Emergence

Summary

Many thousands of years after a failed inter-planetary invasion, the planet Eco has recovered from catastrophic damage and life has returned. The Northern Lands are now split by the Great Rift, a Garden of Eden amidst barren wastelands. Human life has also returned and has learned to live with nature, refusing to return to the old ways. All of this changes when rebellious Caia Esvane, daughter of traditionalist shaman Robin Esvane, detects a point of light travelling across the sky. She breaks one of the greatest taboos by mind-joining, and discovers an escape pod containing a dying man.

The man is in stasis, a survivor of the great war that followed the invasion. Caia relives his memories and sees an industrialised world already destroying itself. The escape pod descends into the sea, until through the mind-join, she sees a colossal glowing star deep in the ocean.

This is City 5, one of seven undersea cities created to survive the invasion. Shaped like a starfish and feeding off natural resources (see Figure 1), it has grown and is now home to over thirty thousand people. City 5 is sentient, with its own agenda and ambitions, whilst the polarised society within is repressed, organised into sects governed by strict laws. At the top, Dynasties struggle for power and the most privileged consider themselves to be eternal gods, rejuvenated many times. There are sects in C5 based on differing beliefs about the surface, but all agree on one thing – that it is not habitable, and they are the only survivors from the war.

In the darkness of the lowest levels live the Feelers, blind and possessed of unusual gifts. Feelers live off waste and are part of the ecosystem within the ventilation systems. Order is maintained by Lawkeepers, work is done by Drones. Apart from the Royals, all other sects are allocated a specific life-span. The discovery of the survival pod acts as a catalyst. The Royals discover the Rift with its forests and mineral deposits, and its primitive peoples. They see resources to be exploited and slaves to do their bidding. They are resolved to return the planet to how it used to be, with giant cities and endless wealth, ruled over by the strongest dynasty. Knowledge of the impending changes – Emergence – disrupts the city, unleashing beliefs and the desire for freedom amongst its peoples. The Dynasties fight for control of the new world as the city itself reveals a secret agenda.

The surface is not all that it seems. The great war did more than destroy the old world. It changed nature and left behind an alien technology beyond understanding. The clans that live there and the ruined machines are linked to the planet in ways that the City dwellers cannot comprehend, including dragonkind and the Magda Stones, a relic from the invasion. Strangest of all is the Great Tree, a mystical one-eyed giant rumoured to sleep below the Rift.

The peoples of the Rift and the Outlands will have to unite to face the new threat, and Caia Esvane is chosen to lead the fight as her powers grow stronger. To make matters more difficult, she has encountered Lucas Venn – an inhabitant of the city sent to the surface to collect data – and she knows they are destined to be together. To realise her full powers and become Dragonwitch, Caia must first be tested and forced to question her beliefs. Ultimately, to save her own world she must bring back the dragons and summon Eco to help destroy the city.

Emergence is much more than a clash of cultures. It follows the lives and fates of families caught up in an unjust war, and concerns the battle of beliefs – magic versus technology, progress versus sustainability, love versus hate. The sects from the city and the Surface clans must fight and die for what they believe in, as the full power of Eco is finally revealed.

 

Example chapters

1

Caia Esvane watched the point of light moving slowly across the cold blue sky. She decided it couldn’t be a star, or a wendigo, or a falling chunk of the space debris that sometimes drew trails across the skies of Eco.

Something new. Something dangerous.

The Shaman’s daughter balanced on the narrow platform of a tree house over two hundred feet high, one of many spherical houses suspended within the forest canopy, connected to others by dizzying walkways and knotted ropes. Green and gold clad figures swung between the houses. It was late summer and many were busy hoisting up bags of nuts and nets of brightly coloured berries, others busying themselves with repairs. Wind-chimes sang their prayers in the chill air whilst the woven walls and wooden shingles of the houses creaked around her. The sharp sounds of flint cut through the sighing wind, but Caia barely heard as she tracked the object with her spy-glass.

The dot of light was overhead now.

The flame-shaped birthmark on Caia’s cheek itched, a reminder of childhood teasing and adolescent loneliness. Now she was grown and frustrated by gentle laws telling her what she could and could not do, who she should spend her life with, forbidding mind-touch. And so Caia mind-touched further than she ever had before until she reached the moving star, and inside found an unconscious man. The next instant, their minds joined.

Such memories he had – a wedding in an old candle-lit barn with the roof open to the sky, the warmth and love in his new wife’s eyes. The miraculous birth of his first child and the suicide seventeen years later. Recrimination and hurt, self-destruction followed by forgiveness that would never assuage his failure. Six-year-old Vanessa sitting on a swing in angel wings, laughing and kicking her legs – a girl who would never grow old, the brother she would never meet, the wife who could not say goodbye. Watching the moment of invasion on a glass screen inside their house as disbelief became reality, the spiderish object hanging over a city. Standing shivering in the street bathed in pallid dawn light as the first pulse of blue came from above the clouds.

The dream changed.

The man was flying a silver machine called a Dart and the black sky outside was a streak of stars. Below lay a strange blue curve that resolved into ocean. The land was barely visible through a polluted haze. It was still Eco, but not the world Caia adored – this was a planet in its death throes. Silver Darts seemed everywhere, soaring and diving, jetting spears of blue flame fierce as dragon-fire, flashing past faster than swifts. Some flowered in silent bursts of brilliance, followed by smoke and flame and slow clouds of debris and flesh. Others fell away, toppling back into the outer atmosphere trailing smoke. The air reeked of something sharp and heady, reminiscent of the bubbling tar pits beyond the river. Points of light zipped through the dance, seeking out Darts as they encircled flickering flailing monsters pulsing with waves of sharp blue light. The padded seat leaped and shook, sending each groaning impact through Caia’s body but it was his face reflected in the glass, stubbled and strained. It was his mouth stretched into an anxious thin line. His dream.

Pain flared and he bit his lip so hard she could taste blood. She was drowning in his dread, his guilt and his horror. He was thinking about his wife and child and praying they might live. He was offering his life for theirs to every god he knew, but there was no reply. He pulled back on the controls to avoid the twisted wreckage of another Dart as the heads-up display showed something huge following. The eight fronds were splayed and ready and energy sizzled between them, creating a spider’s web of lightning. The fronds swept shut and span the dazzling web into a miniature sun of blinding white. The incandescent point of light shot past, heading for the grey sprawl where his wife and daughter were. The ball of light hit the centre of the city and ripples of fire spread outwards, followed by a bloom of darkness. The man yelled as he fired, keeping his thumb on the red button. Lines of smoke curved away and found the whirling shape. The curling fronds jerked outwards and the light display flickered and died. He followed down, firing continuously and his eyes were hot with tears and fury. Red lines traced across the creature’s flanks but the web of light flickered back, this time blindingly white. It flipped over as it plummeted and the scatter of incandescent lights came too fast. There was a brutal lurch that drove a massive pain through his neck and the rear of the fighter became an inferno. As the survival pod ejected, Caia had time to glimpse a world eclipsed by fire. Even the sky was burning and the land puckered upwards like rotting fruit as the great waves arrived. The impossible tentacled things were floating above the inferno with outstretched arms touching as they created a giant web of incandescence. Then the temperature plunged inside the escape capsule and the dream began again, but it was time the dream ended.

“Wake up, man,” Caia whispered.

The man awoke. The man screamed. She saw the inside of the survival pod through his dying eyes, faded and paint-peeled, rusted and blotched with algae. She felt the restraining straps dig into his bony shoulders and the shuddering rhythm of the ancient engines. He was gazing at a row of orange symbols almost hidden by dust. His thoughts told her it was a calendar, like the shamanic estimation of time by suns and moons and seasons, but measured with the accuracy of Machines. The symbols frightened him – she could feel him gasp and then she saw his thoughts. Seventeen thousand years’ worth of seconds had ticked by whilst he was sleeping, and his old life and everyone he once loved had been turned to dust.  His mouth swam with blood and what Caia could see of his body was little more than a skeleton inside the mouldering remains of the flying suit. She shared his pain as thawed cells slowly ruptured, and she tried to calm him as he cried out in his agony and loneliness. Caia stayed with him, sustaining him with her life force, desperate to right impossible wrongs as the ancient brain degenerated and his memories were gradually snuffed out.

The pod began to descend. Caia looked out through his failing eyes and saw the utter beauty of her world. The encroaching ice cap was a sea of blinding white, broken here and there by black peaks. The ice darkened and gave way to rugged rivers of ice spilling between the northern mountains as it stretched towards the Rift. The forest below was punctuated by slabs and twisted spires of rock that rose hundreds of feet from the Rift. Some of the spires still issued steam from crevices and fumaroles, the exhalations of the Great Tree as it slumbered beneath the world. Mighty cliffs rimmed the forest to the west and east, barely visible through veils of sleet. The forests lapping against the tormented and twisted landscape were grey and silent, the loops of the mighty river Torrent glinting below the canopy. The ocean lay ahead, a soft grey dissolving into sky. It was the termination of the world, the end of everything.

Now the pod was much lower, finding its way between the rock spires and exhalations of steam, floating above the endless sweep of trees and the crumpled remains of the Machines. They lay as if asleep, flexible arms coiled high above the tree canopy, their carcasses resembling monstrous broken wasps cast aside by Autumn. Caia felt the man’s guts churn. Bones crumbled.

“Shush now,” she whispered. “Don’t be afeard. Shush now.”

His eyelids drooped. His voice was slurring. “It’s fucking beautiful.”

She thought he was trying to laugh. The nameless man watched the approaching water with disinterest until it enveloped the capsule in an explosion of foam and together they sank into darkness. Then far below in the black, Caia saw lights in the shape of an immense five-pointed star.

She broke the mind-touch and anticipated the usual sickening sensation of falling, but this was different. She seemed to be floating in a world of grey and terror seized her. She had an overwhelming sensation of being watched.

I see you. How do you like my children?

The voice was dry and grating, the words clumsily formed as if the speaker was unused to speaking. Caia became aware of distances beyond comprehension and whirling galaxies dotted through an endless void. Somewhere out there, far beyond the light of the twin moons was the owner of the voice. She felt an immense power bearing down on her as tentacles of thought uncoiled in her mind and she had to use all her strength to sever the mind-touch, but finally it was done. She opened her eyes, and she was back on the balcony of the tree-house. The world looked the same as it always had, but she knew deep inside that everything was changed, and deep in the ocean, the glowing star was waiting.

2

Investigator Lucas Venn stood to attention in front of the ornate silver desk as Hedra Darke, Elsinor Prime of City 5 subjected him to her callous gaze. He avoided eye-contact as her elaborate, gold-chased black body-armour creaked and chafed. He kept his hands in the pockets of his long dark coat and the broad-brimmed hat was pulled down tight to shade his face. That’s what investigators did – hid in their own shadow, observed, kept their mouths shut. Although the last item wasn’t his strong point, he knew too well. The high collar around the back of her head twinkled with emeralds and rubies, as did the elaborate five-spine crown. The long nails grating against the desk shimmered with purple light to match the Royal insignia on her cheeks, each one a five-pointed star. Her heart-shaped face was ageless perfection, the wide mouth permanently set in a suggestive pout. It was the most perfect, desirable mouth he had ever seen but it was not born of nature and it was not for him. Her lips glistened. They always glistened. They parted enough to afford a glimpse of pearly teeth as her pink tongue flicked out and stroked the soft underside of the top lip. Looking at that mouth too long made him ache, but he looked anyway. Time passed. Ventilators hissed softly.

She said, “Tradition, Investigator Venn. Tradition is everything.”

He knew there was more and so he waited in silence. Tradition.

There was a man slumped on a chair in the corner of the room. A book lay on the desk about ancient civilisation. It was a replica of the only book to have survived Invasion, or so Hedra Darke had once told him in one of her rare attempts to communicate like a normal person. Images taken from the book adorned her walls, mostly depicting ritual killings or orgies, and all with impossibly beautiful people just like her. It was the inspiration for what passed as culture in her city. There were dragons too, and other creatures of magic, but nothing about the city was magical. He avoided looking at the pictures and the man in the chair. Blood dripped.

The Elsinor Prime arched a rust-coloured eyebrow, the huge green eyes so cold and clear under the harsh lights of the chandeliers.

He waited.

“I never understood why a Gladiator awarded Freedom of the City would turn it down and choose to be a scumbag Investigator. You survived one hundred fights. You achieved one hundred kills and you were loved. Yes, Investigator, you were loved, and now you’re despised.”

She laughed throatily. It was a beautiful laugh.

“You even refuse to take another life, they tell me. When did you become a coward, Investigator Venn?”

The voice matched the lips, softly musical. Her words unlocked unwelcome memories and dragged them out – the blood-flecked face of a man pleading for his life, that familiar desperation in the pale blue eyes. The feel of the 60cm stabbing sword as it rammed home behind the ribs and into the thumping heart. Desperation turned to agony, followed by the strange dimming of the eyes as if a permanent switch had just been flicked. The crimson flood staining the sand, so warm and so final. The frantic, overwhelming need to turn back the clock and give back life. The gradual numbing of the soul.

Tradition.

“I killed one hundred men and women for your entertainment. I need to honour them so their deaths weren’t pointless.”

The eyes grew colder. “Their lives were pointless. Tell me something – what did you learn from this experience, Investigator?”

“Killing taught me one thing, Elsinor.”

She frowned, irritated that he was playing with her. “Which was…”

“Life is the greatest miracle.”

“You are a proud man, Investigator Venn. You still carry that sword even though you’re too scared to use it. Perhaps it reminds you of when you were admired and when you were a better man, but those days are gone. Pride is a sin.”

“I wear it to mourn the men and women I killed.”

Her prominent cheekbones and exposed breasts had been rouged and decorated with flakes of gold, matching the blaze of deep red hair and contrasting with the soft blue light. The tongue running across the perfect teeth was studded with a lustrous pearl. Hedra Darke was an intimidating woman and she loved it.

“Look out the windows, Investigator Venn. Tell me what you see.”

He looked. Her ornate office was on Level 119 of the Hub, located in the central pillar of the city. It was high enough to have a glass wall overlooking two of the five tapered limbs that radiated outwards into utter darkness. Behind the glass hung toxic clouds of detritus-filled ocean and he knew that above the city lay 5500 metres of water. Above that was a world on fire. Her office vibrated quietly in time with the city’s metabolism and the grotesque chandeliers that dominated the gold-decked room tinkled gently. The sound of the city had been that way from the moment of his birth, an endless throb of bio-mechanical energy replayed in the ripples of each short life. He had experienced it as a foetus curled in his mother’s womb during the best months of his existence. It pulsed through his body as he stood in the ejection hall as a fourteen-year-old and watched her final day run out, and the sudden crimson flower that slowly drifted away into darkness before the sharks came. Her death had been designed to sear into his memory the fact that he and every other living soul was a fleeting moment in the life of the city, and all that mattered was servitude.

“Well? What do you see?”

“I see life without meaning, Elsinor.”

The frown returned. “Investigator Venn, take your hands from your pockets and recite me the words of our Sacred Book, Section Two, Paragraph Five.”

Anyone failing to know the words of the One God enshrined in SSG1005 was liable to a watery grave – if they were lucky. He felt a bead of sweat run down his long nose.

“’Sustainable life depends on careful monitoring and adjustment of various gases. The most arduous and monotonous of tasks can often be the most important.’” His quiet, throaty voice sounded abnormally loud.

She seemed disappointed but she made him wait, just long enough to make him sweat some more.

“Arduous and monotonous are good things, Venn. I know what Drones are really like – criminals and murderers, drug-dealers, musicians, artists, drunkards. These are the people you associate with. I should fire you into the ocean with the other turds.”

They said ejection was humane. Being crushed to death in the cold black deeps, terrified and alone was not humane, it was a journey straight to hell. Royals enjoyed it though – there was even a video channel dedicated to the sport, with bets placed on survival times.

“They say the fat ones last longest before implosion, children last the least. I heard a scientific explanation for it once on one of the vid channels,” she echoed his thoughts.

He glanced at the body slumped in the corner. The man’s legs were splayed out. His arms were behind his back, probably tied. He was most likely dead, judging from the shape of his auburn-haired head. He wore skin-tight lycra shorts emphasising the modified genitalia, nothing else. The body was absurdly toned. There was a small pool of blood on the gleaming floor. The man groaned.

“He’s still alive,” he said. The words sounded accusing to him.

Hedra Darke was around the desk in an instant. She had the mace in her hand as she strode across the room to the man in the chair.

“What would you have me do, Investigator? This Sex Drone was already chosen for the macerator by the Seer. Even gods like myself must pay homage to the city, you know that.”

Lucas knew there was nothing to be said or done, and so he shrugged. A blow to the head was more humane than being chomped to death, given the choice. He saw her mouth tighten before she raised the mace and brought it down, and he closed his eyes. The bony crunch was stomach-turning, even for an ex-gladiator. When he opened them, the body had been thrown forward off the chair and lay with the head tucked below. Blood spread out in a crimson star as she walked back, followed by a trail of bloody footprints. She thunked the mace down in front of him.

“Satisfied, Investigator?”

“What did he do wrong?”

She seemed genuinely surprised. “Nothing. It was part of the game. When I knew he’d been chosen for the city, I gave him the choice and he wanted it to finish that way.  I’ve known Artur for several years now, but his time was at an end. I think he even enjoyed it. And I experienced an emotion. I almost cried.”

“Congratulations, Highness.”

Arduous and monotonous, Lucas thought. Poor Artur. Hedra propped up her unnaturally long legs on the desk beside her bloodied mace. She began flicking through the countless messages that floated around her, emphasising how unimportant he was. A bead of gore dangled from the mace. Her rouged nipples stared at him as he looked out the window, erect as two bullets. It was a statement of domination reserved for Royals, mimicking a picture on her wall of a bare-breasted woman driving a chariot. It wasn’t hard to imagine Hedra Darke doing the same. The ocean was an inky blackness outside the large windows lining her office. As if on cue, the outside lights shot multiple beams into the murk as something huge and lean skimmed the edge of the corona. A pallid eye gleamed. Plastic bags and other human waste billowed in the wake of the 30-metre-long shark, the excreta of the city ejected from the centre of the hub. The interloper was unlikely to travel far, the city would see to that in the ceaseless quest to feed its children. Lucas felt an overwhelming urge to yawn and clamped his jaws shut, swallowing it. Another drop of blood fell from the mace and landed with an audible blip, sending out ripples in the small crimson puddle on the desk. It was the only sound in the silence.

“For the city’s sake, sit down, Venn. And take off that damned hat.”

He did so, rubbing his hand across his close-cropped hair, feeling the scars.

She took her legs off the desk and leaned forward. Her armour squeaked. The young-old face remained impassive. “Give me a reason why I should keep you. You’re not breeding stock. You refuse to conform. You flaunt the laws you should enforce. You think you’re better than us. You should be an example for the young but I think you’re a danger. We can’t afford free thinkers – our empire is founded on tradition, as you well know. Each of us is born into a role, Venn. We either give orders, carry them out or enforce them. We have sex and we procreate and we die, and that is all there is to life, unless you are a god like me. We do not enjoy ourselves, we live for the city. You are no longer a gladiator.”

Before he could think of a reply, she was out of her seat and around the desk in three long strides, dangerous heels striking the floor. Her gleaming legs were clamped either side of his knees. Long fingers gripped his chin with wiry strength and pulled his face up until he was staring at her, but he knew better than to look without permission. She leaned over, her rouged face pushed close to his and he felt the heat of her body. Her nostrils dilated, sniffing the air. Her musk made his head swim. Her butterfly tongue unrolled and caressed his cheek.

“I can smell you, investigator. I can taste fear on your skin. You have ten seconds to persuade me to keep you.”

Lucas tried to find some saliva to free his mouth as the prehensile tongue explored his face. She was wily. She was at least Gen50, he’d heard – regenerated over fifty times, powered by the life stolen from countless hundreds. Hedra had learned every trick during her many metamorphoses. Lucas’s mind went blank and then out of the blankness swam the answer – information.

“They tell me things that no Royal knows because they trust me. Some of them still call me Gladiatorus.”

She released him and sat on the edge of the desk. She extended a leg and rested it on his chair. The four-inch stiletto was uncomfortably near his crotch.

She said, “Tell me about their mood.”

He considered what was least likely to result in a witch-hunt. It wasn’t easy. He kept his eyes focused on the elaborate boot, the metallic point sharp enough to castrate.

“There’s a new sect. They think heaven waits above the Surface in a place of dreams. They say hell is right here, living in this city. They call themselves Ascenders.”

She smiled to herself. “Interesting. What do you think, Venn?”

Difficult question. “‘No one sees the world as it truly is, we see it through the lens of our perception. When different lenses are used there will be stress and even conflict.’ SSG1005, Section Four, Chapter Three etcetera.”

“Hmm. Are these Ascenders a problem, Lucas?”

He thought about it, aware he was being tested again, noting the use of his first name. “Some of them maybe. It’s strongest amongst the Feelers. Many of them carry the symbol of the All-Seeing Eye of the Ascension, and the belief’s growing stronger.”

“How many think this way?”

He knew she was assessing a cull. “Thousands.”

She frowned. “I’ve seen a drawing of the eye. It was on a wall. Tell me more.”

He laughed uneasily. He found he didn’t want to tell her.

“They think there’s a godlike being that loves them and cares for them. It looks down on us all and sees us for what we truly are, hence the Eye. Some of them even believe that ejection is the doorway to the heaven where this god exists, and they’re not afraid of dying. The Eye comes to them in their sleep and takes away their fear.”

She seemed troubled. “It sounds absurd. Do you believe in any of this? Do you think there’s a heaven up there, beyond the fires?”

He shook his head, thinking about what he did believe, divining what she wanted to hear. “No. The world died and we’re the only survivors. But people need to believe in something greater than themselves and I know they think it’s worth the risk. And I think that if they realise the truth that we are alone after all, then they’ll be angry. Imagine that, several thousand angry people. Let them believe.” Good answer, Investigator.

“Have you dreamed of this Eye?”

It had started the first time he prayed for forgiveness. The dream seemed to explode into his head, blasting his thoughts away and he could not shut it out. The single eye had belonged to a face as seamed and wrinkled as the lines on his hand. But it had been huge, an emerald eye with a pupil bigger than a man’s fist, that became an endless pool of cool limpid water. He recalled diving into the pool, naked and unafraid, and as the waters closed over his head he had experienced a surge of pure love that eclipsed the few happy moments of his life. There it was, a force so great that it could inhale every laugh and kiss, every sob and prayer, all the joys and hopes, the overwhelming and unconditional love that gives all and takes nothing. It was the love of his mother multiplied a thousand-fold. And then he had awoken and wept before lying awake and gazing at the steel roof of his cubicle, thinking that his entire life had been utterly pointless. But it didn’t have to be.

“Yes, I dreamed of it,” he replied quietly.

He saw the clear eyes widen slightly, a sure sign that he had unsettled her.

“But I’ve dreamed nothing of this thing.” She sounded reproachful.

He shrugged. “It doesn’t mean anything. People need belief, that’s all.”

He sensed her mood turning. “They can believe in me. What else?”

Lucas breathed out. He hadn’t wanted to tell her anything about the Eye. It was personal, somehow. “The Citymen are less in number but more extreme. Maybe a thousand who truly believe the Surface is hell, complete with fire and brimstone. They’d rather die than go there. They think heaven is here, living in the city. They think just being alive is as good as it gets, even if they’re shovelling shit. With respect.”

“Maybe they’re right,” she breathed, smiling.

She took her foot off his chair and picked up the spiked steel mace, leaving the parallel scratches on the desk filled with crimson. She hefted it lovingly.

“With respect, highness – what do you believe?”

She inclined her head. “That is a fair question, I will allow it. I do genuinely believe in our purpose, Investigator. I believe that our world was close to perfection before the invasion, with technology at its height. We ruled the world then – even life itself was changed to suit our needs and our cities were vast sprawling empires covering entire continents. There were billions of people, Venn. Billions upon billions, and we controlled them – can you imagine such power, such appetite, so much potential?”

“No, I can’t.”

She frowned a warning. “One day we will restore that dream. We will restore perfection. We gods will emerge from the darkness into the light and we will reclaim what is ours- that’s what I believe. Now be quiet. I need to think about what to do with you.”

He waited as she walked behind him, swinging the mace. She stopped and he felt the sharp points caress his skull as if she was taking aim, and found himself praying to the Eye for a painless end. Finally, she returned to the desk and dropped the mace on it. She adjusted the jagged crown upon her head, pursed her lips and smiled a brilliant smile at him, displaying an array of perfect teeth.

“How old are you, Venn?”

“Thirty-five, maximum age for an Investigator. This is my last year. Three months left.” Yippee.

“I have decided you may live exactly one more year. There are undertones and moods we find difficult to decipher but you can, and we need continuity. You will become an organ for the gods. You’ll become my sensor. You will tell me everything and the city will know if you’re holding back. Betray me and you will be returned to the arena where you belong. And another thing – you will never misquote the Holy Book again, is that clear?”

He breathed out. “Very clear. So no punishment.”

She smiled again, this time with pleasure. “Thank you for reminding me. You will take one of the Explorers below the city. There are maintenance tasks that need attention – a lot of maintenance tasks.”

His worst nightmare. The last time he’d been outside, he’d ended up screaming. “But that’s Drone work.”

She nodded. “Exactly. And you will be with your friends, won’t you? Make sure you tell me what you learn from them, gladiator. If you please me, then I’ll reward you. Do not fail me.”

She waved a dismissive hand and he left with as much dignity as he could muster. When he glanced back, she was standing with her back to the door and staring out into the murk, overly slim and overly perfect. He wondered what was going on in that sleek head.

3

The Explorer was not much more than a glass sphere containing a padded seat. Lucas strapped himself into the seat and took off his hat, placing it on his lap. The glass door closed and sealed itself with a hiss. The Explorer was attached to the inside of the hull at Level 75, Wing 3. Level 75 was part of the Biotech Realm, where Med Drones were educated and generally well behaved. Lucas liked the Biotech Realm. His Explorer was parked alongside many others, and he could see dark figures crouched inside. He connected to the Explorer and it became an extension of himself. He waited as the immersion chamber outside filled with water, pressure equalised and the external doors in the hull were opened, and the familiar claustrophobia returned. The black ocean outside was transformed into data on the heads-up display. Everything was data, even the smooth and endless hull of the city converted into ticking streams of numbers. Lights shot out from the Explorers, illuminating swirling clouds of detritus. Sweat beaded.

He switched on the comm. “Who’s out there?”

Faces appeared in the air in front of him as transparent replicas. He recognised members of the group of Drones he had last seen beating out rhythms in a twenty-foot high ventilation duct, their faces streaked with purple. Laura Zobe’s piebald features floated past and so he connected with her.

“Hey, Laura.”

“Why hello, Investigator Venn.” She put her finger to her lips as she smiled wickedly. Not for the first time he found himself admiring her. Partly because she was a Level 74, at the top of the Utility Drone Caste. Partly because she had worked her way up from Sex Drone, not so different from being a gladiator on the dehumanisation scale. Partly because she was unobtainable. Mainly because she wasn’t interested. Her explorer drifted so close that the glass walls kissed. She was wearing light grey overalls, pleasingly tight in the right places, he noted inappropriately. She shook the black and white strands of hair out of her eyes, one so dark it was almost black, the other the palest of grey and she smiled her impish smile. As her sleeve fell back, he saw the Eye tattooed on the inside of her forearm. She saw him looking and covered it up.

“This is all your fault, you twat,” she communicated. “Serves you bloody right.”

He sensed anger below the smile, disappointment too. Assuming the city was paying him particular attention, he would take no risks.

He said, “When things have calmed down, I’ll find you. Maybe we can discover some new rhythms together.”

The smile faded. “That’s pathetic, Lucas. You’ll have to come up with something better than that. Oh – and if you do come back to the tunnels on Seven-Four, just remember they’re dangerous places. You could fall a long way if you took the wrong turn.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that the Feelers have a contract out on you. You should know you’re not so popular now.”

The Feelers, blind Drones working in the lowest levels of the city where no light exists. There were rumours of what went on down there which surely could not be true – that the white-skinned creatures sometimes ate human flesh and could communicate by thought alone. They rarely caused trouble and if they did, the Centurions and Investigators left them to sort it out themselves.

“I’ve not done anything to those fuckers. Why the contract?”

She shrugged. “They hear everything, creeping through the ventilation ducts. They get everywhere. Maybe they heard something about you. Some people are saying you’re a traitor – pretending to be one of them, posing as an Investigator they can trust, a Gladiator, and they fall for it.”

“I don’t pretend, as it happens.”

“We all bloody pretend. A few good deeds, saving imperfect kids from termination, preventing a murder or two, solving a few crimes and they think they can tell you stuff. They think you’re on their side, but that’s all part of it, isn’t it? Another layer, another game. They say you believe in nothing. They say you’re a hedonist like Commander Xan.”

The head Centurion was already 7th Gen, almost a god after so much cell replacement and enhancement. Lucas felt his face grow hot at the comparison.

“That’s pretty harsh, Laura. I’m no god.”

“Is it? They say you’ve got your nose well and truly up the Royal arses.”

“It’s not true.”

He saw indecision before she disconnected and moved off. He cursed and released his Explorer. He followed the others, a line of tiny glass bubbles floating through ink-black waters. He watched the hologram display as the assets he had to inspect lit up on the far side of the city. The Explorers rose until he could see each lobe of the starfish-like form reaching kilometres into the gloom, speckled by countless thousands of lights. An endless series of floors went past until they reached the central hub containing the city’s eyes – a cluster of ten glinting hemispheres around the anus that periodically ejected waste into the turgid waters. Silver bubbles of C02 poured upwards in an endless torrent. The skin of the city was puckered and crinkled, thick with algae and concretions as if it had become part of the sea floor and many of the irregular windows were half-covered, some no longer visible. The vibrations from the city were setting his teeth on edge. The ocean surface above was no more than a suggestion of light. Lucas and all the others had seen holograms of the invaders raining fire until even the soil was consumed and rock ran like water, crumpling the planet’s crust, setting off earthquakes and tsunami. The planet was said to have been transformed into a sea of plasma with an atmosphere of CO2 – not a great outcome and a long time to wait. The clock had been turned back to the emergence of life, if there was any life. Algae and other shit, nothing else, according to the city and the city was never wrong.

He checked his position and altitude on the heads-up display. His reading of illicit files restricted to Royals had told him the city was supposed to be somewhere called the Skyfall Trench, on the curiously-named Tortoise Abyssal Plain and 800 kilometres from land, but no one knew what that meant anymore – least of all what a tortoise might be. It was just another Urban Myth, woven into nursery rhymes alongside the myths of Ascension when the dead would rise to the heavens above and enjoy one long party, and the All-Seeing Eye of the Creator would gaze down upon its imprisoned children whilst they lived a life of subjugation and uncertainty.

The comm crackled as Laura spoke. “Far in the future, our children might be taken to the Surface to kick-start our race all over again, and the city won’t be needed. Imagine that, Lucas. Imagine seeing the sky or the top of the sea. I wonder what colour the sky would be. I don’t want it to be red, it’s such an angry colour. Maybe it’s green.”

One day. But no one believed it would happen, least of all Lucas. And in the meantime, the city was their entire world. “I can imagine creating our children, at any rate,” he replied with a chuckle.

She didn’t laugh. “That’s disrespectful. What d’you think it would be like up there? I mean, if there were no fires or anything?”

He gazed upwards, struggling with the concept. “I suppose it would be like the city, just bigger. Room for more people.”

“I guess. Maybe we could live for longer up there. If the Royals agreed. I mean, if there’s no limits then we’d need more people, wouldn’t we? Lucas? What d’you think?”

“I think I need to concentrate on this right now.”

He wiped the sweat from his face and his eyes. His mouth was dry, his lips stuck to his teeth. Lucas helped steer his Explorer down around the vast metallic hide, heading into the narrow crevices where the city squatted on the sea floor. Countless legs terminating in drills had been sunk deep into the planet, hoovering up whatever resources it needed. Streamers of leaking oil were fanned by the current, and the lights of the Explorer showed an endless carpet of glistening oil and plastic waste. The surrounding waters were a sickly yellow, swirling around the glass and even the crabs had met their match, the pale corpses wafting upwards in their hundreds in his wake. Lucas assisted the Explorer in its tasks, checking the drill bits as the tiny legs of the city were raised, making adjustments and hoovering up data, trying to stay cool, screaming inside. The legs returned to their work behind him so that he was in a moving cave, a pimple on the city’s arse. He tried not to think about the immense mass above or what would happen should the city take exception. Just another accident – and they happened all the time, people going missing and no one asking. Condensation was running down the inside of the glass and panic was pumping up inside. Terror was choking him. It was hard to breathe, his chest felt bound in iron. He tried to take slow breaths and focus on the job in hand, silently praying that the Explorer’s power would last. As the lights began to dim, he emerged out the other side and rose upwards, gasping for air. The city must have enjoyed selecting that particular punishment for a Claustrophobe. Laura was waiting for him, her bubble slowly rotating. His fear gave way to anger.

“The city’s a bastard. I need to get out of this fucking thing.”

“Indeed it is. But there’s something you should see first, investigator.”

She sounded excited and frightened at the same time.

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