Outgoing message: RE: Update
Time stamp: 3300–02-14; 13:20:16
He’s done it again. We are completely off-grid, way into the cloud, much farther south and possibly east than flight plan. Don’t bother going after the tracker; it’s disabled. He cloned it onto a mini-drone over our assigned scavenger meeting area.
He’s saying this time he’s certain, seen some new imagery. I haven’t seen it. If it’s like last time, I want out. I can’t keep this up. He’s gone from reckless to insane.
Have an evac on standby for me. Co-ordinates to follow, when I get my beacon up and find out where the mad bastard has brought me this time.
Message sending …
Somewhere in Western Europe
“Damn!” Kai blurted, too loud, unsure if his message had sent.
“Everything alright down there? I’m starting the landing routine. You need to get up here and strap in. Wind is buffeting harder than usual today.” Jaxon’s flat voice betrayed little emotion
“All okay! On my way up! … Mad old bastard! Come on … send!” Kai urged as he ran for the ladder. “Okay, let’s do this!” he managed, while grabbing straps and hoping the stress in his voice would be interpreted as excitement.
Whorls of steam and mist followed the ageing shuttle from the sky. Hard angles not suited to the viscosity of atmosphere and cloud made it unsteady. The hull, bruised with corrosion, groaned under the strain as Jaxon landed hard, digging the legs deep into the dirt for a secure anchor.
“There we are, safe and sound!” Jaxon’s hands, reluctant to let go of the controls, were slick with sweat. He let out a long breath and began to unbuckle. “It still hurts to think this area was once a forest. The site should be just a few metres to the north.”
“Sure, sure, but hey, listen, Jax,” Kai began, but was cut off by the startling sound of lightning striking the hull.
“Good to know Mother Nature still has some fight in her!” Jaxon beamed from the ladder as he ducked his head below the floor.
“Jax, listen, I’ve got to tell you something.”
“Alright, let’s talk, but can it wait? Perhaps for the return flight?” Jaxon replied, muffled from the lower deck.
“Okay,” Kai sighed.
“Chin up, man. Come on, get suited up. I’ve got a great feeling about this site. It looks perfect on the images. We need to get some samples, test the soil, check for signs of recovery, and we’ll be out of here in no time.”
“Yep, sounds good,” Kai grumbled as he lowered himself down the ladder and took his suit from its closet.
With a satisfying clunk, the outer airlock door hissed open. Immediately, the small room was filled with a toxic chemical soup. Jaxon hated this part, when his vision was obscured and the cloying warmth enveloped his suit. Peering through the mist, he was reassured by the presence of the young doctor. Jumpy and irritating as he was, he was grateful for the company. Jaxon laid a hand on Kai’s arm and, making sure he could be seen, gave a slow nod.
“Ready?” Jaxon felt his throat tighten. Taking those first heavy breaths in the mask was the worst.
“All set,” Kai replied. “Switching to seismic comms.”
As soon as they exited, the airlock chamber was flushed with inert gasses. This was vital to prevent the corrosion of the shuttle from the inside. Under normal circumstances, the reassuring hiss was audible, but not here, not now. Even the crunch of the loose, dry, remnant soil was felt rather than heard. Jaxon moved slowly, his body hammered by the incessant wind that peppered his suit and visor with fragments of desiccated soil and friable rock. Occasionally, the friction of so many airborne particles generated enough static to induce bolts of lightning. Their suits could take it, but it was still a deeply unnerving experience.
“This has to be bad for the hull. It’s being sandblasted. Not designed for it,” said Kai, as he and Jaxon surveyed the exterior of their little home.
“I’m going to check the hull. It looks like we’ve had significant deterioration,” Kai said hurriedly, before allowing himself to be led too far away.
Jaxon nodded. He expected this, but still it irked him that Kai sometimes seemed ambivalent to the urgency. Even though he wasn’t fully aware of Jaxon’s agenda, looking for signs that the environment was recovering should have been enough to get him going. The illegal environmental research alone was a far bigger risk than a corroded hull.
“I’ll head to the main features over there to the north. Follow the guide rope to my marker and catch up.” Jaxon insisted on heading out into the impenetrable storm of toxicity on his own. An unnecessary risk, thought Kai. Privately, he wondered, and not for the first time, if Jaxon actually wanted some accident to befall him, to end his life in a way he could justify and somehow think meaningful. Normally, he’d fret, but not today; he was glad of the privacy to deploy the beacon. Being in the cloud again just crystallised his decision. Getting the beacon up would hopefully mean that he at least had an evac drone waiting high above. Screw Jaxon. I’ve done my fair share of Scavenger duties, and screw him if he couldn’t even be bothered to listen.
“Keep the comms going, Jax, so I know you’re okay. I won’t be long,” Kai said, as to not arouse suspicion. The wind buffeted him as he began going through the motions of a hull inspection, while discretely launching his beacon up through the cloud.
“Kai, I’m moving to the north. There are small undulations arcing around. The site looks promising. Visibility about five metres, ground soft. Oh my, yes, this is great, Kai. You’ve got to get over here now!” Jaxon could see the mound, as he had at other sites. This time, just one egg-shaped pod, its top broken open. Jagged rock was visible above the swirling mass of blown soil and sand.
“Kai, I’ve found a buried chamber. How long will you be?” Jaxon’s voice crackled in Kai’s ear. The seismic wave comms produced a distinctly synthetic monotone, but knowing what this meant to Jaxon, Kai’s mind filled the gaps and ladled the robotic voice with emotion. Swept by a surge of relief as the beacon light on his HUD flashed green, Kai hurried to find the professor.
“I’m coming now, Jax. I’ve found the rope. Shit, the ground’s so soft.” Heaving yourself through the wind was bad enough, but adding shin-deep, fragmented soil to the mix was exhausting.
Having already started to follow the rope to the marker, Kai didn’t take long to find Jaxon. He was stood still, a grey, blurry silhouette, flickering in and out of his vision. Kai could sense more than see his body trembling beneath the protective suit.
“I’m here! I’m here! What is it?” Reaching a hand slowly through the swirling mass of toxins and dust, he lay it on Jaxon’s arm. He could feel the trembling now was more of a shudder: a deep, full-body convulsion so powerful, Kai’s first thought was that the professor’s suit had ripped and he was suffocating.
Jaxon tensed and composed himself, then turned to peer at Kai through the angry gloom.
“Kai, I’ve found something very special.” He turned his body to reveal a depression in the ground. It arced out of view into the cloud. Part of a complete ring, these features were Jaxon’s obsession, and there at Jaxon’s feet was a smaller, perfectly circular depression. Kai knelt and ran his gloved hand along the rim of the smaller hole. He could feel the flawless surface, hard and smooth despite years of being battered by rock, sand and debris, unmistakably the same as the last one they had examined on that other fool’s errand Jaxon had dragged him on. Still, he was none the wiser as to what the hell it actually was and what it meant to Jaxon.
Kai stood, he turned to Jaxon, hoping for some sort of explanation, but the older man was gone. His voice crackled over the comm-link: “Bringing the excavator. Standby.”
“Let me help,” Kai said, eager to assuage the guilt that began to prickle at the thought of the deceit he had just committed at the very moment Jaxon seemed to have found what he had been searching for, something deeply important to him.
“No! Stay exactly where you are. I cannot risk losing the location. Deploy a marker and stay put.” Also, I don’t want you wandering into an armed scavenger, thought Jaxon.
Kai did as he was told. He deployed a marker beacon: a short-range, seismic burst transmitter. It would let the excavator home in on the location and provide a high resolution, near-surface image. Then the vertigo of sensory deprivation swept over him. It’s okay, it’s okay, he thought, starting the process of a suit systems check to distract from the absurdity of the situation. Who the hell would be out here – standing in the cloud, on the remnants of whatever European country this had been – with an obsessional maniac, flaunting all the safety protocols, all the rules? What the hell was he doing?
An astonishing sight brought Kai out of his panic. It just could not be possible, but there at his feet, set in a neat circle surrounding the small, circular depression, were leaves. Impossibly, it appeared that some life was beginning to take hold deep in the horror of the toxic cloud. He knelt and felt with his gloved fingers. The leaves were the darkest black he had ever seen, with fine, black stems actually rooted into the ground. He shook his head. Maybe the mad old bastard was really onto something after all.
“Excavator en-route. I’ll bring some spare tanks for us, too. It could be a long shift!” Jaxon was clearly massively over-excited. In his mind, he must have already got all his answers. Kai almost felt sorry for the professor, but not quite, as he was still a long way from getting his.
“Copy that. I think the wind’s picking up. Maybe we should leave the marker here and come back another time?” Futile as the attempt was, Kai was getting desperate, and something about the strange, black leaves made him feel deeply uneasy. Reassurance blinked green on his HUD; his beacon was up and transmitting. The guilt pangs from earlier were now most definitely gone. Ten minutes on his own in the cloud had fixed that.
“Don’t be crazy. We’re here to do this, and we aren’t leaving till it’s done. Come on, Kai, you know the score.” Jaxon had doubted Kai’s commitment before. For all Kai knew, he was investigating his theory that the Earth was recovering. That should have been enough to keep the young doctor engaged and on side, but now he knew for sure the boy was a coward and worse, probably a snitch. Oh well, this would be the last time young Doctor Katari would be along for the ride. Screw him, thought Jaxon. But just to be sure, he felt now was the time to share the gravity of his situation.
“Kai, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to raise enough credit to get out here again. I think this is my last trip, my last chance to prove the Earth is recovering.”
“What do you mean? You’re a full professor at SciCare; you’ve surely got more credit lines available in a month than most of us see in a year,” Kai said, too sharply, his frustration taking over.
“Not if … Well, I mean, not when I’m off-listed,” Jaxon said slowly, as he hauled his body through the wind and soft ground. He knew the impact of his words, of his situation, but the reply was hard to hear all the same.
“Off-listed? What about Emily?”
“I don’t know, but now maybe you see; this has to be the place; we have to find the proof.”
“I’m not even sure I know what ‘it’ is Jax. Do you? I mean what the hell are you doing out here when there’s a risk of being off-listed? Looking for what? Answers? Vindication? Validation? No one believes your theory because it can’t be true. You’ve got to think of Emily, your legacy. What the hell are you going to do?” Kai had no sooner stopped talking when his HUD flashed blue in the corner of his eye. His beacon was receiving a message.
Evac drone standing by in upper atmosphere, monitoring your vitals. Any signs of distress and you’ll be pulled out of there. Good work, Doctor. We have what we need. You will be rewarded.
“Thank Christ!” Kai hadn’t meant to say that out loud, but just as he did, the excavator and Jaxon appeared though the cloud. Seeing Jaxon’s wiry form, knowing now of his imminent demise and his part in it, Kai felt a pang of sympathy. Just a fleeting pang, though. It was chased away by his familiar fear, anger and resentment. Thank Christ, indeed. The evac drone was there.
“You didn’t mean that, did you? You know what we’re searching for, and why? You know what this means to me, what it meant to your father? You’ve not become lost, have you, Kai?” Jaxon stooped to draw Kai’s mask close to his own. He needed to see his eyes, to get a visual cue of what was really in Kai’s mind.
“If you are serious about staying out here till the site is all dug up, then we had better get to work. Where are the auxiliary tanks?” Kai’s voice had become clipped, efficient and his eyes cold.
“Damn you, Kai! What have you done?” Jaxon could see the look, familiar from a youth spent with Kai’s father. His old friend shared the same looks, the same expressions, with his son. Such a shame that honour had not been so indelibly planted in this young man’s DNA.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Kai lied, almost enjoying this new feeling of power. No, that wasn’t it; it was superiority over the old bastard. “I’ve been waiting for you to come back. We need the auxiliary tanks, and we need to get to work or get going north. What will it be?” Kai was being openly petulant now and it felt so good.
“Let’s get to work.” Stoically, Jaxon buried his rising anger and fear. It had to be the right place. There would be plenty of time to deal with Kai later.
Jaxon took control of the excavator, the subsurface image showing clear in his HUD. In three dimensions, the imagery was sharp: one large, egg-shaped feature sitting on the edge of a perfect circle where, at other sites, the other seven would have been. The image looked like a ring with a single, circular stone set on it. It reminded Jaxon of the ring he gave Caryn. What he was searching for would be buried deep within the egg-shaped feature, right at the centre, at the base. It was near an apparently identical, egg-shaped feature that his wife had been bludgeoned to death all those years ago. It was deep within that egg-shaped hole that he had found more questions instead of answers. Since then, he had become obsessed, his life consumed with finding something like justice, or maybe just some understanding of what had happened and why.
“We will start with the inside. No, it won’t collapse; it’s solid crystalline rock.” Answering the inevitable question before it was asked, Jaxon exerted the last fragments of his authority. “Let’s preserve these little fellas and get them analysed. It’s incredible, isn’t it. Nature always finds a way!” he said, while gently scooping up the remnant soil around the roots of the little black plants and placing them carefully into sealed jars. Kai actually helped, filling jars and stacking them in his pack. Once the small excavator had cleared the bulk of the remnant soil, gravel and rubble from inside the feature, Jaxon would be able to fit inside. Just enough room to stand with his head at ground level, where it seemed the top of the egg feature had been cut off. Jaxon noted the hard, unweathered edge, where Gert had smashed off his fragment. Best avoid that, even fitted suits could get snagged.
Kai held the line and lowered Jaxon down into the nearly empty egg feature. It was a dangerous task; dense gasses could pool in the depressions, filling the small chambers with a concentrated toxic soup that could eat through suits and safety lines.
“Professor, are you alright down there?” Impatience flickering trough Kai’s question.
“Yes, I’m fine. Be patient, will you!”
“What the hell are you doing anyway? How can this pit be linked to some magical Earth recovery?” Spiteful incredulity that he used to keep internal now flowed freely from Kai, and he grew impatient when Jaxon didn’t answer. “What’s going on down there?”
“Pull me up. We have to get back to Spitsbergen, quickly!”
Kai half-heartedly helped Jaxon up and saw he was cradling something in his gloved hands.
“What have you got there? Let me see!” Kai demanded tersely.
Jaxon was beaming behind his visor. The expense, risks and time away from his daughter were all suddenly going to be worth it. Even the off-listing. With this, maybe he could prevent that from happening. He cradled a small, black crystal in his gloved hand, then dropped it into Kai’s outstretched palm. Kai almost fell, surprised by the weight. Whatever it was made of, it was far too heavy for its size. It seemed to want to pull itself down, deep into the earth.
“What the hell is that?” Genuine surprise and curiosity booming though the seismic comms.
Jaxon took out the one he found at the previous site, the one he’d kept hidden from his young colleague: an identical, two-centimetre long, half-a-centimetre across, octagonal crystal that gleamed a dark, iridescent black. They were so smooth and featureless that they looked almost liquid. Both had such a spellbinding beauty about them that they could almost forget they were stood in a swirling, angry, toxic cloud being buffeted by sand, debris and the wind.
“That, Kai, is the answer, the answer to it all,” Jaxon beamed cryptically.
“The answer to wha—”
Before Kai could finish, a piercing whine penetrated the crackling background noise of the seismic comms. Kai’s eyes began to bulge behind his mask. Throat constrained, he patted wildly at his suit, searching for the breach. Jaxon saw it: Kai’s right shoulder, a jet of air expelled under high pressure from the suit. Already neatly fitted to his body, it began to cling tighter, vacuum-packing the body inside.
“Hold on, Kai. I see it. I’ll patch you up. Must be a problem with the regulators, over-pressuring your—” Jaxon was cut off this time, as a pod screamed from the sky. It slammed into the ground and slotted right over Kai’s body. Jaxon was thrown to the ground and landed hard by the pit they had just excavated. Propping himself up, the last he saw of Kai was the brilliant white tail of an evac drone blasting up through the cloud.
“Kai, you bastard!” Jaxon screamed inside his helmet, no one there to listen, or care. Panic threatened to take over as he searched for the crystals and scraped desperately at the remnant soil around the evac-drone’s impact site. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief when he found one poking up through the crumbling dry stones. The other had to be lost, or that bastard Kai still had it. Jaxon heaved himself up, taking stock of himself. His left shoulder and hip screamed at him. He had fallen hard. With a deep breath, he began to haul himself through the wind. The screams of pain were accompanied by a series of popping sounds. These caused his already booming heart to leap. Adrenaline electrified his limbs as the undeniable and disturbing sound of a leak, multiple leaks, whined in his ears. With an HUD lit up like an old-fashioned Christmas tree and alarms pinging and whooping in his ears, Jaxon heaved himself through the remnant soil. He winced with each step, but he had to hurry as the entire left side of his suit was peppered with tiny holes, through which he could see gas escaping. This, coupled with a hot, prickling sensation that started to trickle down the side of his body, was deeply unnerving. Hoping that the toxic cloud hadn’t penetrated the suit, he urged himself along the guide line, each step a tentative easing onto his hip, each pull along the line a ragged claw of pain in his shoulder.
Finally, Jaxon reached the ship. He drew short, shallow breaths, as his lungs burned and a sharp metallic tang assaulted his taste buds. Sighting the airlock’s ring of red lights, Jaxon surged for the handle; a twist to the left and a hard pull was all it took, and he fell through the door. Lying on the ground, he kicked the outer door shut, and the automatic cleansing process began; it felt like his body was on fire.
He must have lay there for an hour, maybe two, teetering on a knife edge of consciousness. It wasn’t until he heard a familiar voice that he found his way back, and assessing his situation, Jaxon slowly, gingerly, peeled off his suit. Feeding each layer into the small waste-disposal unit that could either incinerate or eject rubbish, he inspected the damage. His suit was scarred with hundreds of tiny burns, undoubtedly from the evac drone’s engine.
“Damn you, Kai.” Jaxon muttered what would become almost a mantra as he slowly realised how close he had come to being killed. Just one second later, he mused, and he’d have been helping to patch Kai’s suit, and it would all have been over for him. “Damn you, Kai,” he muttered again, wincing with pain.
Jaxon heard the voice again, softly murmuring at the periphery of his senses. A wave of joy washed over him as he recognised Emily, his daughter. Warmth quickly turned to an icy chill that shot though his limbs like electricity. It was Emily’s voice, for sure, but she was not okay. She sounded strained and frightened. Jaxon quickly bundled the rest of the suit into the waste disposal. Adrenaline masked his pain, and he lunged though the inner airlock door, hurrying to the cockpit, answering the long-range comm-link as he ran.
“Emily, I’m here. Are you alright?”
“Daddy.” Emily paused. “Daddy, some men came to see you, and they want to know when you’ll be back.” Her voice sounded tight, and dry.
“It’s okay, Em. I’m on my way home now. Are the men still there?” Jaxon asked, while firing up the engines and fighting through the pain in his shoulder to strap himself in. Emily, however, was silent. The link was open, and straining to hear over the engines, Jaxon felt sure he could hear feet shuffling and a door close.
“Professor Ballard, I am here with JC,” a crisp, emotionless voice began.
“What is the Justice Corporation doing in my house with my daughter?” Jaxon cut in.
“Professor, calm down. As I am sure you have been made aware, your position has been at risk for a while. The lists have been updated, and a man of your apparent intellect should be able to conclude—”
“Off-listed,” Jaxon interrupted again. “Surely this can wait until I’m home! You have no right to frighten my child and invade my home!” Jaxon was furious now. The shuttle groaned in protest as he accelerated too hard, due north.
“We have every right. Given your current work site, you should be here in two hours. We will give you that long. I can see your tracker is still engaged in a survey pattern. I suggest you get going.”
With that, the link went dead, and Jaxon’s blood ran cold. There was no way he could get to Spitsbergen in two hours, and they were clearly onto him, monitoring his cloned tracker embedded in a mini drone far to the west and north.
Flooded with rage, he surged the shuttle northwards, but even through the red mist of anger and the piercing chill of fear, his meticulous mind started to figure things out.
How the hell had Kai set him up? Why? How could he afford an evacuation drone? Evac drones were military, weren’t they? Exclusively JC? If an evac was sent, then it had to have been sent by someone in the JC who now knew his true position.
“Damn you, Kai!” he shouted to the shuttle. This was a setup of coldly efficient, vindictive planning. How had he not seen it coming?
The JC, Spitsbergen Central
White light encroached into Kai’s dream. Happy to be woken from the terrifying images of JC soldiers, interrogation rooms and weird medical devices, Kai rolled over and slammed into the floor. He looked up and saw that he was in a room, barely bigger than the narrow bed he had been sleeping on. Everything was brilliant white; the walls themselves seemed to provide light, such that it was hard to tell how high the ceiling was, where the corners of the room were. The lack of a reference point was nauseating. Tentatively, he stood. He had to lean back over the bed as the space between the bed and the wall was so narrow. He reached up, but the ceiling was too high to touch. Standing on the bed, he began to run his hands along the walls, searching with increasing urgency for a door.
“Hello! Is there anyone there?” he called, then repeated louder, “Anyone!”
Feeling increasingly desperate, Kai started to pat the walls with his hands, harder and harder, searching for a seam or flaw that would betray a way out.
“Hey! Is there anyone there? What’s going on!” Kai’s desperation was soon smeared on the wall, angry red streaks made by his bleeding knuckles. He paused to take stock of his situation and sat on the bed, his back to the wall, the room so narrow he propped his feet up on the wall opposite. Knowing it would be futile, but he was desperate so he tried anyway, he arched his back and pushed the opposite wall with his feet. Nothing, no movement, no vibrations, no indications at all of a way out.
“Attention! Please stand!” A metallic voice filled the room.
Filled with fear, Kai did as instructed, hoping some answers would come soon.
“Hands on your head,” the same mechanical voice boomed.
Again, Kai did as instructed. He felt a waft of cool air against his back, but before he could turn, a pair of mag-cuffs were slapped over his wrists, a bag shoved over his head, and he was dragged painfully backwards. Unsure how far he had been dragged, scrambling to get footing the whole way, Kai was then released and dumped onto a cold, concrete floor.
“Get that bag off of his head. Don’t you know who this is?” An angry voice penetrated the silence. “I’m so sorry, Kai, these Justice-Corp. imbeciles only know one way of doing things. They lack the wherewithal to act in any other way.” Kai heard a warm, fatherly voice, at odds with his situation. “You are dismissed.” The last was said less kindly to the JC guards who had bundled Kai into the room.
“What’s going on? Where am I, and who are you?” Emboldened by the apparent kindness and diminutive form of the old man before him, Kai began pacing the room. He took in his surroundings; it was a large, empty room, bare walls, bare concrete floor, and bare bulbs hung from a ceiling that was stripped back to pipes and wires. Two simple chairs were placed in the centre facing one another.
“Shall we take a seat?” the old man asked, his voice soft and comforting.
“Okay.” Kai was disarmed, and wanting to believe this was all a misunderstanding, felt the man was going to be genuinely kind and help him.
“Sorry for the decor, or lack of it.” The man smiled. “So, Kai, let’s get some questions answered, shall we?”
“Yes, about time. Where am I?”
“Oh, ha, my dear boy, I didn’t mean …” The man said, stifling a laugh. “I have some questions for you.”
Kai’s blood ran cold. The man before him clearly had power; he had insulted two JC soldiers and not been hit, electrocuted or shot. He felt sick, like prey when it realises too late that the log it sat on is actually a croc, ready to spring the trap. For the first time, he noticed something about the man’s appearance was odd. He stared unwavering at Kai through a pair of the most spectacularly green eyes Kai had ever seen.