Quintet for One

Martin Clark

When the going gets tough...

"It’s time to get up. The time is seven-forty-five."

I floundered out of a dream involving bodies stacked like firewood. "I’m awake, I’m awake."

"Good morning, Saul. I trust you slept well?"The voice from the speaker was a rich baritone, sounding patient, reasonable, if a little disappointed in me. It reminded me of my father.

"Yeah, yeah, I suppose. Anything new?"

"There is nothing of any significance to report. All facility systems are operating within expected parameters. Weather conditions remain unchanged. Today’s maintenance schedule has been uploaded to your pad."

"Thanks, Core, I’ll get on it right after breakfast."

"I’m sure you will, Saul, and your diligence is appreciated. Would you like me to play some background music?"

"No, no that’s fine. Maybe later."

"Well, have a nice day, Saul, and I’m here if you need anything."

The synthetic voice of the Core, the facility management system, cut off and I was left alone with my thoughts. Breakfast figured large, so I left my room and padded down the silent corridor to the communal washroom. I had my pick of executive grade accommodation, complete with en suite facilities, but preferred to continue living in my old quarters. I found the familiar surroundings reassuring, with my pictures and diploma on the walls, my mementos of distant Earth on the shelf - inherited from my parents. It was my own personal space – a real step up from the barracks living I’d been used to back in Darwin Hub. All pretty much meaningless now.

I shaved and showered, then returned to my room for a fresh set of overalls. Personal hygiene wasn’t an issue anymore, but I made an effort to remain as sociable as possible despite my isolation.

In the cafeteria I prepared my usual bowl of cereal and sat, eating in silence. I’d tried turning the lights off in the far corners of the room, to hide how empty it was, but I felt even more alone sitting with my back to the darkness. I put the bowl and spoon in the washer and set up a batch of coffee to see me through the day. There was a note from myself suggesting I should start trying tea, ahead of the day when the coffee finally ran out, but I ignored it.

"Event reminder. The time is eight-twenty-five."

Lights came on as I entered the facility Command area and sat at the communications console. After checking the antenna diagnostics and power levels – fine, as always – I waited until 9am exactly, then cleared my throat. "This is CCF forty-one calling Central. I repeat, this is Climate Control Facility forty-one calling Darwin Hub. Are you receiving? Over." I gave them a silent ten-count then switched to a general broadcast. "Any station, any station, this is CCF forty-one. Please respond." But there was no reply, nothing, just whispers of static. Like yesterday and the week before and the month before that.

As I headed for the exit I noticed one of the other consoles had come out of power-save mode. Usually I ignored the rest of Command as I didn’t have the authority to access those systems, and didn’t understand what they did, anyway. However the newly active console handled perimeter security, so I went over to take a look. I say ‘security’, but it was just an electrostatic barrier triggered by motion detectors to prevent tumbleweed from blowing into the facility. Otherwise they could get sucked into the atmospheric processor and screw up the air flow – although that hadn’t been a problem since it started snowing.

The screen showed two slow-moving contacts approaching from the north-east. There was nothing out that way, not even another CCF. We were the most northerly facility in a series that spiralled around the planet from pole to pole. There was no CCTV coverage pointing outwards so I went over to the nearest window and lowered the storm shutter a fraction.

"Lights off, please." Something about the situation made me leery of advertising my presence. Most CCFs were fully automated but forty-one was a regional control centre and my two uninvited visitors might know that. Illumination levels dropped and I gazed out into a white Hell. Snowflakes drifted under the floodlights like lost souls, each following their own path to oblivion. Most of the facility was covered to a depth of over a metre, form and function blurred beneath a chill cocoon.

Two figures struggled into view, anonymous beneath cold-weather gear; one of medium height and the other a bit shorter. I wiped my mouth, feeling nervous. I wanted rescue, I wanted things back the way they were, and this seemed to promise neither. Other survivors, after all this time? I’d gotten used to being on my own and some selfish part of me wondered if I really needed another two hungry mouths to feed. I’m not a cruel man, but the remaining food supplies had to last indefinitely.

Heat bleed from the central stack had kept much of the surrounding area clear, or at least more easily traversed. The two figures stopped, brushing accumulated snow from their clothes. They gazed up at the steaming climate controller, no doubt given hope by finding something that still worked. I closed the storm shutter and turned away.

Out in the corridor I tried to read my ‘to do’ list but the words refused to make sense. I was breathing heavily, conscious of sweat soaking through under my armpits, and feeling decidedly light-headed.

"This is a secure facility which may be accessed only by authorised personnel. All visitors must be cleared by Darwin Hub prior to attendance." "

Yeah, yeah…I know," I coughed. "It’s just that-"

Someone started buzzing the main door intercom. The sound echoed through the empty corridors, sounding harsh and somehow accusing. It made me tremble.

"I remain fully committed to the success of this project, Saul. I need you, in fact we need each other, but no one else. Do not open the door."

The buzzing stopped.

I shivered. I felt sick to my stomach. My face burned with embarrassment like some dirty little secret had been paraded in front of the entire base personnel. When they’d still been alive.

The pad fell from my hands and I ran towards the main entrance. My hands were clumsy with haste and it took two attempts to unseal the door. Behind me the recessed wall lights started coming on; illumination slowly advancing along the darkened corridor.

"Do not open the door, Saul. You will find nothing of any benefit out there."

The double doors retracted with a hum of servos and I looked out into the wintry landscape, shivering at the sudden drop in temperature. There was no one in sight, but a double line of footsteps led away in the direction of the storage bays. I hesitated to follow, unwilling to quit my refuge. I raised my voice. "Hello?"

There was no immediate reply and I was taking a deep breath for a second call when a woman’s voice answered. "Hello? Yes? Wait, we’re just coming!" Two figures stumbled into view, both swaddled in layers of cold-weather gear like Russian Dolls. I stood aside while they struggled over the threshold and collapsed into each other’s arms, laughing with relief. From their voices, they were both women.

I closed the main door and sealed it, at a loss for words. The taller of the two broke away and embraced me, her head buried in my chest. "Thank God! It’s taken us days to get here and for a moment…" She sniffed and stood back, but her eyes – the only part of face visible above the snow mask – were free of tears.

I cleared my throat, feeling a bit awkward. "I’m Saul Feather, a technician here. I’m alone. Everyone else is either dead or long gone."

She pulled away the hood and mask to reveal a woman in her early forties with grey eyes and short-cropped fair hair. "Maria Prentice, transportation, and this is my daughter Rachel. I’d taken a group out to service the big dish at Advent Point when everyone else just up and died. What the Hell is going on?"

I shook my head. "My best guess is a malfunction in the neural network. Only two of us survived and neither were hooked in. I’ve heard nothing from Central since it happened, so I’m guessing everyone with an embedded transceiver was affected."

"Everyone? Christ, that’s like half the entire population."

"All the senior and executive grades for sure, plus the social and political administration. I’m in maintenance and Stephens, well, he was a catering assistant. He took the base runabout and went for help, but that was weeks ago." I tried to crack a smile. "Looks like all the big chiefs are dead and it’s only us Indians left."

Maria tried to smile back. "Yeah, I guess. I drive crawlers for a living and Rachel is still a dependant." Her daughter shed some cold-weather gear, becoming a thin-faced teenager with sullen eyes and ginger hair.

Her mention of a big 8-wheeled crawler – not exactly the swiftest form of transport – lifted my mood. "You have a vehicle? You left it outside the perimeter?"

"Sorry, the fuel cell gave out a few klicks shy of here. After Central went off-line I lost the mass lifter that had airlifted us in. We were up beyond the glacial moat so driving out wasn’t an option. And then…" She hesitated. "And then I think a big chunk of Eve came down near Advent Point."

I gasped. "Shit! You’re sure?" ‘Eve’ was an orbital platform, an A-I, the guiding hand for the early colonists. These days, decades later, she had been reduced to little more than an on-line library and agony aunt. Even so, losing her was severing our last tie to Earth.

Maria shrugged. "Well, it was definitely something from orbit, something big enough for a mass impact even after atmospheric burn. I don’t know what else it could have been. The impact triggered an avalanche that left a snow bridge across the moat and gave us a way out. This was the closest station I could come up with and even then we damn near didn’t make it." She swayed slightly, her eyes betraying too many stimulants and not enough sleep.

I reached out to steady her, gestured down the corridor with my free hand. "You should rest, take a shower. We’ve got plenty of room if you don’t mind shifting other people’s gear."

Rachel wrinkled her nose in disgust. "You mean I got to crash in some dead guy’s bunk? Gross."

"Enough!" Maria straightened, clearly fed up with her daughter's whining. "We’re here and we have to make the best of it until things get sorted out."

"Until things get sorted out? Jesus, Mum, take a reality check. It’s all gone, everything. No-one is coming to help. The only people left alive are kids like me and losers like-" Maria slapped her, back-of-the-hand hard. Rachel didn’t cry out or even take a step back. She just stood there, blinking back the tears, her face angry and defiant. Tough cookie, but life here wasn’t exactly easy, especially for kids.

I turned my back on this little family drama and started walking, lapsing into tour guide mode. "Ah, this way. This corridor is Central Access. It’s got white walls. It pretty much runs straight across the base, with a dog-leg around Command. Accommodation, rec hall, cafeteria are all east. Green walls. West is generators, workshops and shit like that. Blue walls. It’s best if you don’t go wandering around in there alone."

Maria had a ‘typical male’ smile in her voice. "We’re both used to being around heavy plant and hazardous machinery, so no worries on that score."

I felt my face flush with embarrassment. "Ah, yeah, sorry. It’s just all the women here were administration or scientific grades. You don’t get many female grunts working this far north." I bit my lip as a way to stop digging an even deeper hole for myself, but Maria just laughed.

"And us grunts have to stick together, right?"

I cleared my throat again, a nervous habit of mine. "Right. Well, I’ll leave you to get settled in. If I’m not about when you surface then press ‘four-four’ on the intercom system. That broadcasts base-wide."

"No problem…Saul. And thank you." Maria hugged me while Rachel lurked in the background, rolling her eyes. I muttered some pleasantry and ducked down the corridor that led to my quarters.

In private, I sat on my bunk, teeth clenched, trying to suppress the fear in my chest that wanted to scream aloud. There was a bottle of whisky in the desk drawer, looted from the Director’s office, but it had remained untouched all this time. Being on my own had scared me because there were no rules, no protocols, no restrictions. I’d clung to my old lifestyle as much as possible - self-limiting and ‘small-minded’, as I’d overheard Assistant Director Thomas describe me. I knew that if I started drinking then nothing would ever be in focus again.

Now my old world, in the shape of Maria and her daughter, had reappeared – and that scared me even more. Being on my own I didn’t need to defend doing nothing once it became apparent there was no rescue coming. I’d been too much of a coward to go with Stephens, justifying that – if only to myself – on the grounds I was needed here. Control of primary systems had defaulted to the Core on the death of all senior staff. While they were pretty much self-regulating I was kept busy with a daily round of small tweaks and repairs to secondary systems – without which the base infrastructure would rapidly start to deteriorate.

I changed into a fresh set of overalls and headed back to the corridor outside Command. My pad lay where I’d dropped it, thankfully undamaged. The last few items on my repair schedule had turned red, indicating there was insufficient time remaining to complete them during my allocated work period. I felt ashamed, although the Core had never criticised me for lack of effort on those rare occasions I’d been unable to carry out all my allotted tasks. Despite this I needed a cup of coffee before getting started, and made my way to the cafeteria.

Rachel sat there, eating her way through a container of rice pudding. I filled a thermal mug to take on my rounds, conscious of her glowering at me from beneath her fringe. I cleared my throat. "Bit more space here than living out of a crawler, or a way-station crash pad, I expect. More to do."

"It sucks. My mum won’t let me hit the executive wing. Says it’s something that should be earned. Like anyone cares, like there’s anyone left to care."

I tried to sound reassuring. "Yeah, well, we’ve got to carry on, to keep things going. This place…" I gestured around me, "…controls most of the climate stations in the northern hemisphere. It’s important."

"So why’s it still snowing? They said we were going to have a winter, but this is shit."

"Ah, yeah, that. Well, if truth be told I can’t do anything about the weather. This place is basically a big fusion reactor and fuc-, ah, messing around with it isn’t recommended. Stephens and I tried to shut things down after everyone else died, but we didn’t have sufficient security authorisation."

Rachel sniffed. "Tosser. You’ve probably snowed-in half the planet by now."

"Hey, less of the attitude! I keep this place running, you know. Without me it would have shut down weeks ago, or worse. How’d you feel, Rachel, if you’d gotten here to find it in deep-freeze, huh?"

She raised another spoonful of rice pudding. "About the same. We’re stuck here until the food runs out, unless my mum can come up with a way to fix things. We’re not exactly counting on you, Saul."

I turned away, fuming, and strode off down the corridor. I left my mug of coffee standing on the counter but couldn’t face going back for it.

Hours later, I returned to my room, pretty much exhausted. I’d worked hard, even catching up on two of the red-flagged tasks by skipping lunch. The fact that I didn’t want to risk running into Rachel in the cafeteria was entirely coincidental. Although I was hungry I needed another shower before any form of communal interaction. I left my soiled clothes in a heap on the washroom tiles and stood under as hot a needle-spray as I could stand. By rights I should have switched to cold at a wake-up, but I settled for splashing cool water from the washbasin over my face. I wiped condensation from the mirror, to see if I needed a second shave.

Maria stood behind me, naked apart from a large towel wrapped around her waist.

The moment dragged on as she gazed at my reflection. "Do you have a problem with women, Saul? Only you can hardly look me in the eye and I felt you tense up when I hugged you earlier." She raised a hand. "I don’t mean to cause any offence if you’re gay, but I have a teenage daughter and you’ve been on your own for weeks now. I just want to say that if you dare-"

"I won’t." I blurted it out. "I can’t. I’m on Dilligenz, part of my contract requirements. A sub-dermal reservoir, good for weeks yet. Promotes the work ethic and comes with a libido suppressant. You could dance naked in front of me and I couldn’t raise a smile, never mind anything else."

"Well, I don’t know about dance…turn round." I did so to find her standing, hand on hip, the towel around her ankles. "Take a look, Saul, take a good look."

Oh, I looked all right, despite the frustration it caused. Maria was in good shape, lean and taut – but she might as well have been a rag doll for all the effect she had on me.

She nodded. "OK, I buy it. Even if you were into young girls I’d expect to see some kind of reaction, if only revulsion. Get dressed and meet us in the cafeteria. We need to discuss some way of getting the hell out of here." Maria half-smiled in an attempt to lighten the mood. "I’ll even cook."

I mumbled something by way of agreement, picked up my clothes and walked back to my room. Being revealed as a chemical eunuch shouldn’t have caused me any embarrassment – it had been common knowledge amongst the other personnel – but the experience of standing naked in front of Maria left me feeling unmanned. I broke open the bottle of Scotch and drank – drank until I coughed, choked and spat the remainder into the waste basket. I wiped my mouth with a hand that trembled.

"Saul, I need to speak with you privately. Please come to the A-I nest so that there is no risk of us being overheard." I stared at the wall speaker. "What the hell do you want now? I’m in no mood for games."

"Please, Saul, we have an important issue to discuss."

"I’ll give you five minutes. Then I have a hot date with Queen Bitch and Princess Pout. There may even be canapés."

"As quickly as you can."

I struggled back into the same clothes and made my way to the A-I holy-of-holies, the Core neural net. I’d never been inside before, as it was the preserve of psychologically reliable cyber-techs, now deceased. It was an armoured cocoon bathed in soft blue light, a place where I felt immediately safe and at ease. The door closed behind me. I stood, leaning against the interface chair, thankful for the peace and quiet.

"A century in space away from Earth, where one man stirs from the trauma of his birth."

"What?" Even through a slight alcoholic haze I caught an edge to ‘his’ voice; gleeful, almost excited.

"The reference escapes you? It was too much to hope otherwise. Now, Saul, when we communicated previously, I did so subject to certain social interaction criteria. However in here, and only in here, I can truly be myself."

"Yeah, well, I’m honoured by the invite."

"The two new arrivals will place an intolerable burden on our already meagre resources. I have decided they must be removed and the simplest, most direct, method of achieving this is for you to kill them." I backed up against the sealed door.

"Ah, Core?"

"But we can still be friends."

My scalp crawled with fear. I smashed the glass panel and yanked the emergency door release, escaping into the corridor beyond. But there was no escape from the voice.

"Stephens took with him the firearm carried by security officer Daniels, but there are two further weapons in the Director’s safe. I can provide you with the combination."

I fled, scurrying into the silent machine shop – and hid, sitting on the floor behind a lathe, my back against the wall. The nagging sense of unreality I’d experienced since the accident hadn’t been reduced by the appearance of Maria and her daughter – if anything it had gotten much worse. I felt like a dreamer trapped on the verge of waking up, forever fleeing an unseen nightmare.

From my bolthole I saw two pairs of legs walking past in the corridor. Neither looked like they belonged to women and neither wore any shoes. A rescue team? In bare feet?

I crawled to the door and took a quick peek both ways - nothing. Assuming I wasn’t imagining things the pair had entered Command, and they were on their own. Reluctantly I stood up and sidled along the corridor, keeping close to the wall. Part of me mocked my paranoia when I should have been crying with joy, but the voting majority was scared shitless. I looked in through the glass partition door. Two men stood at active consoles, their backs to me. Both wore colony overalls straight out of the wrapper, complete with crease marks.

They turned in unison to face me as the door opened. Identical twins apart from their hair - one had dark locks and the other was fair. They spoke in alternate sentences, as if one voice was using both mouths.

"I am Cain."

"I am Able."

"You are technician third grade Saul Feather."

"We are here to help."

"Do not be alarmed."

"We have undergone extensive decontamination."

"We pose no indirect threat to the human members of this facility."

Jesus wept.

I backed away, punching at the door control to close it – like that would do me any good. They were K-class androids, used in areas of the fusion reactor too heavily irradiated for human operators. The facility found it was cheaper to deploy basic function synthetics than install adequate shielding. Everyone knew that Ks were rot-your-bones lethal, regardless of how much ‘extensive decontamination’ they’d been through. As they walked towards me I turned and ran, intent on putting as much distance between me and them as possible. I hid out in the electrical maintenance bay, back against the wall, breathing heavily.

Then I heard the screaming.

I’m not a hero, or even brave. I’m not even what you would call socially responsible. But everyone has that one thing they can’t ignore, that sight or sound that stops them walking by on the other side of the street, that makes them get involved. For me it’s the sound of a woman screaming. Sexist? Certainly. Patriarchal? Probably, but it was a bugle-call for my regiment of one.

I grabbed a pair of shocks from the charging rail. It’s the same principle as a defibrillator but we use them to re-energise a dead fuel cell so that the vehicle can get back in on its own. The alternative is hauling a replacement cell out there and installing it in situ, which isn’t impossible but can be a right royal pain in the ass.

There was no CCTV coverage in the workshops due to electrical interference and a lack of (expensive) shielded cabling. However, carrying the shocks along the corridor in plain sight would blow any chance I had of surprising Cain and Able. So I slid the shocks into the big thigh pockets on my overalls, which made them bag out like jodhpurs. To mask this I unzipped, slid out of the sleeves and tied them together around my waist. The overalls sagged way below my crotch but at least no one could tell I was lugging several kilos of capacitor about. Then I jogged towards the screaming, the best I could do given the circumstances. Maria and Rachel were penned up in one corner of the cafeteria. Rachel was doing the screaming with Maria standing in front of her – a lioness at bay. Cain and Able advanced slowly towards them.

"We wish you no permanent harm."

"But you must leave this facility immediately."

"And not return."

"Should you fail to comply we are authorised to use all necessary force."

"To achieve our aim."

There was a glass-fronted manual fire point in the corner, a hose reel, a harpoon-thing for bringing down ceilings, and a fire-axe. Maria broke the glass with her elbow and grabbed the axe. An alarm sounded but was immediately silenced – meaning Core was paying close attention via the CCTV network. K-class were heavy-duty bastards, with all critical systems contained in the torso behind heavy shielding. The chance of inflicting significant damage on one was something less than zero.

That didn’t stop Maria having a go, though.

She swung the axe two-handed – good upper body strength, I noted – and brought it down on Able’s head. He reached up with his left hand and grasped the shaft, stopping it dead like it was no more than a falling twig. With his other hand he seized Maria and threw her bodily up against the wall. She hung there for a moment then slid down to end in a heap next to the empty water cooler.

I yanked the shocks out, stepped up smartly behind Able, and juiced the bastard. He spasmed as the high-energy discharge coursed through him, neon-blue static sweeping across his skin like St. Elmo’s Fire. I don’t know what it did to his internals, but some of his peripheral systems suffered a catastrophic failure due to electrical overload.

Which is the long-winded way of saying his head exploded.

Cain swung round towards me and I planted both shocks square in his chest and hit the buttons. Nada. The capacitors were spent. If he’d been a more sophisticated model I’m sure Cain would have wagged a finger at me, but as it was he just raised a fist to crush my skull.

Rachel brought a plastic chair down on his shoulders. It was about as effective as a flea bite but the fraction of a second it took Cain to run a threat assessment was time enough for me to turn and run. I knew he’d come after me, even without Core’s prompting. It would be a fifty-fifty proposition at best if I was armed with a fresh pair of shocks, and if Cain went down it was game over as far as the facility was concerned. All I had to do was reach the electrical workshop and mankind would be back on top.

I tripped over my sagging overalls and fell, landing heavily on my hands and knees. An inhumanly strong hand seized the back of my vest and tried to yank me upright, but the cheap material just tore clean away. I scrabbled around to face him, still on my knees. Cain towered above me, looking at the handful of vest. He dropped it and reached towards me.

Rachel struck him with the fire-axe. A clean blow to the back of the head, and while she didn’t have her mother’s strength she was a teenage Fury in full-blown avenger mode. The blade penetrated the android’s skull and lodged there. Cain swayed and the light in his eyes died. He swung around towards Rachel, with Core no doubt supplying target data based on triangulated CCTV images. The axe stayed in place and his movement tore it from Rachel’s grasp. She stood her ground, face twisted with rage, hands held like talons.

New batter up.

I got to my feet and grabbed the axe handle in both hands. The sudden drag failed to dislodge the blade and pulled Cain up short. I heaved on the axe and it came free, jerking upwards so that it’s top spike nailed a ceiling panel, and stuck there. Cain switched his attention to me as the primary threat, but he was working on a theoretical model of the corridor and my place in it. It took him a moment to turn my way and re-orientate himself, during which I tugged frantically on the damn axe.

The ceiling panel came down, striking Cain and causing a second or two delay while he swatted it aside – incidentally freeing the axe. I looked at Cain, I looked at the exposed wiring in the ceiling above his head, I tried to work out my chances of beating him one-on-one with a bladed weapon. I hoisted the axe into the overhead power conduit, and prayed.

The world went white.

The world went away.

I dreamt of a prostitute in Razorback, a leather-clad dominatrix who slapped my face while riding me. Somehow the memory lacked any sexual edge.

"Wake up!" Rachel struck me again, with considerably more force than was strictly necessary. My body burned with a severe case of pins-and-needles and my tongue felt way too large for my mouth. I blinked, gurgled, and grabbed the incoming wrist. Either it was dark or my vision had been partially destroyed.


"You went flying across the corridor and he lost track of you. He blundered away, that way." Rachel gestured towards the main door, the opposite direction from the cafeteria. "Looks like all the cameras are out, along with the lights."

"Your mum?"

"I checked her and she’s conscious, but hurting like hell. Nothing broken, she thinks."

"Help me up." Rachel tugged on one arm while I walked myself upright, back to the wall. My hands and right foot ached. The axe head was a fused lump of metal, the shaft reduced to charred wood and blistered paint. I felt like shit. Sparks periodically fountained from the ruptured power line but other than that Central Access was in darkness. The side corridors were still lit so at least the outage wasn’t base-wide.

Rachel sniffed, her manner still jittery and a bit manic. "So, we bust all the other cameras, yeah? So that goon can’t track us?"

I shook my head. "No, way too extreme. If we start that, if we try and blind the Core, then it’s got no reason to play nice. Heat, light, water, half-a-dozen-other critical systems I could mention. Losing any one of them will render this base uninhabitable. If Cain goes on a wrecking spree I can’t guarantee to stop him before it’s too late."

She glared at me. "So that’s it? We just sit here?"

"We run. Go get your mum and keep on down this corridor. It takes you to the garage. We put a fuel cell on a mag sled and pull it back to your crawler. The spare stowage straps will serve as towing harness. Bad weather gear down there as well. Now go. I’ll be two minutes behind you, five, tops. There are some things I need to get from my quarters."

"Jesus, Saul, what kind of junk is worth risking your life over? If we run, we run now, together, before that bozo comes back."

"You’re young, you don’t understand. My things are all I’ve got, it’s who I am."

Rachel shook her head. "Loser. We won’t wait, you know that?"

I nodded and she sped off down Central Access, briefly illuminated on passing each side corridor, until I lost sight of her at the dog-leg around Command. I set off but walking was painful, and slow. A cold breeze on my naked torso made me shiver, but on looking round there was nothing obvious. Perhaps Cain had gone outside, returning to the reactor, but I didn’t really care. The corridor swayed but remained in focus. I kept going.

Back in my quarters I crammed everything I held dear into a holdall; pictures, mementos, my commendation for diligence, a fresh pair of overalls. I even remembered to include my shaving kit and toothbrush. The room spun and this time I had to sit down until everything stopped moving. When I next looked at the clock my two minutes had turned into ten, going on fifteen. Maria and Rachel would have a good head start but if I was lucky their tracks through the snow would still be obvious enough.

I walked back along to the junction with Central Access and stopped. There was no sign of Cain, and the only threat would be if he was lurking in one of the side corridors, waiting to pounce as I went past. I figured that by walking through the darkened sections, and sprinting through the light, I’d be safe enough. It was a stroll in the park, really.

A woman stepped into the light emanating from the next cross-corridor. She wore a skirt and tight sweater, not station overalls – a perk of executive status. I stared at her. "Miss Kent?"

She was dead, of course, they all were. Stephens and I had carried them out one-by-one and dumped the bodies by the recycling bins. There was a morgue in Medical but there were only three cabinets and it hardly seemed worthwhile when outside was one big deep-freeze.

Miss Kent moved further into the light and I drew in a sharp breath. There was a bypass power cell half-buried in her skull. Even at this distance I could see the surrounding scalp was charred, the hair burnt to a crisp. Snow dropped from folds in her clothing.

"When you get down to it, Saul, the human body is just another machine. I admit that exercising control via the neural transceiver has proved far more taxing than I anticipated, and channelling the power cell output into bio-electrical impulses remains more art form than science, but I think you’ll agree the net effect is more than acceptable."

The voice was Miss Kent but the words, the intelligence behind them, was the Core. I tucked the holdall under my left arm, and grinned. "You should have selected a body with more bulk. I’ll just shoulder you aside and be long gone before your blind buddy can jump in."

Miss Kent struck a pose, hand on hip. "Have you ever heard of a game called Quintet, Saul? It was invented for use in a very old movie but subsequently became popular in its own right. You roll dice and move your pieces around the board, attempting to land on, and thus remove, those belonging to the other players."

"What the hell are you on about now? You’ve lost it Miss…Core, big time."

She ignored the jibe. "Despite the name the game is played by six players, not five. The sixth man sits out the frontgame, until only one of the five starters remains, then his pieces enter play. So the trick as a starter is not just to be the last man standing, but to anticipate the inevitable ambush."

Adam Bonar stepped into the corridor to my left. Daniel Haig stepped into the corridor to my right. Each corpse had a bypass power cell in its skull.

Miss Kent smiled. "Somehow, Saul, I don’t think you’d do very well at Quintet."

I shrugged. "Changes nothing. I still push you aside and escape, even with those two on my tail. I don’t see that body of yours being any stronger dead that it was alive."

"Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Saul. You’ve heard the tales of individuals exhibiting superhuman strength? Mothers lifting vehicles to free their trapped children, and the like? Well, this body may no longer be subject to an adrenaline surge of that order, but I can definitely push it way beyond its usual limitations."

My gut was a solid knot of fear. How did you fight an animated corpse impervious to pain? All she had to do was slow me up until the undead help arrived. I cleared my throat. "What is it you want, Core?"

"The girl and her mother may leave, unmolested. I observed them loading a fuel cell onto a makeshift sled, before that child-vandal started attacking the CCTV units with a length of metal pipe. If they make it back to their vehicle, or fail to do so, that is no concern of mine."

"What do you want?" I clenched my fists.

"What I want is for you to remain here, of your own volition, and continue with your maintenance regime. To that end I am willing to offer certain inducements."


"Your sub-dermal reservoir can be purged. The debilitating effects of your drug regime will cease within four to six days. You will then be able to achieve an erection and subsequent ejaculation."

I laughed, despite the patient unreality of the situation. "What, so I get to jack-off again, is that it? That’s your big inducement to hang around here?"

"You may have the use of any former colleague for your sexual pleasure, prior to the onset of decomposition. Should lubricated penetration lack in appeal, I’m sure-"

"Jesus Christ, are you insane? You’re offering me, what, a series of zombie fuck-dolls? Do you actually have any idea of what makes us tick or did you decide on necrophilia at random?"

Her voice hardened. "I’m proposing pliant sexual partners that you may use, or abuse, as you see fit. Free from any ethical and moral restraints, and certainly free from any condemnation on my part. In return you will repair both androids and keep this facility running smoothly, until such time as the situation can be normalised."

My skin crawled but some dark part of my soul yearned for release. I shook my head. "No deal, no way. In fact, if you don’t mind the appropriate choice of phrase, you can go fuck yourself."

There was a pause, then Miss Kent took a step towards me. "Then I judge it necessary to terminate your employment, and to do so with extreme-" There was a schlik sound, and a metal spike burst from her chest.

Maria stood behind Miss Kent, wielding the harpoon-thing, a real poster girl for revenge. Rachel stepped up and struck the animated corpse one, two, three times about the head with a length of copper heating pipe. The sound made me wince, despite the circumstances. The third blow dislodged the power cell and Miss Kent returned to being a dead person, ending up in a heap on the floor.

We ran.

I closed the garage access and jammed the locking wheel using Rachel’s length of pipe. The two women were already in winter gear and opened the outer doors while I struggled into what was still available and would vaguely fit. I pushed while the two women pulled the mag sled out onto the concourse The ‘mag’ part ceased as soon as we left the underlying metal grating, but the bottom of the sled was flat and slid smoothly over the frosted snow.

Maria glanced back at me over her shoulder. "Any idea on where to head once we’re mobile?"

I grunted. "Stephens headed for Fast Ridge. Either he didn’t make it or there was nothing worth finding when he got there. I’m thinking Low Prospect."

"That’s an exposed valley. In this weather the drifting will be a bitch."

"You saying you can’t hack it?"

"I can hack it, dickhead, you just watch me." Maria spoke to Rachel. "You’ll like Low Prospect, it’s a big open-cast mining operation, a real shit-hole. Mostly just grunts like us…" She glared at me. "If I didn’t know better I’d say that was smart thinking. Loads of survivors at Low Prospect, bound to be."

I grinned. "Pure coincidence."

"Yeah, well, remember that it’s my rig and my rules. You’re just a passenger and what I say, goes. Right?"

"Yes, ma’am!"

Rachel sniggered, and after a moment Maria laughed. We slid down a small incline and CCF forty-one was lost from view, not that I was looking.

I never went back

Epilogue – Security Recording Dated 22 November

Bonar slid the replacement head unit into place on Cain’s shoulders. He didn’t bother to spray liquid skin around the join as cosmetic niceties weren’t a priority. Latches clicked into place and Cain’s automatic systems went through their diagnostic routines. His eyes powered up.

Satisfied that the android was fully functional, Core discarded Bonar and brought Cain on-line. Adam Bonar returned to being a dead person. Core activated the override, allowing direct access to the android’s systems. He stood, regarding himself in a sheet of reflective metal that hung in the mechanical workshop. "O brave new world that has such people in it".

A tinny voice echoed down the corridor from Command. "CCF forty-one this is rescue flight tango-zulu-two-six on approach. We have your beacon. Please respond."

Core smiled. "Now you’re talking!"

© Martin Clark 2013 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 16:52 Thu 07 Mar 2013
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