Final Days | Chapter 32 of 39

Author: Gary Gibson | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1003 Views | Add a Review

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TWENTY-NINE

 

Lunar Array, 11 February 2235

 

Saul pocketed some extra ammunition that Amy gave him, her mouth pursed all the while in a thin line. By the time she had depressurized the lander again, Mitchell had already gained half an hour’s head-start.

‘You’re better equipped than he is,’ Amy pointed out, over the A/V, after he mentioned this. ‘Remember, you’re carrying a full air supply in your backpack, while he jumped out with just his suit’s inbuilt emergency supply. He’s not going to waste time doing anything but heading straight for the Array. Besides,’ she added, her voice crackling slightly, ‘it’s not like you’re going to have too much trouble following his trail.’

Saul pulled himself through the tiny hatch and then down a narrow ladder, a plume of dust rising around his weighted boots as he touched down. He looked back up at the lander, shocked at how tiny, frail and primitive-looking it seemed, and gave Amy a wave just as she swung the hatch shut again.

He looked around and saw that the lander stood on a wide shelf of rock, only a few kilometres from the edge of Copernicus Crater. Hills ringed the crater’s rim, and he could spot part of the city, where it lay further around the crater in the narrow gap between two peaks. The city itself spilled down the wide, terrace-like steps of the crater’s inner wall, its tallest buildings reaching upwards like pale spears that had been thrust into the regolith. The snaking lines of pylons that carried trains back and forth between the city and the Array were as yet invisible from Saul’s vantage.

Mitchell’s footprints stood out clear and sharp in the dust, and Saul followed them along the lunar surface, in long strides that would have been impossible back on Earth. He looked ahead and saw tvantage.ed straight to the rim of hills, a few kilometres away. He breathed evenly as he ran, pacing himself and keeping his eye out for any loose rocks that might trip him. He recalled reading somewhere that the close proximity of the lunar horizon made it hard to judge distances.

‘Mitchell!’ he yelled over the A/V. ‘Can you hear me? Mitchell!’

No answer.

The most economical way to run on the Moon, he knew from previous visits to Copernicus, was a kind of lope that fell just shy of skipping. It exhausted him all the same, so that when he came to a halt, about halfway towards the hills, the inside of his suit already reeked of stale sweat. The terrain had meanwhile taken on a different texture, the regolith giving way to ripples of ancient lava and boulders left over from the time when part of the crater wall had collapsed, aeons before. This made it a lot harder to pick out Mitchell’s footsteps.

‘I just want to know what the hell’s going on,’ Saul shouted again over the A/V. ‘You owe me that much.’

‘Do I?’ came the unexpected reply.

Saul straightened up, still panting from his exertions, and stared over towards the hills. If Mitchell was there somewhere, he couldn’t see him. He tried zooming in with his contacts, but there was so much debris scattered everywhere, it would be easy for Mitchell to hide himself amongst it.

‘I know there’s some connection between you and those artefacts,’ Saul gasped. ‘Olivia found the proof: this all started when they brought you back from Site 17.’

‘What’s happening now,’ said Mitchell, ‘is too important to let you, or anyone else, interfere.’

Saul could tell from the sound of the man’s breathing that he had also been running. So he started moving again and, after another few minutes of steady progress, he spotted movement amongst the deep shadows cast over the base of one of the hills. He squinted intently, till one of those shadows resolved itself into a tunnel mouth cut into the side of a hill. Saul stopped, exhausted, and sucked water through a straw located inside his helmet.

He looked around and saw he had come to the edge of an old construction road. Rubble was piled into mounds by the roadside, while several abandoned-looking construction vehicles and a broken-down mobile foundry stood nearby, stark and black against the stars. He started running again, gradually picking up his pace.

‘You were never actually going to help me shut down the Array, were you?’

‘I should have killed you first, instead of Lester,’ Mitchell replied. ‘I can see that now: my stupid mistake. I had to find some way to stop you interfering. But I couldn’t take a chance on Lester and Amy sending out a distress signal, if I went for you first. But I screwed up, didn’t I?’

‘What’s too important f me to interfere in?’

Mitchell just laughed. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’

‘Try me.’

‘Would it make you turn back? See things my way?’

There had developed a subtle change in the tone of Mitchell’s voice. There was a touch of echo to it, as if he were no longer wearing his helmet. Saul searched for local networks, and came across a public map of the area that included the locations of several emergency access entrances just inside the mouth of that tunnel. It now yawned ahead of him, just a hundred metres or so away.

‘I said try me.’

‘I’m trying to save the human race,’ replied Mitchell. ‘Is that good enough?’

Saul nearly stopped dead in his tracks. ‘What?’

‘Some of the Founder species wanted to destroy the network, because they came to realize that, once they’d created a wormhole leading into the very far future, as a result time between the two mouths became fixed, immutable. Do you understand?’

Saul saw he was now very nearly at the tunnel entrance. He’d hoped that, if he could just keep Mitchell talking, he had a better chance of catching up. But his muscles were starting to protest, and Mitchell meanwhile sounded like he hadn’t done anything more strenuous than take a short jog.

‘That doesn’t make one damn bit of sense to me,’ Saul gasped.

‘You’ve heard of the observer effect in physics, right? Once you observe an event, an infinite range of possible outcomes collapses to just one. It’s the same with time. Whenever you create a wormhole, and move one mouth through space at relativistic speeds, you create a path into the future – but the objective time that passes outside the wormhole becomes fixed into a single, unchangeable destiny. Do you see? It’s the death of free will. That’s why the Founders fought each other for control of the networks. Some of the artefacts we found had been weapons in that war.’

Saul finally reached the mouth of the tunnel, his lungs burning from overexertion. He knew he had to keep going but, in truth, he wasn’t sure he could. He glanced back the way he’d come, but by now the lander was lost amidst the boulders and dust.

‘The growths?’ he panted, his back resting against the tunnel wall. ‘They were one of those weapons?’

Mitchell laughed. ‘You’ve got it all wrong. The growths aren’t trying to kill us,’ he said. ‘They’re saving us.’

Saul pushed himself away from the wall, and headed further into the tunnel until he came to a door. ‘Tell me how the growths are saving us,’ he asked, still stalling for time.

‘You think they’re killing people,’ said Mitchell, ‘but they’re not. They’re preserving them.’

A UP-enabled menu sprang up in front of the door, just as Saul stepped closer. The interface was primitive, a set of simple textual menus displayed in lines of bright-green text hovering in the blackness before him.

Preserving them?’

A light blinked on above the same door, and it swung slowly open. Saul took a step back, suddenly afraid of Mitchell lunging out at him – but there was no one there. He stepped inside and found himself standing by the top of a ladder set into an unpressurized shaft that fell away into darkness. He lowered himself over the edge and began to descend, his suit’s shallow lights illuminating the shaft walls around him. It felt too much like descending into some bottomless pit.

‘Our lives are meaningless without free will,’ Mitchell continued. ‘The wormholes’ very existence reduces us to automatons following predestined paths. The growths are incredible, Saul; they copy everything, all the way down to the superposition of every particle in the bodies of every living organism on Earth. Every living human being is going to wake up as if nothing happened – but way, way up the time-stream. They’ll find themselves in a place that looks just like Earth, but they’ll be truly free for the first time in their lives. It would be wrong not to let the growths preserve everyone, Saul. I mean everyone.’

‘You want the same thing to happen to the colonies?’

‘Of course,’ Mitchell replied, sounding surprised as if the answer were self-evident. ‘The pools showed me everything: a grand strategy, to recover sentient life from all through the period of the universe fixed by the wormhole networks, and rebirth it in the deep, deep future, at a point when the wormholes no longer exist. They showed me glimpses of it, Saul. It’s beautiful – and we can all be a part of it. But if you shut the Array down, you’re dooming the colonies to a living death. That’s why I had to stop you any way I could, because I knew you would never understand. Not if you hadn’t seen what I’ve seen.’

Saul paused, letting his helmet rest gently against a rung. He felt like he couldn’t move an inch further, but he had no idea just how far down the shaft went. He forced himself to start moving again, tightly clenching his jaw, and stopped only when a black wave of dizziness threatened to suck him into unconsciousness. He then thrust his elbows through the bars of the ladder to support him, and waited until it passed.

He finally reached the bottom a few minutes later, his suit lights showing polished rock walls. Saul slumped down on the floor and waited for the agony in his muscles to pass. A new menu appeared, listing the location of emergency air supplies.

‘Mitchell? Whatever those pools told you, did it ever occur to you that maybe they were feeding you lies? How can you know that any of what they told you is really true?’

Silence.

Saul staggered back upright and headed, as quickly as he was capable, down a long, low-ceilinged corridor that forced him to hunch over. He soon left the shaft behind, whereupon his universe shrank to encompass only the bubble of light projected by his suit and the sound of his own laboured breathing. The muscles in his legs threatened to cramp up once more and, when he sucked at the water pipe inside his helmet, a warning flashed up that he’d already used up most of it.

Just when Saul started seriously considering turning back, he noticed a certain greying of the surrounding darkness.

He pushed on and a dim light grew until he could see where the corridor ended at another ladder, extending downwards into brightness. He halted there and peered down, noting that this second shaft was nowhere near as deep as the previous one. He could just make out a door no more than thirty metres down, and he descended quickly towards it.

It proved to be part of an airlock complex, which he stepped through, cycling the atmosphere and pulling his helmet off once the pressure had equalized. The air tasted cool, and sweeter than it had any right to.

He thought of Amy, almost certainly still grieving for Lester, back there in the lander.

Got to move. He stripped his suit off, abandoning it on the floor of the airlock. He next pulled his own clothes out of a backpack slung beneath his air supply, and changed into them quickly.

He had emerged from the airlock to find himself at one end of a curving corridor located in a service and maintenance area close to the southern tip of the Lunar Array. Hanover had told him he needed to get to the ASI offices, but he guessed they were still at least thirty minutes away on foot, or less if he could find transport. As he started walking, he again hailed Mitchell, but the man had fallen silent once more. The only thing Saul could feel sure of was that he hadn’t seen the last of him.

Saul eventually came to the first of thirteen enclosed concourses, each of which accessed a different wormhole gate. The place was eerily silent and clearly abandoned. Heavily reinforced windows at one end of it looked out towards the far lip of Copernicus Crater, a hundred kilometres away. The bright lights of the city were clearly visible closer to hand, and only a little further around the inner rim of the crater wall. Escalators at the concourse’s opposite end led to a higher level not far below the roof, where shuttle-cars that normally carried passengers through the wormhole gate to the Clarke colony waited in silent ranks.

He walked past empty shop fronts and flickering UP-ads, until he discovered a small service car abandoned next to an information booth. He grunted with satisfaction on finding it to be fully charged.

The concourses were all linked to each other by a wide lane that ran through the whole Array, along its inner edge and just below the windows. Automated transport vehicles used for shifting heavy goods had been abandoned all up and down this route. Saul boarded the service vehicle and guided it along the lane, the vaulted space all around him so still and quiet he could alm believe the entire facility had been abandoned for a century, not just a few hours.

He drove steadily, though the car’s top speed wasn’t much more than a few kilometres per hour, till he passed through an archway and into the next concourse, which proved to be equally abandoned. As he passed through the one after that, he had to guide his vehicle around the still-smoking ruins of a Black Dog, dark smoke spiralling upwards to the curved ceiling far overhead.

He came across further evidence of fighting when he reached the Kepler–Copernicus gate. Half a dozen armoured personnel carriers stood parked close together below the embarkation area, all of them showing the signs of having come under heavy fire. One still burned fitfully.

Saul drove closer, constantly ready to hit the accelerator if he ran into trouble. The bodies of troopers were scattered all around the APCs, and the air reeked of cooked meat. He stepped out of the car to retrieve a Cobra from the outstretched hand of one of the troopers, seeing from the weapon’s readout that it was fully loaded with concussion shells. He adjusted the strap and slung it over his shoulder, feeling more confidence in it than in Amy’s home-brew concoction, which he now abandoned in the rear seat.

He noticed two APCs standing about twenty metres away from the huddle of vehicles surrounded by corpses. They had suffered less damage, but had clearly also come under fire at some point. He moved closer and saw a body slumped in the driving seat of one of them, while another corpse rested against a wheel, with a Cobra cradled in his hands.

Something in the way these bodies were positioned, and the fact that this one group of APCs stood apart from the rest, made Saul sure there had been infighting here of some kind. He wondered if some of the troopers had countermanded their orders and been executed for their trouble. Perhaps they had families back home, and hadn’t wanted to be forced to leave them behind.

He finally climbed inside the less badly damaged APC, trusting it to get him further faster, and to afford him a much greater degree of protection at the same time. Saul placed a hand on the dashboard and waited until it blinked, accepting his authorization, the wheel unfolding to become rigid enough for him to take a grip on it. He drove it straight back on to the transport lane leading to the Copernicus–Florida gate, from where he could take an elevator down to the ASI’s main operations room.

Saul smelled smoke not long before he passed through the archway leading into the Copernicus–Florida concourse.

At one end of the open area stood all that remained of a terminal station for passengers arriving from Copernicus City. Much of it had been reduced to rubble, and a cool swift breeze told Saul that the Array’s atmospheric integrity had been compromised. Several Black Dogs stood motionless at the foot of the escalators leading up to the station itself, their weapons systems clearly active still.

Saul glanced the other way, towards the departure area, accessible by another bank of escalators. He could see shuttle-cars standing at the top of them in silent and empty rows. No Dogs had been set to guard them, although there were numerous crowd-control stg tbarricades arranged in rows at the bottom.

One of the Dogs turned itself in a half-circle as Saul drove towards the middle of the concourse, tracking his progress with an eyeless gaze. Saul watched with deep trepidation as the weapons systems mounted between its shoulders whined and shifted. He slowed the vehicle to a crawl and eased the driver’s-side door open in case he had to make a run for it, but the machine merely continued to track him without taking any further action.

He got out of the car, eased the Cobra off his shoulder and stared around. There were the corpses of yet more troopers by the barricades, so clearly fighting had occurred here as well. The only sound he could hear now was the occasional click-whir of the Black Dogs echoing across the concourse.

At the centre of the concourse was a recreation and dining area, consisting of several low buildings and open-air restaurants surrounding a paved courtyard, where a small fountain stood in the middle, surrounded by shrubs. Saul looked around, but there was still no sign of life. If Mitchell was really determined to prevent him from shutting down the gates, he was certainly taking his time about it.

Saul made his way towards an elevator set into a recess beneath a plaque reading ‘ARRAY SECURITY AND IMMIGRATION’. His shoes squeaked slightly on the polished floor of the silent concourse, sounding unnaturally loud to his ears.

Something suddenly clattered to the ground at an indeterminate distance away. Glancing immediately towards the row of Black Dogs, Saul noticed that the same one that had tracked him earlier was now turning to face the other way, as if something on the far side of the recreation area had drawn its attention meanwhile.

Something, or someone?

It had to be Mitchell. He was obviously hiding somewhere close, and Saul wondered what he was waiting for. He took a firmer grip on the Cobra, ignoring the rapid tattoo that his heart was beating against the inside of his chest, and tapped on the weapon’s screen so that it integrated with his contacts. Targeting information instantly superimposed itself over everything he saw.

He scurried towards the elevators, crouching low, passed through a cordon that would normally be manned. Recognizing his UP, one of the elevators opened at his approach. Saul stepped inside, pressing his back against the interior wall, while aiming the Cobra back in the direction he had come.

Just before the doors closed, he caught sight of movement somewhere by the fountain. Mitchell, he decided: it couldn’t possibly be anyone else.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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