Yesss! My new novel, Point Apocalypse, is finished and will come to Amazon early this coming spring! In the meantime, here's the first chapter - let me know what you think!
|cover art by V. Manyukhin|
He enters a prison world. A place of no return harboring the demise of the world. He doesn't know who he is. He can't tell friend from foe. He has no idea what brought him here. He has no time to think. He lives from one objective to the next. No proper food or drinking water, no modern technologies. Earth's laws end here. No one to turn to for help. The lives of thousands of people now depend on him alone.
Chapter 1. The Portal
Darkness. Light. Hundreds of bare feet pattering on the tiled floor around me. Pitch dark again. Blinding light - I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment but kept moving amid the naked figures. Cold water jets pelted us from the walls; people yelped, someone slipped and fell flat on the floor.
"No huddling together! Keep moving!", the invisible loudspeakers barked. "Form columns! Line up, I said!"
The controller just had to be new. Trying too hard, the idiot. I'd love to know who'd authorized his access.
The stench of bleach hit my nose.
"Move it!" the voice hollered. "Don't stop, keep walking! Listen and obey orders!"
They dimmed the light. Under the ceiling, strings of lamps blurred and blinked. To my right, someone cussed, the one in front of me jerked back and somebody else pushed him onto me. I fended him off with my elbow, hitting his shoulder. More swearing drowned out the jets' hissing.
"Everyone shut up!" the speakers barked. "The culprits will-"
The speakers crackled and screeched. The lights flickered and went out. The shower stopped, too. For a few seconds, the crowd continued in the dark, their bare feet slapping on the tiles.
"Serves him right, the asshole," said a voice behind me.
I didn't know whether he meant the controller who'd loudspeakered us around or whoever had tried to start the fight.
"Hey, what is it?" a voice said. "I'm afraid of the dark."
"Get your filthy hands off me!" a response yelled. "And keep'em to yourself!"
"You better watch yours!"
What followed sounded like a slap in someone's face and a suppressed yell followed by a commotion. Far behind my back, I heard some English. I raised my fists, pressed my elbows to my sides and lowered my head. The tribunal had decided to have my acceleratory implants removed so it was time I learned to make do without them. As long as they didn't knock me off my feet, I had a fair chance of fighting them off provided I had enough space.
The crowd poured towards the walls like overflowing jelly. I kept walking all the while sensing there was no one left in front of me. The speakers were dead. The corridor filled with noises and voices.
When was the controller going to switch to the auxiliary power? There had to be a good hundred people at the portal. What were they waiting for? If they didn't do it soon, people could panic causing a stampede. And I couldn't hurry the things up for fear of triggering it.
I threw my arm to one side and swiped a face, hissing, "Out of my way!" I was about to add a kick but reconsidered: I might miss and fall flat onto the tiles.
The imprint of lamps snaking down the corridor imprinted on my retinas. I kept walking, slowly. Now I had no one left at my sides, either - only some wheezing at a safe distance behind me.
Then the lights went on. The water jets hit the crowd with a hum and sent people flying to the center of the corridor. I jumped over a slumped figure and escaped someone's crooked fingers digging into my shoulder. A burly man with a beard raised his fist and stepped in my way; I thumped his solar plexus.
The shower stopped.
"All freeze!" the speakers howled. "Stay where you are!"
I lowered my hands and glanced over my shoulder. Behind me, two Asians stopped in their tracks back-to-back. Could be Chinese, or... you could never tell. They all looked the same to me. Could be clones for all I knew.
"Form three ranks," this was a different voice, cold and emotionless. Apparently, a more experienced officer had replaced the hollering greenhorn. "In ten seconds I'll turn on the shower. Those failing to comply will be eliminated. Ten, nine..."
He wasn't joking. We were at the Fort Commander's complete mercy. They could kill us whenever they pleased, then dump our bodies from the cliffs into the ocean to save the energy costs on the return transfer. His threat worked: we were still convicts with fewer rights than slaves, so people started getting back onto their feet and falling in. The bearded guy I'd knocked down croaked and tried to prop himself up with his elbows but failed. He pushed with his forehead against the floor.
"Seven, six..." the speakers kept on.
I grabbed the man's elbow and jerked him up.
"Four, three... Leave the corridor once the disinfection is complete. Wait for orders to enter the airlock then proceed to the mind check. Start moving from your right, in single file."
The bearded man doubled up with his hand pressed to his stomach and teetered. I squeezed his elbow making sure he didn't collapse under the water jet.
"The shower's on - now."
I raised my face to the ceiling and closed my eyes. The cold torrent stank of chemicals as it lashed against my body.
The first cleaning cycle was followed by thirty seconds of warm disinfecting foam. They turned it off and then put the water back on, the pressure slightly less this time. Having washed off the foam, the drying systems kicked in, turning the air in the corridor as hot as a sauna. The sterilization lamps on the ceiling lit up, and I held my breath watching the red light flicker over the exit.
I ended up in the right column with only two men in front of me. That was good. I'd be through with the mind check quick enough.
A siren wailed announcing the end of the disinfection. The red light over the exit went out and the main lights came back on. At the end of the corridor, a steel door whirred as it sunk into the wall exposing the airlock.
The men stirred, their voices low.
"By the right, in single file!" the speakers spewed.
A tall old man happened to be the first by the airlock door. He started for it, stopped and gave a cautious look over his shoulder.
"By the right, in single file, towards the door, forward march!" repeated the voice from the ceiling.
"Get on with it, granddad," a square man from the second file nudged. "Don't hold everybody up."
His bulging back and arm muscles were pockmarked with what looked like bullet holes, skin tight and wrinkled around them. Only these were no bullet wounds. They'd removed enhancing implants from his shoulder muscles. The modified man must have been a heavy laborer - most likely a pit worker at one of the Arctic mines. The mines and the Army - two places you had no business to be without muscle enhancers.
"Next," the voice echoed down the corridor once the first convict had cleared the airlock.
The miner stepped into the opening, swaying. Judging by his lack of coordination, he must have suffered the removal surgery pretty recently. I could see he hadn't adjusted to it yet. I knew by myself the first days were the hardest.
As I crossed the airlock, my head span around. My spine and shoulder blades started prickling in places where I'd once had my combat modules installed. The invisible rays of electromagnetic detectors searched every inch of my body, then switched off. The prickling ceased. I walked past the guardhouse to my left behind a one-way mirror and stepped into a narrow portal facing the door to the mind check room where the miner had just entered.
"Nex-" the controller didn't finish the word.
An alarm wailed. I stepped aside and looked back. The Asian who'd followed me still had a few more paces to clear the airlock. He ran, then stumbled, dropping to his knees and grasping at his blackened chest. His mouth opened, his screams inaudible above the howling of the alarm, fire and blood splattering through a hole in his chest.
The controller blocked the camera and turned off the alarm. For a few seconds, I stood still by the closed door. Then I shook my head and squatted down.
The portal seemed to be rife with emergency situations. Something was going on. First the power failure in the disinfection corridor, then they'd replaced the controller, and now this Asian with his implant...
I tried to second-guess the actions of the duty shift. Handling this kind of emergency couldn't take more than a couple of minutes at a top security facility like this one. They'd now remove the body, make a radio announcement and resume the scan.
The dead man had to be Chinese, by the looks of it. They just couldn't help pushing their luck. Their hardware people were still beyond competition; so apparently, they had fixed their man with a micro container housing the implant. They must have delivered it to the carrier after the trial but before his transfer to the Fort. It looked as if they wanted to try and see if they could get a modified man through to Pangea.
Again, I shook my head. Impossible. Once the judgment was made, they removed all neuromodules and stimulators while still on Earth. After convicts were convoyed to the Kola Peninsula, they were checked again - and for all I knew, their medical staff were quite unpurchasable.
I reached behind my back and scratched a hollow under my shoulder blade where once a somatic module used to sit. Those thingies could affect the work of the adrenal glands ejecting hormones like adrenaline. I propped my elbows on my knees, my hands hanging down, and looked up at the ceiling. Almost immediately, I glimpsed the black button of a camera between two of the lamps.
It looked as if the Chinese had had his implant installed right before being shipped here. But how? This wasn't as easy as inserting a night-vision lens! This was proper surgery affecting the whole body. All right, imagine they'd done it somehow, but how on earth had they expected the implanted Asian to pass the three-level safety system? The Fort was notorious for its multiple checks. Every room on the base had infrared cameras in it; the airlock was jam-packed with sensors, plus the ultrasound scanner in the portal. I reached again and scratched my back. It itched like hell. They must have put the scanner on to full.
I heard voices in the mind check block. The door slid sideways into its frame. I stood up, clasped my hands behind my back and turned to the wall.
"Center," a voice said behind my back, "There's a convict in the portal."
"As if I can't see," the speaker answered overhead. "Put him through."
"Isn't it better he cleans up in the airlock first? Saves us the troub-"
"Put him through," the controller snapped.
I chuckled. So much for me mopping it up for them.
They yanked my shoulder to make me face the door.
"Quit sneering, you piece of-!" the guard snarled pointing his impulse rifle at my chest.
He was in full gear. A composite vest hugged his torso above his protection suit, its square plates concealing his shoulders. Elbow guards and gloves protected his arms. High carbon fiber boots and a tactical helmet with a mirrored anti-laser visor completed the look.
The condenser on the end of its barrel swayed pointing at the doorway into the block breathing with cold. I walked through.
"Attention all," the controller said. "Clearance emergency situation. Penetration attempt."
Electric drives buzzed behind my back. The door closed, clanging its magnetic locks. The voice in the loudspeakers distanced, barely heard now, and then stopped altogether.
The mind check block looked a bit like an upended tumbler with its black matte walls of unknown mineral. I stepped into the middle and said out loud,
"Mark Posner. Convicted of the murder of a Federal Security agent. Proven guilty."
Mind checks are quick and absolutely painless. You don't feel a thing apart from the cold coming from the walls: the procedure calls for low temperatures of about -20F.
I'd done it a hundred times. In the Army school, then every time I'd moved to a new station, and the last time, before the Tribunal. In other words, every time the situation called for a quick identity check. Never had problems. But today... everything seemed to be going ass about face.
They didn't let me out. They didn't open the door. What the hell's going on here? An equipment malfunction? Couldn't be. They'd already restored the power in the corridor. The airlock detectors had caught the implanted Chinese. The communications between the guards and the loudspeakers were working. The doors seemed to be in order. Two of the convicts -the old man and the miner - had already cleared the mind check.
I shuffled my feet and huddled wishing to be back with those still in the warm disinfection corridor. What took the controller so long? Had he found something fishy with my mind map? But what if-
Then I realized. I could see the face of the base commander as the controller reported my identity...
Federal Security didn't forgive those who murdered their workers. But before, they hadn't had a chance to get to me: I'd been kept in the Army detention center and tried by a military tribunal. The Army and FSA come from different planets as far as their structures and objectives are concerned. And now the Feds had their chance. The portal base was under their jurisdiction. I wouldn't have been surprised if the commander had received special instructions regarding my arrival.
"Repeat check," resounded overhead. "State your name."
I repeated it fast and clear, like a parade report.
Another pause. The FSA men were overdoing it. Why repeat a scan if you're about to kill a convict? Why pile up evidence? I wouldn't. The control systems now had two scan results filed in their computers. Someone would have to delete them now.
My teeth chattered. My shoulders shuddered with the cold.
"Hello? Center?" I ventured, knowing that the controller wouldn't break instructions by speaking to a convict. "Stop fucking around! I'll freeze to death in here!"
I was shaking. Clouds of mist poured out of my mouth. The FSA men had to be dragging it out on purpose. They had to be trying to freeze me to death by lowering the temperature to -95F, the lowest possible in the block. No messy reports: they'd write me off as a mind check equipment malfunction. One convict frozen to death, big deal.
"Hello!" I exhaled.
My nose stung, my eyes watered. I couldn't control my shaking any more.
"Hello!" I stepped forward and raised a fist to slam the door. It slid aside. I tumbled out, nearly tripping over myself and started doing vigorous squats. The miner and the tall old man stared at me, uncomprehending. Both stood by the gate at the end of a long dark concrete corridor waiting to be issued their fatigues and shipped to the Continent.
After a dozen crunches, I hugged my shoulders rubbing the chapped skin.
"I say," the miner started, "What the hell happened in there?"
I didn't answer. I had no wish to speak to him. The miner and the old man exchanged glances. Both had already put on their pale synthetic clothes and light plastic shoes.
The rags were disposable crap, you had to give them that. Instant-made as you waited, they lasted no longer than condoms. While a convict cleared the airlock, the scanners took his measurements and sent them to a thermoplast machine next door. As the convict left the mind check, he received a perfectly useless set of fatigues: in less than a week, the fabric would crack and shred under Pangea's scorching sun, and the shoes would fall apart.
The miner turned his stare to me. "How long are they going to keep us in here, d'you know?"
I didn't bother to answer. A plastic bag containing my clothes slid out of the wall into a tray underneath. I tore it open and unfolded a pair of trousers and a long-sleeved T-shirt. The shoes fell onto the floor. I stuffed the packaging into a bin under the machine and got dressed as quick as I could, then pulled the shoes on and tore out the tongues. Now they could pass for a pair of sandals. I Velcroed them, crossed the corridor and sat in the far corner, lowering my eyelids.
" Are you mute, man? D'you understand Russian?"
"Fuck off," I barked back glancing at him out of the corner of my eye.
The miner stuck a square jaw out and headed for me, muscles bulging under his clothes. The man was strong but stupid, going for a stranger like a cybertech.
I unglued my back from the wall and spread my shoulders preparing to spring up and knock him down with a good kneeing. But the old man called him back. When the miner didn't stop, the old boy hurried after him, grabbed the man's hand and pulled him back to the gate. I could hear him whisper that I was trouble, that he'd seen the implants scars on my back which was a sure sign I was an FSA man and my body language betrayed FSA training, too, so the miner should leave me well alone. Even better, he whispered, wait for the other inmates to arrive and tell them about me.
The old man turned to look at me. Our eyes met. He shut up and I leaned back against the wall. The old guy had an eye for that sort of thing. He'd been right about my modules and training. But he'd got the crux wrong as I had nothing to do with the FSA whatsoever. But who was I to explain that my implants had been of the Army type? Only an experienced neurotech could tell the difference.
Now I had to keep my eyes open. If the miner and the old guy shared their suspicions with the rest, I'd never make it to the Continent. The moment I stepped onto the ferry, I'd be dead meat. They could even try and take me out while still on the pier. That way, I'd never even have a chance to become a local. A Pangean deportee.
They started whispering again, softly this time, so I couldn't hear a word.
The mind check door opened letting out the second Asian. Wonder if he knew about his predecessor's implant? They could be accomplices. Not that the base commander cared. His job was shipping, not investigating: sending convoys both ways, from the Kola Peninsula to Pangea and back. No, that was not all: the commander wasn't supposed to allow new technologies to leak onto the Continent. And he had a well-equipped garrison and weaponry to help him do just that.
A clothes bag slid into the tray by the door. The Chinese took it, cool as a cucumber, tore the shrink film and started dressing. Before he could pull up his pants, another inmate cleared the lock. In half a minute, yet another one came out. The transfer was under way. In just over an hour, the two-hundred-strong gang would be ready for shipping.
The Chinese got dressed and crouched by the exit staring at the floor. I looked up. The ceiling sported the Fort's colors: two bolts of lightning crossed under a two-headed eagle.
Then I heard a quiet pop. My ears started hurting as if the air pressure in the room had dropped. Startled, I looked around. Neither the Chinese nor the others showed any signs of discomfort - in fact, they didn't appear to have noticed anything at all. My head, however, started hissing and crackling. What the hell was going on?
The back of my head ached in the recently healed hole which had once housed the mnemo chip. A quiet hiss again, then a woman's indifferent voice sounded inside my head,
"Pangea: a continent lying along the equator. Is bounded by the ocean. The length of coastline, over thirty thousand kilometers. Status: an inland prison. No natural resources discovered. The climate..."
My ears popped. The voice distanced itself but didn't disappear completely, reciting information on the Continent's climate, mountain ranges, rivers, plains, plateaus and settlements. I remembered a lot of the data from my army school days.
When the voice abated, I opened my eyes, confused. The lock corridor was now filled with people. Most had dressed and sat by the walls; some talked. Foreigners stuck together closer to the mind check exit. A few men by the gate surrounded the miner and the old man. They argued casting occasional glances in my direction.
I rubbed my forehead and winced. My head was booming. I had to concentrate. I was Mark Posner - Private Posner, sentenced to life in exile for murdering a Federal Security agent. I'd been tried and sentenced by the military tribunal, then undergone an agonizing surgery as they'd removed my combat implants. They'd convoyed me with the rest to the Kola Peninsula portal - and there I was at the Pangean base, a.k.a. the Fort, that occupied a rocky island not far from the mainland, a.k.a. Pangea Anomaly - the only body of land amid the ocean that covers this world's entire surface.
That was all fine and correct. But what was the information software doing in my head in the first place? This wasn't an implant - this was a basic program that someone had bothered to neuron-zip and which had now unzipped in my brain all by itself. You would think I'd know, wouldn't you? How d'you think you could install a piece of software into a man's head without him knowing? After the tribunal, they hadn't had the opportunity, anyway: it required sedation, and I... wait a second... when those military surgeons...
A voice put an end to my rationalizing. The old boy, the miner and a couple of bystanders stopped arguing.
'Hey there, buddy," the miner headed for me.
I stood up and, keeping an eye on him, walked towards the foreigners clustering nearby. Another man joined the miner: middle-aged with sunken cheeks and a graying, unhealthy complexion.
"Wait up," he said in a low voice and rubbed his pointy chin. "We need to talk."
I backed off and cast a glance around. No one seemed to sneak up on me from behind. The gray-faced man fixed his calm gaze on me while the miner stuck out his chin, his glare menacing. Behind them stood the old man and three more guys, fit and tall, all three younger than myself, square-shouldered like new recruits on parade. And their faces... but of course! They had to be clones! A custom-hatched brood: apparently, the mining foreman had donated his sample to sequester and force-grow apprentice triplets for himself. Force-grown clones looked at a lifespan of thirty years at best; wonder what the foreman and his brood had done to justify a Pangean exile? They must have protested by demanding better wages and working conditions. Dangerous thing to do these days. Ever since the new president had come to power after the Civil War, he'd been hunting down rioters and separatists. With Army support, he'd created the Federal Security Agency, banned trade unions and dissolved rival political parties. Any kind of protest could be qualified under the new Threat To The State law and the protester himself sent for life in exile, all thanks to Pangea whose discovery had solved the prison overcrowding problem. The only known portal to Pangea was on the Kola Peninsula which had prompted a commercial approach as Russia started accepting convicts from other countries. The rapidly depleting oil supplies together with a chain of world crises had triggered a wave of riots and civil wars in virtually every country of the globe, filling foreign prisons to the roofs with unhappy undesirables.
I hesitated, unsure whether striking up a conversation with them was a healthy thing to do. I could wait for the line-up call or just blend in with the crowd.
"I think I know who you are," the man said. "But I'm not a hundred percent sure."
The day seemed to be rich in surprises.
"If I could have a look at your back, that would eliminate many questions," he added.
"Negative," I decided to bid for time until the line-up call. "Any more suggestions?"
The gray-faced man gave me a vaguely guilty look. "Then you're toast."
The miner and two of the clones were an easy job: they stood too close to each other leaving themselves little space to maneuver. The others could take a bit of time but overall, I should meet the combat training standards. But what would I gain - getting sent to the cooler?
That was one place I shouldn't be in. If I picked the fight, I'd give FSA agents the perfect excuse to lock me up and take me out at their leisure.
"Pointless dragging it out," the gray face said. "We're attracting attention. You don't need it."
He rubbed his pale sunken cheek and added,
"Fighting is no good, either."
"Know your implants?"
He shrugged. On brief reflection, I said, "Back off."
I walked to the gate, all the time knowing this wasn't the best alternative, but I had no other option. I turned to the clones and the old man, "Gather around. We don't need the others to gawk."
When they shielded me from unwanted stares, I pulled the T-shirt up and glanced back at the man. "Well?"
"I told you, didn't I?" the old man glared at me. "Look at all them scars!"
Gray face raised his hand, silencing him. Then he came closer as did the miner. Cold fingers touched my back and shoulder blade points and traced my spine down to the small of my back.
"You can get dressed… private."
I turned to him straightening my T-shirt and stated, "You're a neurotech."
"So he's not an-" the old man stopped short.
"No," gray face offered me his hand. "I'm Vladas Chabrov. Chartered neurotech."
I paused, then shook his hand. "I'm Mark."
Vladas nodded. No words needed: only chartered specialists had access to the military. He could see at once the placement and purpose of my implants. The miner, however, took time to take it in.
"Name, rank, sentence?" he asked me like the mind check operator.
"Quiet, Petro!" the neurotech mouthed.
I glanced at their faces surrounding me. The clones watched me, still uptight. The old man fidgeted, his wrinkly hands trembling.
"Relax, Misha," Vladas touched the old man's shoulder and went on in a quiet voice, "Everyone, relax. Mark could have killed us all here in his own sweet time. With or without implants, his combat potential is high enough. I'd say, a couple of units? Two point five, maybe?"
His words fell on deaf ears as our professional mumbo jumbo meant nothing to lay people.
"Allow me to translate," I said. "Combat potential is what we call a soldier's qualification levels. All of you taken together might average two combat units. Not even. My potential equals three combat units. Four, with implants installed.
As I said it, I realized that Vladas had just given me another check. FSA agents used a different qualification system. Had I been one of them, I'd have explained it differently.
His mouth twitched suppressing a sneer.
"What makes you stick together?" I asked.
They ordered us to line up. The crowd began to fall into ranks, quickly and efficiently this time. The miner, the neurotech and myself were in the first file, followed by the triplets. One of them shouldered off the Chinese who tried to wriggle in with us.
"He's weird," Vladas said.
"Yeah," I watched as the Asian took his place in the third file next to old Misha. "His buddy has snuffed it in the air lock. Maybe not his buddy. They could've had nothing to do with each other."
"I saw it."
"So what do you think?"
"Nothing," Vladas shrugged. "No one can smuggle an implant to Pangea. The Asians tailgated you through the disinfection corridor like you had honey on your ass. One definitely did. The other could just be hanging around for all we know. We even tried to pick a fight with them - no way," he rubbed his cheek. "They didn't buy it. And you were deaf to the world, you! Shlepping along like a cybertech."
Aha. So they'd kept an eye on me. Tried to get into a fight. Now what would they need me for? Or - why did he need me?
"You didn't answer my question," I glanced back at the triplets. Their glares were lasering a hole in my head.
"They're Petro's clones," Vladas whispered.
"I've worked that out. Are they miners?"
"They are. I helped them adapt after implant removal on the way here."
It made sense. A certified neurotech meets a few fellow convicts in transit. He helps them. The tribulations of trial and prison followed by deportation can be too much even for a specially trained man. Some clam up, others seek contact hoping for some support or try to secure a place in the prison hierarchy. If you looked around you could see that the crowd consisted of smaller affinity groups. They tried to stick together knowing they had to survive the ultimate tribulation: life on Pangea. The old man didn't look as if he belonged in Vladas' group, but I left it till later.
"Why did you follow me?" I asked. Their attention worried me a lot. First the Chinese exploded in the air lock, then the mind block freeze, followed by the software in my head. I couldn't help connecting the morning's events looking for a trend and an explanation.
"It was Misha. He's a political prisoner, been rioting against the system. He pointed you out. His idea was, you were a Federal agent. Planted by the Feds to stir the shit. We meant to check you out in the corridor but couldn't. The Asians were constantly in our way."
"They just didn't let us close. Like they were covering you or something."
I didn't have time to think it over. The electric motors whirred within the walls pulling the doors in front of us open. The white-hot midday sun hit our eyes. I shielded my face with my hand and squinted at the thin strip of rocky land past the gate. Beyond it, the surf washed against the shore driving turquoise waves onto the rocks. The sky far overhead was clear and equally turquoise. The wind smelled of brine as it splattered me in the face. The ocean lay before me. Far beyond, rose the shores of Pangea.