Authors: Mark Walden
To Simon and Karen.
Both brilliant, but better bound.
In the frozen darkness of deep space, something stirred. Pulses of energy raced through systems buried deep within a vast vessel as slowly it woke. Blood-red lights glowed on the hull of the enormous black ship as the consciousness within its heart stirred, and like a beast waking from a long hibernation the ship began to unfurl. Long, sweeping, arc-shaped pylons stretched out from the hull, lighting up in turn with a corona of crimson lightning. The entity within felt something approximating satisfaction as it received the stream of diagnostic messages. The speed and direction of the vessel was exactly as anticipated; it was less than a light year from its target, a small blue planet orbiting an insignificant yellow star. The entity felt a moment of excitement – its long sleep was over, and soon it would be time to feed.
Sam woke with a start, his breath coming in ragged gasps as he sat bolt upright in bed. Another nightmare. He wondered if they would ever fade or if he would always be haunted by the faces of friends and family he had lost over the last two years. He put his hand to his forehead and just for an instant was startled by its cool metallic surface pressing against his skin. It had been a month since he had lost his hand to the Voidborn nanite swarm and he was still struggling to get used to its replacement. He turned on the small bedside light and looked down at the gleaming gold of his lower arm. He concentrated for a moment and the surface seemed to ripple as the millions of microscopic nanites that made up his limb swirled into a new configuration, the fingers of his hand turning into a smooth flat panel that reflected his face. The boy who stared back at him was very different from the slightly overweight, carefree person that he would have seen in the mirror before the Voidborn invasion.
If you could even call it that, he thought to himself.
Invasion didn’t properly describe the experience of seeing an entire planet enslaved in the blink of an eye without a shot being fired. He willed his hand back into its original form, the flat panel replaced once again by slowly flexing golden fingers. He could hear the Voidborn nanites as an almost inaudible hiss in the back of his skull. It was symptomatic of the strange connection that he had with the Voidborn, something that had ultimately proved to be the decisive factor in their defeat. He still did not fully understand why it was that he had the ability to sense the alien creatures in this way – all he knew was that it gave him an edge that other survivors of the invasion seemed to lack.
‘Still mostly human,’ Sam said to himself with a wry smile. He quickly got dressed and headed out into the snow-covered remains of St James’s Park, rubbing his hands together to warm them up before shoving them into the pockets of his camouflage-print overcoat. This winter was proving to be particularly harsh.
Sam paused for a moment and looked up at the colossal Voidborn Mothership hovering above central London. Once it had been a terrifying sight, something that had filled him with dread, but now it was strangely reassuring. The bright yellow glow of the lights that covered the enormous vessel’s hull was the only indication that this Mothership was any different to the ones that were hovering above other cities all over the world. This ship was now their protector and had been ever since the mysterious nanites that swam in Sam’s bloodstream had become integrated with the Voidborn consciousness that controlled it. That entity was now known as the Servant. It was something neither human nor Voidborn, but for reasons still unclear to Sam, it seemed to be on their side. The Servant could control the Mothership above them, but its connection to the rest of the Voidborn consciousness had apparently been severed completely.
‘I trust you have rested well, Illuminate,’ the Servant said as she approached. The Servant had assumed a striking human-like appearance as a tall female with golden metallic skin and glowing yellow eyes.
‘Yes, thank you,’ Sam replied with a nod. None of them understood what Sam’s status as Illuminate actually meant, but it appeared that the Servant was programmed to protect and obey him.
‘Doctor Stirling has requested that you join him in the research building,’ the Servant said. ‘He wishes to inform you of a problem that has been encountered with awakening the dormant humans.’
‘What kind of problem?’ Sam asked with a frown.
‘Doctor Stirling stated that he wishes to explain it to you personally,’ the Servant replied.
‘OK, tell him I’ll be there in two minutes,’ Sam said with a quick wave to his friend Rachel, who was walking towards them.
Rachel’s smile faded as she approached.
‘What’s up?’ she asked, tucking a dangling lock of her long brown hair behind her ear.
‘Not sure,’ Sam said, glancing towards the research building on the far side of the compound. ‘Stirling wants to see me – sounds like there’s some kind of problem with waking the Sleepers.’
‘That’s not good,’ Rachel said. ‘Didn’t Goldie give you any more information?’
‘No, she said he wants to speak to me himself. I know they’ve been getting close to perfecting a localised transmitter for the waking signal, but it sounds like there might have been a setback.’
‘Mind if I tag along?’ Rachel asked.
‘Course not,’ Sam said. ‘If Stirling and Will descend into their usual technobabble, I’ll need someone to keep me awake.’
The two of them walked across the open central area of the compound, passing the firing range that they’d set up next to the armoury. The hulking shape of a Grendel, the Voidborn’s most feared soldiers, stood in front of the entrance to the armoury, keeping silent, patient vigil. The creature stood ten metres tall and was covered in black segmented bio-mechanical armour. Its low-slung head swung back and forth, its burning yellow eyes searching for any threat. Just a couple of months ago, being that close to a Grendel would have meant a very messy and unpleasant death, but now this creature and the hundreds more like it aboard the Mothership and patrolling the streets of London were their sworn protectors. It had taken some getting used to.
As the two of them approached the entrance to the research building, Dr Iain Stirling walked outside to meet them.
‘Thank you for coming at such short notice,’ Stirling said, rubbing his eyes. He looked as if he hadn’t slept properly in a while.
‘The Servant said you’d had some sort of problem with your research into waking the Sleepers,’ Sam said.
‘Yes,’ Stirling replied with a sigh. ‘I’m afraid that the situation has become more complex than we had initially anticipated. You need to see this for yourself.’
The three of them headed up to the second floor and out into a long room filled with portable army surplus cots where several dozen apparently unconscious people lay. It was a sight that Sam had witnessed many times over the past two years. This was the fate of most of humanity, enslaved instantly by an alien signal that robbed them of all free will, turning them into mindless slaves. As they had begun to explore the city more thoroughly, they had discovered hundreds of buildings that now served as huge storehouses for the enslaved millions who had once called this city their home. It was in a place not unlike this that Sam had last seen his sister, lying unconscious on the floor. That was the day the Voidborn had invaded, nearly two years ago, and it was the last time he’d seen any of his family. He and a handful of others who were immune to the effects of the signal were, as far as they knew, the last human beings on the planet with any free will.
‘These places give me the creeps,’ Rachel said as she and Sam followed Stirling down the narrow path between the prone bodies. It led to a screened-off area at the other end of the room. ‘Those things floating around don’t help either.’
Sam glanced over at the pair of Voidborn Hunter Drones moving slowly around the room. They looked like hovering mechanical jellyfish; gleaming silver shells covered their top halves and a mass of writhing metallic tentacles hung beneath. The surface of their bodies was illuminated by fine patterns of yellow light. Once that light had been the sickly green colour that was typical of Voidborn technology, but that had all changed when the Mothership above London had fallen to the human resistance.
As Sam and Rachel crossed the room, a single row of Sleepers opened their eyes and slowly climbed to their feet, their faces blank. In unison they turned and slowly walked to the other side of the room, where a large cylindrical Voidborn machine sat on a table. As the first of the Sleepers approached the machine, a hatch slid open on its front and the mute woman reached inside. There was a click and a hiss, and a few second later she withdrew her arm from the opening.
‘Feeding time,’ Rachel said as the woman returned to her previous position and lay down on the cot, her eyes closed.
‘They’re not animals in a zoo,’ Stirling said, sounding irritated, as the rest of the line of silent people slid their arms into the machine one by one. ‘The human body requires remarkably little in the way of sustenance if it’s delivered efficiently. It also dramatically reduces the amount of waste produced by the digestive system.’
‘Let’s not go there,’ Sam said with a crooked smile. ‘There are some things that I’m happy just to leave to the Drones if that’s OK with you.’
The simple fact of the matter was that they still had no idea why it was that the Voidborn had taken such care to keep their human slaves in relatively good physical condition. Certainly some had been used as workers, gathering resources for the aliens or building mysterious structures, like the giant drilling rig that the resistance had disabled in St James’s Park a couple of months ago. That still didn’t explain why they were so meticulous in their care of those who were either too young or too old to be of use to them.
‘Through here,’ Stirling said, pushing aside one of the screens and ushering Sam and Rachel through the gap. In the area beyond were three beds, each containing a motionless figure. Their friend Will stood at the foot of one of the beds studying a medical chart. He glanced up and gave the others a quick nod. He looked tired.
‘Any change?’ Stirling asked as he joined Will, looking down at the man on the bed with a frown.