GrayBy Martin Odoni
Page 1 of 1
A prequel to Rescue and Premature Burial, set in the Blake's 7 universe.|
Crime, thought Haigue bleakly as he lay bleeding on the rocks, has it ever been worth it? Even when they had succeeded, it had earned them little. Now it had failed, and it had cost them... well, everything.
* * *
The Atomic Wars that had engulfed humanity's corner of the galaxy may have finally ended, but the horrors had not. Instead, Mankind had descended into a new Dark Age. An age of factionalism, turmoil, and uncertainty. And that was just on the planets that had managed to effect some semblance of order.
However, this had presented opportunities to those who had courage, enterprise, a sturdy ship, and a cynical disregard for fair ethics. In the case of Haigue and Dorian, the opportunity was to fetch and carry - that is to say, to fetch things that belonged to other people and to carry them to someone else to whom they did not belong, all for a price. In this age of crisis, demand was always greater than supply.
The problem, of course, was that the original owners were not keen to be deprived of their possessions, especially when the possessions in question were food supplies and when most of the local quadrant was in the grip of one of the most severe famines in human history.
So, as their small freighter lifted clear of the planet Ruerccho,with a hold full of grain stolen from the local distribution silo, they realised that a squadron of three gun ships was in pursuit.
"We're in trouble," noted Haigue shrewdly.
Dorian stared at the status screen in front of him with a grim frown. To escape Ruerccho's atmosphere in a hurry they'd fired the rear gravity deflection thrusters early. The resulting friction had burned away the port stabiliser, leaving the freighter in no shape for tangling with enemy craft. Even trying to outrun them would be tricky, as steering a steady flight path needed both stabilisers in position.
"We can't complete the journey with Capricorn in this shape," Dorian concluded. "We'll have to put down on the nearest planet with a breathable atmosphere. I'll transmit a message on to Helotrix... warn Administrator D'Areaux that the shipment's going to be delayed by a few days."
Haigue looked unhappy. "He warned us after last time that he'd halve our fee if we were late again..."
Dorian shrugged. "I know, but unless you're planning to invent a time machine in the next ninety seconds, there's not a lot we can do about it. We will be late, end of story. And he'd probably refuse to pay us at all if we don't even warn him."
"Send the message then," scowled Haigue, operating the flight controls with practiced ease to evade an incendiary charge from one of the gun ships. "We'll break light- speed after you're done."
Dorian got to his feet, staggering against the jittery flight pattern, and parked himself in the communication chair, where he tapped out a message on the keyboard., while Haigue grumbled to himself.
"What was that?" asked Dorian once he'd sent the message.
"I said, 'I wanna go straight,'" repeated Haigue in the sort of impatient raised voice that ignorant people reserve for speaking to the hard-of-hearing or foreigners.
Dorian sighed. "Just get us out of here," he suggested, "before someone on those gun ships works out how to shoot straight."
Haigue nodded and let his fingers dance their way across the controls in front of him.
Power transferred from Capricorn's sub-light engines to the interstellar drive. Time distorted around the ship as its thrust increased. It broke across the light barrier, shot clear of the gun ships, and melted into the inky dusk of space.
* * *
The first - only - planet with a breathable atmosphere that Capricorn came to was a ruin. Nothing unusual in that. Most of the planets in terran space had been devastated by the Atomic Wars, but this was different, because the war on this world had had no direct relation to the conflict that had started on Earth.
Nonetheless, the outcome was much the same. Practically everything had been lost, and the survivors had reverted to primitive tribalism. Not altogether the most propitious of worlds to land on when their ship required high technology repairs.
But they couldn't fly much further with the chaotic flight path threatening to shake the ship to bits, certainly not as far as the next life-supporting world. So, land on Xenon they did. Crash-land, that is.
It was unfortunate timing more than anything else. Capricorn's atmospheric sensors were malfunctioning by the time the ship had reverted to sub-light speeds, and so there was no way of gauging the climate. The stratospheric region through which the freighter entered Xenon's atmosphere was alive with a violent electrical storm, and, with the ship already in such a rickety condition, it required only one bolt of lightning to flip the vessel end- over-end.
Dorian knew now that he was about to die. Capricorn was plummeting toward the ground so fast that the G-forces alone were almost blacking him out. Most of the ship's surface skin had already been torn away by atmospheric friction, and all the emergency systems aboard had virtually ceased to exist, let alone function. He couldn't possibly survive. He knew it, he knew that there would probably be nothing left by the time Capricorn plunged into the ground. Nothing could survive an impact at this speed. Nothing.
* * *
His eyes opened. He didn't know how they managed it but they did. They had no right to be open, they had no right to still be eyes at all. He had no right to still be himself. His entire being should have been a wide dispersal of chemical vapours and ash. But it was not. He was alive. He was in fearful pain, he was barely able to move, he probably had fewer intact bones in his skeleton than broken ones, but he was still, just barely, alive.
Wherever he was, it was sinfully dark. Perhaps it was night time, he couldn't say. The ground beneath him was unforgivingly solid and jagged. Rocks. The air was damp and cold with a nauseous mouldy texture, irritating the lungs that burned open and closed in his chest, aching to be fed something richer and cleaner.
He tried to raise his weary head a little, but he couldn't manage it. Just that effort sent the blood racing from his head, to be replaced by searing pain. He was soon asleep again.
* * *
Consciousness returned hours, perhaps days, later. The miracle of his survival was extraordinary enough before. Now he found that, long after he should have died from the impact, or his wounds, or thirst, or starvation, or all three, he was instead still very much alive. More extraordinary, he was not thirsty, or hungry. Frighteningly, he could feel very little of the pain that he had experienced before. In fact, he felt almost healthy.
He let his eyes roll open again, and saw that he was lying in a dank cavern. There was light shining down on his face from above, the planet's tiny sun insinuating its gentle way through a long shaft in the cavern ceiling. After a few moments he realised that the shaft was a fissure created by Capricorn's impact with the ground - it had melted its way through dozens of metres of solid rock, opening a tunnel into a subterranean cavern.
Dorian tried to sit up again, and to his amazement found that this time it was very easy. He felt a number of throbbing pains in different corners of his body, a few stiff aches and sores in other corners of his body that he never even knew he had, but otherwise he was more or less in one piece. He found himself smiling broadly at the vague twinges he felt - any pain was a physical sensation, and any physical sensation reminded him that, somehow, he was still alive to cherish it.
He found his feet unsteadily. His limbs felt heavy, his joints felt awkward, but he could stand with little difficulty. He felt no dizziness, he felt no exhaustion or hunger. He was basically all right. But how could that be?
The light spilling into the cavern was weak and narrow, and so little of this cave was illuminated by it. But it was enough. The cavern was strewn with tangled, ruined fragments of the ship, and amongst them, some way off, he saw Haigue lying face down, still unconscious but clearly breathing. He had survived as well. How?
It was as Dorian walked over to check on his partner's health that he saw it out of the corner of his eye. The creature. So dark of hue that he hadn't seen it in the dim light until he was practically standing on top of it. It was slumped across the ground, its warped and mottled flesh hanging in great loops from its stunted, broken frame. Whatever species it was, the creature looked like it had more broken bones than intact ones. What did that remind Dorian of?
Come to that, what did the creature itself remind Dorian of? He couldn't say, but for all the revulsion and trepidation it filled him with, it seemed almost familiar, as though he had encountered it before - even shared something with it, horrifying though it sounded...
Then he heard the voice. It was not a sound, not audible, of no shape or clarity. And yet he heard it, and it was a voice. Dorian heard it rumbling and hissing and rasping through the inside of his head, accompanied by a strange, forlorn moan.
"THIS VESSEL," it went, "DIED FOR YOU."
"What!" cried Dorian. "Who said-...?"
"THIS VESSEL," went the voice again, "IS OF THIS WORLD, AS YOU ARE NOT. IT CAME TO FIND YOU. TO FIND THE FLAMING CHARIOT THAT FELL FROM THE SKY."
Dorian did not understand why, but every word made sense to him, as though just clarifying facts that he was already privy to but that he needed to put in good order.
"IT CAME TO FIND YOOOOOOU," growled the voice. "TO SEE IF ANYONE LIVED THROUGH THE FLAMES. NOW , THROUGH COMING HERE IT HAS MADE YOU LIVE BY TAKING YOUR DEATH."
Dorian's fear and disgust actually grew, not through uncertainty, but through understanding. He knew what the voice was saying, knew with great sureness that it was all true, even as he wished that it was not.
"My death?" he murmured.
"YOUR DEATH," repeated the voice, "YOU WOULD DIE IN FLAMES, JUST AS THE VESSEL WOULD, JUST AS ANY OTHER OF YOUR KIND WOOOULD."
Dorian looked back at the creature once more and a terrible, calm horror gripped him. "That thing!" he spat, gesturing at the creature with a revolted finger. "Are you saying that thing was human?"
There was no answer at first, as though the voice did not understand the concept of humanity. But then who ever did? Certainly no one human. But then the voice did speak, in a way that suggested it was either ignoring the question or evading it.
"HOMM-MM-MMIK," was all it said.
"What the devil does that mean?" Dorian demanded, feeling the icy fingers of fear working their excruciating magic further and further up his spine.
"NOW IS THE TIME," said the voice. "IT MUST BE NOW. NOW, OR YOU WILL BOTH DIIIIIE..."
"I don't understand," protested Dorian weakly. "I don't understand any of this."
"THIS VESSEL CAN PURGE YOU OF NO MORE," the voice hissed in his head, "IT IS ABOUT TO DIE. WHEN IT DIES, YOU WILL DIE TOO... BOTH OF YO-O-O-OOUU!!"
"H-How?" stammered Dorian.
"YOU DIED..." gasped the voice, "YOU DIED TEN SUNS AGO WHEN YOU CAME HERE IN YOUR METAL CHARIOT OF FLAMES. THE VESSEL PURGED YOU OF DEATH. NOW THE VESSEL IS EXHAUSTED. YOU MUST FIND A NEW VESSEL. NO-O- O-OW."
Dorian looked at the creature once more, and the leery horror he had felt on first view of it changed to understanding, and a fresh wave of fear. "There is no one else," he protested. "I can't provide a new vessel..."
"THEN CHOO-OOSE," rumbled the voice. "YOU MUST CHOOSE."
"Choose? Choose what?"
"CHOOSE, YOU OR YOUR COMPANION. CHOOSE THE VESSEL FOR THE OTHER..."
* * *
It took Dorian several hours to safely scale the shaft. When he reached the surface, he found himself on a high rocky cliff, surveying a rural landscape of gentle, lush wilderness and broad, inviting plains, all washed in the warmth of the midday sun. This world had potential, he could see that now. It was pleasant. It had people who could doubtless be manipulated. And most of all, deep below his feet, a mutated half-breed of a humanoid that had once been called Haigue was now trapped forever in a dark and fearsome underworld, only allowed to continue existing as the key to immortality. Dorian's immortality.
Yes, Dorian would stay here. Xenon had potential, all he had to do was adapt it to his particular needs. That would not be difficult, he knew. By definition, he now had all the time in the world...
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