Authors: Colin F. Barnes
Colin F. Barnes
All Rights Reserved
This edition published in 2013 by Anachron Press
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this work are either fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication maybe reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the publisher. The rights of the authors of this work has been asserted by him/her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
3:13pm — Bachia, Mongolia
Gabe approached the crowd of Bachians in their newly named city of Bachia. It was formerly GeoCity-1. Gabe focussed on Enna’s battle-scarred compound, which held the leader of the defeated Red Widows, Natalya Romanov. With her inside were a group of Bachian children, no older than twelve years old. Natalya thought she could buy her freedom with them since the Bachians had captured her during her escape from the battle.
After defeating the Red Widows, they decided to rename the city. It was agreed among the citizens, and the newly appointed interim government, that the Bachian people, so long persecuted by the Family and attacked by the Red Widows, would have their own recognised city to run as they see fit.
Likewise, free from the control of the Family, City Earth became Libertas.
Petal, Jess, and Enna accompanied Gabe, while Sasha and James Robertson stayed back at the Dome to help the interim government set up a republic and take the invasive, citywide network offline, disabling the D-lottery.
Approaching the appointed leader of Bachia, Gabe extended his hand and shook the other’s firmly. The Bachian stood nearly a foot shorter than Gabe, but his wiry frame beneath his traditional robes carried a surprising strength. Intelligence and diplomatic skills weren’t all Bachia wanted from their leader. Being a tough, roguelike people, they greatly appreciated and admired one’s ability to fight.
A rope stretched across the city’s square, blocking off the general citizenship from getting too close to Enna’s compound. Gabe and the Bachian leader approached the ropes. Gabe stepped beyond the line.
Before Gabe entered the building, the Bachian said, “She’s been asking for you since we seized her yesterday. She says she’ll only release the children if you go in and speak with her alone—and unarmed.”
“Is she on a communications channel?” Gabe asked.
“No, she’s completely off the grid, as are the systems in the compound.” The Bachian ran a gnarled hand over his head and wiped the sweat from his wrinkled face.
“Why didn’t ya just kill ’er when ya first captured ’er?” Gabe knew the Bachians weren’t exactly shy when it came to swift justice; he’d seen so himself when he first came into contact with them, before he found a way into the Dome.
While trekking across the desert, he came across one of their temporary camps some miles from Bachia. Dotted around the perimeter of the camp, five badly sunburned corpses of mutinous Bachians hung by their feet from three-metre-tall stakes.
“We heard from Doctor Robertson and Libertas president Fuentes that we were to keep her alive. She has something of interest to you, apparently. We held her until you could arrive, but... well, she escaped, and has hunkered down with a group of kids. She’s saying she’ll kill one for every hour you don’t comply. Is it true that she has something you need?”
“I don’t know for sure, man. I guess we’ll see.” A wave of remorse punched Gabe hard in the gut. “I’m sorry it’s come to this,” Gabe said.
“What’s this bitch got on you?” Petal asked as she approached the ropes and placed her hand on Gabe’s shoulder.
“I think she’s got information,” Gabe replied.
Gabe took a deep breath. He’d never really told Petal about his past. He’d always changed the subject or flatly refused to talk about it until she eventually stopped asking. Trying to explain it to her now felt like an impossible task. How could he distil decades of regret and guilt into one succinct answer? He couldn’t; it was as simple as that. After all these years of carrying the silent truth, he wasn’t entirely sure what was real or a mutated artefact of his sins.
“Stuff about my past.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I gotta go in.” Gabe breathed in deeply and sighed. His heart rate increased a few extra beats per minute. “We’ve things that need sorting, and I ain’t gonna be known as the guy that got a bunch of kids killed.”
When Gabe worked undercover with the Red Widows, he found a series of files on Natalya’s computer that spoke about the ‘nomads’. There was enough telling information within those files for Gabe to suspect that the nomads in question were in fact his parents’ group. He didn’t have the time then to uncover definitive proof, but rumours amongst the Widows about how they dealt with the ‘dark-skinned’ men from the travellers and nomads only made him more certain they were talking about those from his birthplace: the Hong Kong Jamaican quarter.
When the Cataclysm happened, Gabe’s parents secured a position on the priority roster. As soon as the first bombs fell on the United States of America and, shortly after, the United Afro-European Alliance, all those on the priority roster were taken down into the shelters built years before, during the long struggles of WWIII.
It was inside those shelters, a number of years later, that Gabriel was born. When he reached sixteen, the outside radiation dropped to safe levels. A mini exodus took place as those desperate to leave moved out to the surface in order to see the world. For many, like Gabe, it would be their first time.
Food, water, and power supplies were naturally the first items in demand. Due to the march of time and the devastation of the bombs, there were far fewer resources than anyone could have realised. This led to groups dividing into gangs in order to secure as much as they could.
Fearing his parents would miss out and knowing the shelter’s supplies were dwindling, he took it upon himself to join a gang. He hoped it would help ensure his family wouldn’t be left without much-needed food and water.
He never saw them again.
The gangs turned on each other, split into subgroups. Seeing a bloodbath wrought by his brethren day and night, he fled the Jamaican Quarter in order to survive. And to find the supplies he and his family desperately needed.
Working his way across the country, doing jobs for one individual after the other, and developing his computer skills after finding a cache of books on cyber security and hacking principles, he found himself increasingly in demand, each time getting closer to a promise of food, water, and medicine. His naivety took him far from his home, and by the time he eventually found what he was looking for and returned to Hong Kong, he discovered both the Quarter and the shelter empty and abandoned.
Among the debris were diary entries, journals, and even poetry from some of the shelter residents. They could no longer wait or stay while violence and frustration erupted at every street corner.
The shelter residents had become like Gabe: wandering nomads. Ghosts.
Stalking the empty corridors of the shelter, he found his parents’ room. The room in which he grew up—a reinforced concrete box no more than four metres square.
Mixed in with damaged radios and old blankets, he found a letter written to him by his father.
It spoke of how proud they were of him for surviving and for getting away. How they knew he couldn’t guess, but communication among the shelter residents and those who surfaced spread quickly. Perhaps someone kept an eye on him and reported back—he had no real way of knowing. His father’s perfect cursive writing mentioned that they could no longer wait and that they were joining together with the rest of the shelter survivors in making their way across the land to find a new home.
In his travels, Gabe had seen what had become of humanity. Surviving no longer had rules or customs. Each person had to carve his own way.
It was a different way of surviving than Gabe viewed it. As far as he was concerned, you stayed alive by doing the right thing, not by killing everything around you. You had strength in numbers. The greed to secure water and food sources at the expense of others was ultimately self-defeating.
And besides, Gabe thought, what’s the point of living if you’re the only one left?
Given the harsh realities Gabe had experienced, he knew those from the shelter weren’t cut out for this world. His parents would be in their mid-sixties by now—if they were still alive—and they were some of the youngest ones in the shelter at the time.
By not returning sooner, by daring to leave them behind, he had condemned them to almost certain death. Or so he thought. That Natalya wanted to see him, strike a bargain, gave him hope that some of those nomads had survived. He’d never spoken of what he’d found on the Red Widows’ computer system—that would have completely blown his cover—so she must have found out the connection between him and the nomads from another source.
Enna stepped through the crowd and stood next to Gabe.
“We have some support,” she said, thumbing over her shoulder.
Behind them, lying on the flat roofs of the war-scarred Bachia dwellings, two green laser sights glimmered in the sun. Gabe squinted. “Is that...?”
“Yeah. Liza-Marie and Ghanus,” Enna said.
“If Natalya goes anywhere near a window or a doorway, they’ll take ’er out,” the Bachian leader said with a grim smile. “Shortly after the battle, they requested citizenship,” he added for clarity.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Gabe said, happy to see those bouncing lasers once again.
Liza-Marie, typically dressed in her all-black outfit and half-mask, waved at Gabe.
He waved back. The Bachians were only effective with their machine-gun turrets, and that wasn’t really the best option here. Despite the support, he didn’t want them taking Natalya down without his consent.
If it were true that she had information, he wanted to secure it before she met her end—preferably by his own hands.
“Are they on a network?” Gabe asked.
Petal stared at him, giving him a faraway look. Without her goggles, her eyes were milky white. Probably due to Gerry’s consciousness floating about inside her mind. Since the confrontation with the mad consciousness, Elliot Robertson, Gerry had saved Petal from his dire influence and, in so doing, merged their minds. In contrast, the rogue AIs and viruses she had held would often turn her eyes to black orbs or swirling red spheres.
After a few seconds she spoke. “Bachia has a small private network running. I’ll forward you the credentials.” She gave him a cheesy grin. “Things feel different now.”
“Because of Gerry?” Gabe asked as he received the security login details of the network across his VPN connection with Petal.
“Yeah. It’s like I got a massive upgrade or something. Things process much faster with him in there. It’ll be...” She sighed heavily and looked away.
Gabe offered his sympathy to Petal before logging on to the Bachian network using his implant. He traversed the nodes until he found the communication module.
Most of Bachia’s residents were represented by usernames and icons to indicate their position within the city. Some had a number in parentheses next to their name. Hovering over one, he realised they were kill counts. Naturally, their leader had the highest, as befitting his rank.
“Do ya think you’ll miss him?” Gabe said to Petal, referring to Gerry.
“Yeah. Although I can’t communicate with him directly, it’s like his memories are mine and my feelings are his. It’s weird. I can’t really describe it, but it’s...”
“What is it, girl?”
“This is gonna sound weird coming from the likes of me,” Petal said, brushing a hand through her hair, “but it’s like I’m at peace for once.”
Gabe put his arm around her shoulders. She felt so small under his arm, so fragile, but she was the strongest person he’d ever known. He hated to think how she had finally achieved a sense of inner peace only to have to potentially lose it again.
Petal hugged him back and looked up at him. “I got your back, Gabe, whatever happens in there.”
“I know ya do, girl. I appreciate it.”
A voice came over the network comms module. Liza-Marie.
– You guys are gonna make me vomit. Are you going in or not?
Gabe smiled, liking her ‘never off the job’ attitude. She was a great ally to have around.
– Yeah, I’m going in shortly. But listen, she has information I really need, like seriously need. Ya get me? So can ya refrain from shooting her brains out until I give the confirmation?
– Sure... we can do that.
Her voice hid something, Gabe noted. They’d probably take Natalya out as soon as they had a clear shot. He’d have to ensure he got whatever it was she had before that could happen.
– Thanks for having my back.
– It’s what we do.
Liza-Marie closed their comms session.
“Before I go in,” Gabe said to the Bachia leader, “is there anything else I need to know?”
The Bachian darted his eyes away, fidgeting.
“What is it?” Gabe said.
“Well... there’s just one more thing.” He took a deep breath. “She’s rigged the compound with explosives.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Enna kicked out at the dusty ground. “If that bitch destroys my equipment and tech—” Her face flushed red as she clenched her fists, no doubt imagining Natalya’s neck in her hands.
“Ens, chill. I got this, yeah? Trust me.”
Gabe knew it wasn’t just himself that he had to do this for; it was the people of Bachia whose children were inside and the future of his two closest friends. Once again, he found himself having to sacrifice his need—for information on his people—for the lives of others, unless he could find a middle way, a way to achieve everything.
“Fuck it. I’m going in. Let’s get this sorted.”
Gabe kissed Enna and Petal on their cheeks and said, “Ya know I love ya both, right?”
They nodded, choked up by the only display of real affection Gabe had ever shown.
“Right, I’ll see y’all shortly.”
With that, he approached the compound. He stopped at the door, remembering her demands to enter unarmed, and took out the stun-sickle and his pair of parrying daggers from inside his long duster jacket. He dropped them to the floor in full view, knowing she was likely watching, and walked inside.
The first room within the compound was shrouded in complete darkness. Natalya obviously used that to her advantage, given her OLED eye implants afforded her a level of dark-vision Gabe did not possess. But what he did have over her was familiarity. He’d spent many a day in this building, working with Enna. He knew it better than he remembered the shelter he grew up in.