this is the first chapter of a science fiction novel that is as yet unfinished.
The wind blew in from the west and with it came the first flecks of snow. Esme had been out here long enough to know how fast a few flakes could become a blizzard, turn a worn path into an impenetrable wall of white. She dropped to the ground, shrugged off her backpack from under her heavy cape, considered her options.
Yuki came back over the ridge ahead, panting and growling with concern. Esme spoke softly, calmed him, and the unconvinced yet obedient dog sat down facing the wind, whimpering to himself.
The maps Esme carefully unfurled suggested they were miles from anything this high up the mountainside. But the maps being inaccurate was the whole reason she was here. As the snow that had sat undisturbed for countless years was slowly beginning to thaw the great sea of white that had covered the country’s interior was beginning to reveal its secrets, glimpses of the world that had come before poking through.
When she next looked up the falling snow was almost horizontal and the wind blew her hood back, brown curls of hair falling across her face. She frowned. This was getting serious, and fast. She thought of the tens if not hundreds of frozen corpses she’d seen over the years, faces contorted in fear and defiance for all eternity. Pointless, she thought, physically trying to shake the thoughts from her head. Concentrate.
With a practiced efficiency she extracted the tools of her trade from her backpack, the ramshackle positioning system she’d built and refined over years of wandering the land, her set of journals and a careworn pair of binoculars. At the bottom of the pack, wrapped in cloth, paper and whatever other scraps she had found and thought might protect it, was a scruffy brown journal. She had optimistically scrawled ‘Leads’ across the cover.
She turned on to her back, sat with the book in her lap, but just then a loud, shrill beep called out from her hood. Esme’s mouth dried, she gulped and pulled her hood back down, pulling the small glass screen of her suit’s computer from within, fixing it against her eye. The display lit up with flashing text, warnings in languages she couldn’t read but had seen enough to understand. Although the salvaged computer was prone to mistakes it looked like almost every warning system her suit held was complaining. She was out of time, and she knew it.
The beep sped up as she threw the hood back again, offended that Esme would dare ignore its sage advice. As she hurried her belongings back into her backpack she snapped the wire that ran from the computer to the suit’s sensors and hoped she would live to repair it for the thousandth time.
‘Yuki, we need to-‘ Her words disappeared beneath the howl of wind that bellowed up the mountainside. She turned away as shards of ice and snow screamed towards her, tearing her cheek and head open. She let the wind pull her arm up and dropped to the ground with her cape wide, covering herself and Yuki.
It will pass, she thought, I’ve lived through worse, but she couldn’t fool herself into actually believing that. Never had she felt the weather turn against her so quickly. Warm trickles of blood ran down her face collecting at the corner of her mouth as if to remind her how dire the situation was.
Yuki wriggled beneath Esme’s arm that held him tightly against her. She pulled him closer, her ear pressing against his skin and hearing the old animal’s heartbeat, fast and erratic. Hold on, she tried to say.
Time lost its definition as she clung to the ground, waiting for a break in the wind. Eventually she began to numb against the pain on her face and could hear her thoughts beneath the wail of the blizzard. So, she did what she did best, and approached the situation with as much logic as she could muster. There was only one direction she could hope to find shelter, to the west where Yuki had run ahead. She remembered him barking at something out of sight, beyond the brow of the hill they had been climbing. Or maybe she just wanted to remember that, she could no longer be sure. Regardless, there was nothing for at least a day’s walk the way she had come and the ground to the south fell away fast enough that she had already spent a pleasant hour studying the landscape with her binoculars for anything of interest downhill, and found nothing.
Eventually the sound of the wind began to change, the noise thinning out ever so slightly, not quite as deafening. This was it. Esme’s muscles clenched as she slowly and delicately pushed herself up from the floor. There was a pain in her right leg she hadn’t noticed before and her face felt as though parts were just no longer there, the cold shooting daggers of discomfort into her teeth.
The noise continued to drop in volume and her cape rustled and tried to pull away from her in the opposite direction to before. Esme took this as all the sign she needed, and with a mighty effort stood up. Before she had time to think the wind pushed her forward and she took advantage of the momentum, running as fast as she could for the ridge ahead.
The snow fell in sheets, hitting her from all directions. She called out to Yuki and hoped he would follow, knowing there was nothing else she could do.
She felt her knees push against the rising mountainside and then the ground disappeared beneath her. She crested the ridge just as the wind picked back up and carried her skyward. Flailing wildly Esme screamed for Yuki but heard only the deafening roar of the storm. Up was down and down was up as she flew and then fell and then rolled, and then everything went black.
* * *
Dreams of home, of Yuki. Of her mother’s hands, calloused and bloody, permanently torn apart by the ropes of the fishing nets. Dreams of blue skies, the likes of which they read had been common in the old world, far more hopeful than the permanent gloom that covered them now. Dreams of snow, always dreams of snow, and now of broken bones and dead friends being carted back to town. And finally, a dream of her notebook, her life’s work, but as she opened it she screamed in horror. Every page was blank. Everything had been for nothing, everything was gone.
The dark began to splinter as Esme awoke, her eyes gradually blinking awake. She was lying on something, somewhere. The sound of the storm had gone, replaced by a low hum and a claustrophobic silence. She was met by a light so intense it numbed the rest of her senses, demanded her attention. She squinted in pain, tried to raise her hand to cover her eyes but her muscles didn’t want to respond to direction. She tried again but somewhere between intent and action the message was getting lost.
And then she blacked out again.
And now Yuki was above her, licking her face. A much more familiar way to wake up, the musty smell of her dog’s hair tickling Esme’s cheek reminded her she was alive, and that whatever was going on, some things remained the same.
Esme tried to open her eyes again, the searing light still present behind Yuki, the dog’s shaggy head framed by a halo of intense bright. Slowly her vision adjusted, and the room took shape around her. The light was artificial, long strips of bulbs covering the ceiling above her, buzzing and blinking randomly. This was unfamiliar, unknown. Esme focussed, her mind shaking off the confusion and ignoring the pain she still felt nearly all over. There were more important things to worry about than how she felt right now, like where the hell had she ended up?
With an almighty effort she pulled herself up, Yuki barking in congratulations and running excitedly in circles by her side. The room was metal, chrome and featureless. Esme scanned her surroundings for a way out but saw nothing obvious. She thought of the tinned rations she sometimes found in the wastes, pictured herself as a morsel of meat in someone else’s dinner.
Slowly she raised her arm for the hood of her cape, but it was gone. Without the computer she would have to rely on her own senses, which considering how beaten up she felt scared Esme more than it usually would.
Esme pushed from the bed she had been sat on in an attempt to stand up but before she could finish her thought an electronic chime rang loud through the room. She hadn’t noticed the clear glass that ran around the edge of her bed, glass that now filled with projections of numbers, maps of terrain, a language she didn’t understand, different even to the foreign glyphs of her cape.
Yuki whimpered and hid underneath the bed, his scrawny tail hanging from the side, quivering. Esme felt too weak to take all of this in. She knew technology like this had existed, but not working, not alive. Her mind raced back through all the things she’d seen in the past few years, the broken machines, plastic casing and shredded metal. What little she had salvaged and managed to use had been technologically beyond the machines they had back home, but nothing like what had come to life before her now.
She watched the screens cycle, lost in the moment, desperate for meaning. Eventually the relentless scroll of information slowed and stopped, and a face appeared in front of her. She wouldn’t have called it human, not quite, but not far off. Eyes slightly too far apart, a face that was angular where angles shouldn’t be and in place of hair what looked like garishly painted circuit boards. It was as though someone had been tasked with drawing a human but only received the information second hand.
The face contorted into an approximation of a smile and then began to talk in a soft, mellow voice. The words were nonsense to Esme, she supposed this was the spoken version of whatever language filled the screen.
The voice spoke looking straight at Esme and when she shuffled on the bed the eye’s gaze followed. Eventually the speech ended in what Esme thought sounded like a question. The face rested, eyes wide, looking expectantly out from the glass screen.
Esme coughed, cleared her throat, realised that along with the rest of her body the pain there was starting to subside a little.
‘I’m sorry,’ she began, ’I don’t understand what-‘
‘Re-calibrating for English, please wait.’ The face on the screen momentarily blinked out of existence and then returned, only now the incongruities in its features were gone. Everything Esme expected from the human form seemed correct. If she hadn’t have seen the first version she would have sworn the person before her was simply stood in the room.
‘Can you understand me?’ the face asked, the mechanical way it came to a near complete stop whilst awaiting a reply giving away it’s artificial nature. The politely upturned smile and occasionally blinking eyes waited patiently for a response.
‘Uh, yes.’ Esme said, ‘Yes. I can.’
‘You are not Paradeison?’
‘I’m not what?’
‘Okay, that’s not a problem!’ The screen said cheerfully, and then it’s face fell back into business mode. ‘Please state your designation or appropriate contact within the cabal and I will confirm with a representative.’
‘I’m sorry I-…’ Esme stopped herself, regained her composure. She knew better than to give away more than she needed to, especially when confronted by a situation as unknowable as this.
The face repeated its request twice more whilst Esme sat as still as she could, letting her eyes take in the room, looking for clues as to where she might be. The only thing she could say with certainty was that she was underground. She had spent enough time exploring ruined settlements to know the peculiar disorientation that came with being beneath the surface. The air, the timbre of her voice, everything was slightly off, slightly unreal.
Beyond that she could see nothing familiar in the room, and reluctantly concluded she would need to at least attempt communication with this thing. Yuki’s long snout poked out from beneath the bed, his large milky eyes looking up at Esme for reassurance. She frowned back at him.
‘Want to tell me where we are, boy?’ she said, raising her eyebrows at the dog. He sniffed the air and retreated into cover, scratched at the floor beneath the bed.
‘You have not supplied a valid contact name or credentials that matched our records.’ Esme was sure the face had raised its voice a little, perhaps unhappy with losing her attention. ‘We understand that due to recent events your credentials may not be current. We have not had contact with a sanctioned cabal representative in three hundred and nine thousand, three hundred and sixty-six days and so ask for your patience as we process your presence.’
‘I just want to know-
‘Please state your name?’
Again, Esme paused, but finding little alternative reluctantly spoke. ‘Esme. My name’s Esme.’
‘Thank you, Esme. To process your application I will need to establish the level of your involvement with Antares Industries. For information related to this application please refer to the following documents.’
The face continued talking, words in English that felt almost as alien as the foreign tongue the screen had spoken initially. Still, all of this had an air of familiarity, Esme thought, as though she had been here in a dream. The failing recollection was like an itch in the back of her skull she couldn’t reach to scratch. Frustrated, Esme did her best to make sense of what she heard but couldn’t stop her mind wandering to the larger implications of what was happening here. This was important, she was sure of that, but how did she get here? And where even was here?
‘Esme, please respond?’ The face snapped her out of her reverie.
‘Yes. Here, sorry.’
‘Excellent.’ The face smiled again. ‘I am going to present you with some terminology, could you please advise of any familiarity with any of the following concepts?’
Yuki, now apparently comfortable with the flashing screens had emerged from beneath the bed and was taking swipes at the corner of the glass. The text that scrolled across the screen bent and warped around his paw, which only seemed to intrigue him more.
‘Okay. I can do that.’ Esme said, shooing Yuki.
‘Excellent, Esme!’ the face said, as though she had already answered a particularly tough question. Esme didn’t like to be patronised and frowned once more.
‘Are you aware of the cabal?’
‘Antares, Oort or any other subsidiaries of Antares Industries?’
‘No.’ Esme said each of these words to herself again and again in her head, trying her hardest to ensure she remembered them long enough to write in her journal, if she ever saw it again. Cabal, Paredeisos, Antares, Oort. Cabal, Paradeisos, Antares, Oort.
Esme’s heart skipped a beat and what little colour her bruised and battered face had drained away.
‘Koero?’ The face asked again.
Esme gulped. ‘Yes.’
* * *
The speed at which the room had returned to darkness was even more a shock to Esme’s senses than waking up had been. Upon replying ‘yes’ to the face the screens and the lights had shut off in an instant, leaving nothing but the sound of Yuki’s ragged breathing for company.
Esme tried to placate her companion as best she could, groping in the darkness until she found the glass sheets that had lined the end of the bed. Placing her weight against them to steady herself she hoisted her legs from the bed and gingerly stepped on to the floor. The pain that had begun to recede whilst the face had spoken began to return with a vengeance. In the dark Esme found it easier to catalogue every ache, every injury she felt that was more serious than a graze or a bruise. She was sure she had broken a rib, dislocated a shoulder and potentially shattered part of her left foot.
I’ve been in worse situations, at least, she thought.
But then the claustrophobia hit her that came from being trapped in a metal box underground, a wave of panic that she did her best to calm with a series of deep breaths.
She always had one last trick she could resort to, and it seemed like it might be time.
Esme reached down for the zip that ran along the inside of her trouser leg. Considering the last thing she remembered about the storm was being airborne her clothes appeared to be relatively intact. It made losing her cape and the technology within it even more frustrating. She remembered the last time she had been out on an assignment with another, how she had bored Yara with her insistence they repair any slight fault in their outfits each night. No time for that now, Esme thought, blanked her mind and refocussed on the job at hand. From the pocket in her trouser leg she took the tiny blade that had sat unused for so many years. She winced at what came next, something she hadn’t had to do since her first week of training, years- no, decades before.
With a delicate and practiced precision that something so traumatic embeds in your memory Esme unzipped a second pocket on her other leg and felt for the soft line of bumps that ran for an inch or two along her skin. She was caked in blood, a lot more than she had realised, which made finding the marks all the harder. Part of her was embarrassed to admit she hoped she wouldn’t find what she was looking for, but then the ridges were there, feeling infinitely bigger than they actually were.
How many nights had she lay idly running her finger along this tiny patch of skin? There was comfort in knowing you always had something hidden up your sleeve, at least until faced with the reality of just how hidden it was.
Esme found the highest of the bumps, took the knife and made a small incision in her skin. She winced, and quickly reached for the wire stitch that appeared from beneath the broken flesh.
Yuki barked somewhere in the dark.
‘Next time this is going in your leg, mutt.’ Esme said, and with a deep breath pulled hard on the wire protruding from her leg. She screamed in agony as the stitches gave way and a pocket ripped open in her flesh. Her other hand reached down to the wound and she lost her balance, falling screaming to the floor. Hands shaking, she reached into the folds of her leg, grabbing blindly for her quarry. Her hands felt the plastic box, its dimensions as familiar now as it was when she’d had it implanted all those years ago, smaller in her hand than it felt beneath her skin.
The box fell from her wound to the floor, Esme grasped as quick as she could at the catch that released the contents across the floor, grabbing the tiny vial that she prayed hadn’t expired since it was placed there. She ripped the lid free with her teeth and sprayed the entire contents against her leg. She screamed again as white heat flowed up her calf as the medicine got to work, and then gradually the pain began to subside.
Drenched in sweat and breathing heavily Esme ran her outstretched hand across the floor searching for the other emergency supplies that had spilled from the box. Her movements became more frantic as she only hit the cold, metal floor, until finally she settled upon her way out of here. She let out a loud sigh and relaxed a little for the first time in what felt like forever.
The small device in her hand was worth more than a small settlement. One of only three she knew of, the tool that command had optimistically labelled SolveAll was old world technology that had been recovered from an expedition, centuries ago. Of the twenty-two found fourteen were wasted in discovering all the applications of the tiny metal machine, three had been used by previous explorers and three more were, until a few moments ago, implanted in the legs of the three people who needed them most. The other two were officially unaccounted for, which Esme didn’t believe for a minute.
‘Light.’ Esme said and the SolveAll filled the room with a warm orange glow. Still lying on the floor Esme hadn’t realised she had scrambled her way from the bed all the way to the wall. She looked up and saw her face reflected in the metal surface. She almost didn’t recognise herself, even once she’d scraped the worst of the blood from her cheeks.
How long had it been since she’d looked in a mirror? Months? Years? She remembered her mother saying the wrinkles in her forehead were like the rings in a tree, each impression counting off the years. She thought that she maybe had more wrinkles now than her mother had ever had.
As it often did Yuki’s bark focussed Esme on the task at hand. She blinked and looked away from the wall and instead began knocking, looking to find the door that had to have brought them here. Slowly she edged her way around the room, dragging her injured foot behind her. Nothing. No hollow ring to her knocks, no sign of an opening.
‘Strange.’ She said, vaguely in Yuki’s direction. They were still breathing, so there was a way out, somewhere.
Esme fell back to the floor, tired from the effort of the walk. She turned to Yuki who was back under the bed again. She took the SolveAll and shone the light at him.
‘Good boy.’ Esme said, as she realised what the dog was doing. Beneath the bed was a circle of glass cut into the metal floor. They may be underground, but they had been brought here from somewhere even further down.
‘Blowtorch.’ Esme said to the SolveAll, holding it away from herself and pushing Yuki aside. The tool reconfigured itself in her hand and then with a satisfying burst of air a small, blue flame appeared.
Twenty minutes and a couple of singed fingers later and the hatch gave way, falling away with a deafening thud and landing in a second corridor below. Yuki dove down the newly formed hole, Esme followed with less enthusiasm. As she hauled her body down onto the rungs of a ladder she wondered again how she had got here, and more worryingly who had brought her here. Yuki was a loyal companion but would struggle to carry her, let alone open a door. The face had been friendly enough at first, but surely just a face on a screen? So, there must be someone else. And they probably weren’t far away.
Esme dropped from the ladder to the hall below, swearing at the pain in her foot. She shone the SolveAll along the corridor. To her right the path sloped down sharply into a darkness that the tool failed to illuminate.
Turning around, the slope continued upwards and above her was the unmistakeable white of the sky. Esme let out a little cheer to no one as she sighed with relief, the silhouette of Yuki bounding up the corridor above her.
She started to limp her way up the slope. The corridor was circular and as featureless as the room she had awoken in. As she approached the entrance she began to feel the cool of the wind, hearing it whistle through whatever structure awaited her outside. Again, more relief flooded her tired body. This wasn’t the sound of a storm, this was a wind that she was equipped to handle. Whatever had rushed through the hills before her peculiar encounter had passed.
Esme was almost out of the corridor when she heard something behind her. A loud, deep, rumble of a sound that seemed to reverberate along the walls, shaking everything. It ended as soon as it had begun. Esme flashed the light back down the corridor one last time, hoping she wouldn’t see anything, afraid she would. But there was only dark.
With a shiver she walked back out into the snow.