands reddening from the cold.
“Only once, and we’re too far out from beta-two, Steve,” they said.
He hated when they used his name. It was like they were trying to be your friend but the tech whizzes thought that an in-built AI was more dynamic, more responsive in battle situations than a passive readout.
“I. Need. A.” He broke off. He heard nothing but the wind. The boots had stopped. The voices? Stopped. Nothing but his breathing.
He watched a few flakes settle on his boots. He smirked – it was almost surreal, a moment out of time: silence and snow, stars and stillness. Nature did her thing irrespective of what games these humans played and he admired Her elegance. But he was being hunted. He winced, then turned and slowly dragged himself up the rock to get a better vantage point.
He peeked over the crest, his goggles doing their best to amplify and isolate any unusual sounds around him and make sense of the darkness.
The Da’at had gone.
He relaxed back into the hollow and patted his breast pocket. He couldn’t actually feel anything through the layers, but he knew the pouch was there, safe inside the secure pocket. The pouch containing the memory crystal with the embedded security codes. The crystal his squad had broken into beta-three for. The squad who had sacrificed themselves for him to get away, to get the codes back to beta-two. The base that was …
“One mile, Steve,” the goggles interjected. “Let’s get moving.”
“Booster. Please,” he subvocalised again and felt a wave of warmth spread out from inside.
“Time is against us, Steve. You need to move. Now.”
He forced himself upright, tapped his goggles to check the compass bearing, and set off towards beta-two.
“How did we get here?” he pondered as he edged along the ridge face about 3000 meters above sea level on Liankang Kangri mountain, somewhere in what used to be China, the lone survivor of an incursion that had not gone to plan, contracted by a government whose agenda he didn’t fully understand against a cell of Da’at extremists who had somehow taken over one of the three, allegedly impregnable, research facilities stretched along the spine of the mountain. Snow flurries whipped around him in the dark and he felt the cold creeping deeper into his bones. His goggles obliged an answer, and he was happy with their company for once.
“Fifteen years ago, a group of nine neuroscientists claimed to have visited and ascended the nearby Gangkhar Puensum and returned with something they called The Gift. They then insisted they be referred to as the Da’at Council and claimed to have written a handful of books through knowledge gleaned from said Gift. These books acquired an almost legendary status outside the Council but have never actually surfaced suffice for occasional glimpses claimed by students who escaped or agents who managed to secure brief access to them.”
“So, a cult then?”
“Not entirely. The Da’at were well respected by their peers for their papers on the advancement of neuroscience, consciousness and the integration of scientific proofs for parapsychological events like ESP and mesmerism. However, their claims to have been able to conclusively prove and attain a state of gnosis safely and repeatably always lead most people to think of them as fringe lunatics who were more interested in getting out of their heads like all the good stoner cults that had gone before, especially since they refused to share this specific knowledge with the scientific community and shortly afterwards became reclusive.”
“Sounds like a cult to me.”
“Yet, the Da’at have steadily expanded their influence, including developing political ambitions while maintaining their scientific activity, helping breakthroughs in medicine, mental health and criminal reform. This attempt at legitimacy is considered to be a game of smoke and mirrors to conceal their real ambition.”
“Why you’re here.”
He stopped and looked up, talking into the sky as if to some higher power. “Because I’m a merc it’s above my pay grade?” He had expected a little more background. “No Steven, you’re part of the system now.”
Steven? A shiver ran down his spine. Time stopped for an instant and the flakes hung around him as if suspended on invisible threads in an exquisitely crafted child’s mobile, individually glistening and hand-studded with diamond dust. The Unilateral Council had recruited him for his training and physical security skills, both rare qualities in a world now symbiotic with technology and influence. The world was a very different place compared to his youth, but people like Steve had managed to operate outside the social credit system and remain untethered from the global net which could, literally, reach out to you in your sleep. It was the best of times and the worst of times but he was still happy that there was a place for people like him in this interconnected world.
Steven? His attention snapped back and the snow fell silently again.
What were his goggles not telling him? Had the Da’at definitely known he was out here? If they did, then the delivery of the code would be in vain; they would change it before the team at beta-two had a chance to use it. Would they have changed it as a security measure after their cover was blown anyway? Probably. Which could be why they just stopped looking for him. He was irrelevant now; they had just left him out here to die. Despondent, his shoulders slumped and he hung his head.
Another nagging question resurfaced, how had the Da’at infiltrated beta-three in the first place? Where had they come from? Nothing had been in the briefing – they were just there and the team needed to go in and do what they had to do. But he was just a merc, so it’s not totally unexpected there were missing pieces in the briefing, but it still didn’t feel right.
And why didn’t they just storm beta-three, detain or eliminate the Da’at and simply reconnect the base to the network with his master code from beta-two? It would have been a much more direct through line to the endgame. It’s not like there are any embedded journalists or drone-cams up here. And if stopping the Da’at was supposed to be done quietly then this was about the best place to do that anyway you wanted. Hell, you could even send a couple of Boston’s Atlas robots in with LS3 mules loaded with asphyxiant scatter mines. No people needed. Job done.
The questions swirled around his head like the snow did around him.
“The code you recovered from the Da’at is more than a firewall, Steven. It’s a backdoor. We need to understand it and block it from the outside. That’s why you had to go in and get it. We can reverse engineer this and set the Da’at agenda back possibly years.”
Steve smirked. For a brief moment, he felt the absurdity of the situation. Here he was, only a short distance from safety with the codes for both his own and the enemies main security systems. The “war” was in his hands, he held the power for both sides. He pressed on around the bluff and saw the lights from beta-two about a quarter of a mile ahead.
She smiled at him. He knew her smile, every curve and crease in her face. He had seen it a hundred times and his lips couldn’t help but smile back. He watched her champagne blonde hair fall gently over her right brow as she raised her eyebrow slightly. He felt his muscles relax as a wave of calm spread out through his body and mind.
“Steven,” she purred, “the other one, silly.”
A searing pain shot through his eyes and he felt tears start to stream. Then it went dark.
There was a high-pitched shrill sound that wouldn’t stop. It sounded like somebody was drilling through his skull. Felt like it too. Pain pulsed through the sides of his head. Was the sound causing the pain, or the pain causing the sound?
He let out a low, strained moan and tried to open his eyes, but only saw white fog through a fluttering crack one eyelid offered against the incessant pain. His other eye resisted all attempts to move.
A low-pitched buzzing joined the whistle; a cacophony of coloured noise peppered his senses and a hailstorm of white-hot dots assaulted his blurred vision like a thousand tiny needles. He started to convulse.
He heard other noises, distant and muffled, and felt himself being grappled. Hands were pushing down on his shoulders; somebody was holding his arms; another his legs. He panicked and tried to struggle, the muffled sounds slowly forming into voices. He paused to try to hear what they were saying, but his head pulsed and their words were scrambled by his ringing ears. He struggled again and felt a sharp jab in his arm. He heard one man shout something, then the sedative he had just been given kicked in and he felt himself relax. He tried fighting it, but his muscles would not respond.
A searing pain ignited around his eyes. He started to yell, but something hard was shoved into his mouth. The pain intensified and the whistling inside his skull returned. Warm blood ran down his neck as he felt hands grope around his ears. His eyes widened and he heard a nauseating schluck as something came away from his face.
The light blinded him and his eyes closed tight against the assault. The voices calmed and soothed, but he still couldn’t make them out. Slowly, he opened one eye. The second still wouldn’t play, though. He could see he was in a room and several figures were moving around. Very blurry.
A face peered at him closely and said something but he couldn’t understand a word, it was so muffled. He felt a couple of taps in his cheek and some detail came into focus. It looked like a medic – the man had a mask pulled down and there were bloody finger marks on his forehead. The man glanced to his left then back to Steve, holding up a pair of cracked and blood-rimmed goggles on the end of a scalpel.
“Lucky.” He had said more than that, but that was the only word Steve’s addled brain recognised. The medic tossed the goggles onto a metal tray to his side. They clattered, startling Steve.
“Mferemuladera,” Steve dribbled, the rubber gag falling from his mouth.
“Good to have you back, soldier,” added another voice off to his left more clearly now.
“Schanananan.” His teeth chattered and his head pounded.
The medic put a thermal blanket over him and patted his shoulder gently, then reached over and took a small, green spray bottle off the table.
“This will help,” he said calmly, spraying a fine mist onto Steve’s face.
The burning sensation Steve felt around his eyes quickly faded. His other eye twitched and he tried to force it open. The eyelid was covered with congealed mucus, but it slowly unzipped and Steve blinked both eyes in relief at the room finally coming into focus.
“Take a moment to get your senses back, Steve,” soothed the medic as he patted Steve’s leg before standing up and walking over to talk to another of the men.
“Not too long, soldier,” added the other voice Steve had heard. He felt the man lean in close to his left ear. “We have work to do and time is against us. We live in a twilight world.” Steve hesitated for a moment, gathering his resolve. “We have no friends at dusk,” he replied, remembering the codeword.
“Well done, soldier. Excellent work.” The man slapped him on his shoulder and stood up. “It was a miracle we found you at all but our patrol discovered you and brought you back in.” He walked round in front of Steve, leaning down and inspecting his eyes. “Lionel will need to take a look at your face after this. Your goggles were frozen solid and you’ll need patching up. You’re safe now, back in beta-two,” he reassured, “but we have the mission to complete.”
He stood up and walked behind Steve, placed his hands on the top of the chair Steve was sitting in and wheeled him over to a computer terminal.
Steve rocked back, unsteady as one wheel clattered as it rolled across the tiled floor, his thermal blanket fluttered as he moved.
“OK Steve, let’s get to work and finish this. Memory crystal,” he said bluntly.
Steve was shivering and slipped his right hand out from under his thermal blanket. He couldn’t feel his fingers and looked at his hand. It was greyish-yellow with a waxy sheen and hung there, almost lifeless except for a small twitch in its now blue-tipped, gnarled and blistered index finger. It looked to him like a badly made prop from a joke shop.
“Too cold,” he stammered.
“C’mon soldier. We need that code before it’s too late.”
Steve slid his hand back under the blanket and across to the pocket where he had put the memory crystal. He paused.
“W … Whe … Wh … Where di … did,” he continued to stammer. “Fuck!” He bit his lip and rocked back and forward trying to warm up.
“Where is the key?” The other man’s voice was stern and measured.
“Where did the Da’at come from?” Steve blurted. “I don’t get it. How did they get into beta-three in the first place? Did they have a man on the inside?”
“All in good time soldier. But we need to access the codes and lock them out of our security net before they get in.” The man leaned over Steve’s shoulder and started to move his thermal blanket. “Where is it, soldier?”
Steve moved his hand away from the pocket, his hand still locked.
“It’s …” He paused, noticing a reflection in the screen in front of him. A scientist in a white coat was studying a bank of monitors on the wall behind him, looking up and down and typing something on a keyboard.
The scientist said something in passing and the man next to Steve stopped and stepped back slightly, turning to look toward the scientist.
“But, sir, we need the code,” he implored.
“Steve needs to complete the mission. It’s not jour job, soldier,” the scientist said. He stood tall, placed his hands on his hips and hung his head back, stretched and returned to his keyboard. Steve recognised the voice, but could not place it. It was so familiar.
“May I speak freely Mr Johnson? Time is …”
“No, soldier.” The scientist cut him off, turning round to face them.
Steve saw his face now, a little blurred in the reflection, but it was his CO. “How the actual fuck!” He thought, recoiling in shock.
Mr Johnson walked over to the two of them and glared at the soldier who had been trying to get Steve to take out the key. The soldier dropped his head dutifully and stepped back, hands behind his back.
“Now, Steve,” Johnson said, leaning down and putting one arm round his shoulders, “I know you’ve been through a lot and have a million questions, but we really need to finish this mission.” His voice was calm and reassuring. “Time is against us and the Da’at are trying to get through our firewall as we speak and jack our systems. That’s what I’m doing over there. Trying to stop them.” He gestured back at the bank of monitors. “I can see you’re struggling; you’ve been exposed to the cold for a long time. Take your time.”
Johnson paused and looked over to the medic. “Lionel, have we got anything to help Steve here?”
“Already dosed with Iloprost when he came in,” replied Lionel. “I’ll hook up the humidified O2 and give him something to help with the pain.”
Lionel wheeled an oxygen mask over to Steve and adjusted some dials on the side. He flicked a switch and held the mask up to Steve’s face. Steve felt some warmth from the mask as Lionel stretched the band over his head.
“There you go, Steve. Just breathe normally. The humidified air is warmed which will help.” He adjusted another knob, took a small syringe and drained a tiny amount of liquid from a small vial he took from his pocket. He slipped the bottle back in his pocket and tapped the syringe making sure there were no air bubbles. A small drop of liquid beaded on its tip.
“Nothing to worry about, Steve,” he reassured. “Just a micro dose of PZM21 to help with the pain.” Lionel offered the needle to a small membrane near the oxygen tank and injected the contents. There was a small hiss as the liquid nebulised. Steve felt its incursion in his throat almost immediately and nearly wretched with the bitter sting that hit. It felt like somebody had just sprayed a combination of coffee and acid.
“Lionel knows his stuff, that’s for sure,” said Johnson, patting Steve on his shoulder. “That should perk you up.” He turned to Lionel again. “How long?”
“Give it a few minutes,” he replied.
Nobody spoke. Different members of the team were going about different things in the room. Some were cleaning weapons, others just stood talking while lines of text scrolled nonchalantly past on monitors. Machines beeped and one of the ceiling lights flickered annoyingly every now and then. Steve had noticed it since he regained consciousness but it now seemed the only thing of any interest in this surreal moment.
Seven seconds. Who knew, he thought. Every seven seconds. Flick, flick, flick. He focused on the light. He double-checked. Triple-checked. Reconfirmed it in his head. Definitely seven seconds with three flicks. He started to feel his fingers a little more then noticed the flickers also had a pattern. They were repeating. Coincidence? Maybe.
But his brain wouldn’t let it go. His brow furrowed. Think. Think. Think. S. That’s an S in morse code. Morse code! My god, how old is that? Hang on. W. O. R. D. Sword? Words? It repeated again. No. There were more letters. Y. A. O. His head still wasn’t straight and it was coming in like alphabet soup. Who the fuck was doing this? The Da’at? Johnson had said they were trying to jack in a take control.
“Any feeling Steve?” Johnson shattered his concentration.
“Uh, a bit,” he replied still trying to understand the significance of the code.
“Great. How about that memory crystal?” Johnson asked politely.
“Steve? Are you OK?”
“Could be the PZM21,” offered Lionel. “It can be a little disorienting.”
Steve couldn’t focus. He felt his hand move towards his pocket. “Er, yes, sir,” he felt himself say, opening his pocket. He grasped the pouch inside and pulled it out, feeling a tingle on his skin as his hand brushed the closure on his fatigues.
“That’s great Steve. You’re doing great,” comforted Johnson.
Slowly, he unzipped the pouch and removed the memory crystal with his left hand. He felt the blood in his veins, forcing its way through his almost locked fingers. He offered the memory crystal up to the port on the desk next to the monitor and paused just before he inserted it.
His hand started to twitch, the skin between his thumb and forefinger pulsing and making the rabbit-foot tattoo move like Thumper’s foot in Bambi.
“Steve, Mr Johnson, please, we need the code.”
Against his will he started to tap out morse code with the memory crystal.
“- • • – – – – – – • – •”
A low hum engulfed him and the world looked like it was being sucked away down a hole. His vision faded to black.
To be continued …