Sebastian had never seen sand of such a deep crimson and, as he stood on the beach, he couldn’t even guess where in the galaxy it could be found.
He looked up in an attempt to locate a familiar constellation. Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon; the intense purple sky hadn’t seemed that bright. The silky, golden glow of the larger of the two suns reflected off the oily black sea that slopped silently at the shore, but aside from that the skyline was featureless.
A gentle breeze brought with it an unfamiliar tang, and as he ran a hand over his close-cropped hair it came away sticky.
‘How did I get here?’ It was like a dream; he couldn’t remember arriving, landing a shuttle, or being dropped off by a ship. He looked at his wristcom. The time showed 2264-09-01-03.08. There was no way he’d got there in a ship unless he’d somehow missed half the night, and he must have been prepared for the trip – why else would he have his old canvas backpack slung over his shoulder?
As he stared at the contours in the sand around his booted feet, his mind began to wander. He traced the shadows cast by the low suns, and the question of how he’d arrived was soon forgotten.
He turned to look inland where large, smooth slabs of red sea-worn stone formed a high cliff. About two hundred yards along to the right stood an opening, outlined with long, upright blocks that tapered towards the heavy lintel above – it definitely wasn’t natural. Curiosity overtook him and he made his way towards it.
The low angle of the suns cast his shadow through the opening and did little to illuminate the space beyond. Should he go in?
The suns were almost submerged in the dark waters and a dense mist had begun to form. The horizon’s shadow crept up the beach, drawing the mist with it.
Overcome by the need to satisfy his curiosity, he took the antique oil lamp from his rucksack and searched his pockets for something with which to light it. He reached into his station uniform’s jacket and found a solitary match – odd that something like that would be in his pocket, rather than a multi-tool, given that open flames were banned on the station. He struck the match against a stone and lit the lamp. Holding it above his head, he made his way into the darkness. As he followed the smooth steps downward, a damp draught made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. After several steps, the stairway ended in a space that extended off into darkness beyond the lamp’s reach. The chill had made him feel uneasy and he looked back again.
Sea mist flowed down the steps and gathered around his feet. The lamp sputtered and the flame dwindled to a tiny blue glow. Something crunched in the darkness – footfall on the sandy floor behind him.
With a final, guttering pop, the flame went out.
He held his breath. There was no sound except for his pulse pounding in his ears – perhaps he’d imagined it. His eyes became accustomed to the dark and he noticed a glow around his feet. The sea mist? He must be hallucinating.
Another crunch – maybe not!
He wanted to run, to escape, get away from whatever it was behind him. He tried to walk forwards; the mist dragged at his feet and legs as though made of molasses. The thrum of blood through the veins in his neck filled his ears. He had to calm down, slow down, stop struggling so he could hear. It was then that he heard breathing – a grunt of a breath, not his own.
His hand went to the small bronze Mjölnir necklace at his throat and he froze. Oh Gods, was there something there, something lurking behind him?
Warm air whuffed on his neck, accompanied by a deep snort and touch of something sharp, claw-like, on his shoulder.
He whirled around to face it. And screamed.
‘Lights!’ Sebastian sat bolt upright and flung the bed covers off. His forehead was slick with sweat and his heart threatened to break the bonds of his ribcage.
The bedside lamp lit dimly, doing little to drive away the terror that clung in the corners of his mind. The shadowy, brushed-metal walls of the single-room apartment did nothing to comfort him. It was the fifth time he’d had a nightmare in the last few weeks and, like all the other occasions, he couldn’t remember exactly what had caused him to wake up. He swung his feet to the floor and sat for a moment before getting a glass of water from the kitchen.
‘I have to find out what’s causing these dreams,’ he said, more to reassure himself than anything else.
A shrill beep sounded from the other end of the room and he nearly dropped the glass. It was only the terminal opposite the bed. He walked over to investigate.
The time on the console read 03.10. Why would it let a call in at that time of the morning?
‘Who is it?’
‘Janyce Hafsteinsdóttir,’ the computer said.
‘Accept.’ He sighed. He loved his sister-in-law, but Gods, she could be so inconsiderate at times.
A pale face appeared. ‘Hello Seb.’ Her auburn hair was straight for a change.
‘Hi Jan.’ He rubbed his forehead and blinked in the brightness of the screen. ‘You always forget about the time difference.’
Her face went slack. ‘Sorry – I can call back later if you like.’
‘No, it’s fine. I just got up. Can’t sleep.’ He sat down on the bed and gulped down a mouthful of water. ‘What do you need?’
‘A favour. Erik’s stuck with his homework and has a presentation to do tomorrow. He – well, I – wondered if you’d be able to help.’
‘Sure.’ He yawned. ‘Just don’t keep me up too long.’
‘Oh, thank you!’ She gestured off to one side. ‘Erik!’ A young boy, little more than eight years old, appeared and Janyce moved out of view. Even though he had black hair, he clearly had his mother’s features.
‘Hi Erik, not seen you for a while. You’re growing.’
‘I’ve just got some bigger shoes. I’m nearly in adult sizes!’
‘Good for you. Now, what’s this homework?’
‘My teacher said we have to find out what a computer TI is, and why it’s not the same as AI. The school’s locked the computers down on the subject.’ The boy pouted.
‘I could hack in and unlock them for you, but that would be cheating, not to mention against the law … If they don’t want you using the computer to find out, it shows they want you to learn about it yourself. I’ll point you in the right direction.’
The boy’s expression brightened.
‘TI stands for Turing Intelligence, although it’s more of an interface.’
‘But what does that mean?’
Sebastian yawned again. ‘I’m too tired to explain it all now, but you should have time to read up on it before tomorrow. Go to the Old Library and look up Alan Turing in the History section. There might be information on AI there, too. They gave up on that research over a hundred years ago.’
‘Mamma said you used to program things like it. I want to be a programmer like you one day … I hope I get a good grade!’
Sebastian smiled. ‘As long as you put it in your own words, I’m sure you’ll do fine.’
It made a change for someone to want to be like him. His own father had been disappointed that Sebastian hadn’t wanted to follow him into police work like his brother, Mikkael, had. If he’d still been around, maybe he would have been satisfied that Sebastian was working in security. Then again, nothing Sebastian ever did had seemed to make him happy.
‘Thanks,’ Erik said, dragging Sebastian’s thoughts back to the present. He turned away and immediately looked back. ‘Did you get any pictures of you with an alien?’
‘No, not yet. I don’t get a chance to speak to any, but I’ll be sure to forward some to your mother if I do. And it’s “yourself with an alien”.’
Erik laughed. ‘You’re so funny. I’ll put Mamma back on.’ He disappeared and Janyce came back.
‘Thanks for that, Seb. I really appreciate it.’ Her eyes flickered momentarily, betraying a deep sadness. ‘I wish I could help him as much as his father used to.’
‘You’re doing fine. If you need anything, let me know.’
‘Now you mention it, we could do with some more money towards Erik’s school fees. They’re up for renewal soon and things are a bit tight.’
Sebastian rubbed his forehead. Just what he needed. ‘Things are a bit tight here, too, with station cutbacks, but I’ll send you some. Not having to pay for this apartment has its advantages. Just do me one favour.’
‘Make sure you don’t call at three in the morning in future.’
She laughed. ‘I am sorry about that. Normally I have to leave a message … I’ll put an automatic block on my terminal, that’ll stop me!’
‘It was good to hear from you, Jan. Stay well.’ He smiled.
‘You too. Speak again soon. Give my love to Aryx.’ She waved and signed off.
More money. Not the best of news, but at least it had taken his mind off the nightmare. He finished the glass of water and tried to get back to sleep.
He woke to a giant gong, struck in an ancient temple, his alarm going off for the third time; he’d be late for work if he didn’t get moving. He rolled over to turn it off. The clock read 06.30.
‘By the Gods!’ he groaned. He’d forgotten to cancel yesterday’s early alarm. There didn’t seem to be much point in going back to bed – at least not with his system full of adrenaline – so he got up and popped the ultrasonic tooth cleaner into his mouth while he washed.
After a light breakfast of mycobacon and toast, he got dressed, pulling on his brown uniform with disdain; it always reminded him of a 21st-century courier’s outfit rather than that of a security officer. He made his way to the lift terminal, and with nearly two hours to spare before work, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take the scenic route; he needed the change of pace to clear his fuzzy, sleep-deprived head.
He stepped out of the lift onto the polished white walkway of the atrium’s lower terrace and made his way to the jetty. The faint rushing splash of the nearby weir was momentarily broken as the riverride skimmed over the lip and came to rest at the platform. The gondola dipped as he boarded, and he pressed his thumb against the infoslate mounted next to the seating and flopped down on the cushions.
The craft moved off, purring quietly to itself. High terraced walls and tumbling grassy banks rolled by. Sunlight streamed in through the filters in the glass ceiling; they displayed a deep blue sky with bright-edged clouds. He squinted and sat back, glad of the warmth on his face – the atrium was one of the few places on the station where you could get genuine sunshine, after all.
The small boat drifted past the crisp, white architecture of riverside shops and cafés, where Humans and other races congregated amidst the gaggle and chatter of daily business and the clink of cutlery on plates. The aroma of hot, fresh coffee mingled with the mossy cool of the river and warm caress of spice-flowers on the banks, reminding him of his mother’s baking. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It certainly tasted better than the recycled atmosphere elsewhere on the station.
A man dashed along a terrace where the trees were being watered, his jacket pulled up over his head in a vain attempt to save himself from getting wet. He headed towards the nearest walkway. Sebastian laughed – it was like a scene from an old Earth movie. A tall, slender woman with blonde hair held back by a bright headband jogged past beneath the raining spray. She ran with her eyes closed and her head tipped back, apparently with no regard to how wet her Lycra running-suit had become.
‘Karan!’ Sebastian shouted.
She continued jogging.
She stopped under a large birch tree and opened her eyes. ‘Seb! What are you doing out so early?’
‘I couldn’t sleep. I’ll see you down there.’ The riverride had gone beyond the acceptable distance for conversation. He pointed at the next jetty. ‘I’m getting off!’
She waved back and resumed her run. Sebastian looked back as the gondola made its way up the curve of the river; she looked like she was running downhill – he’d never get used to that perspective.
Two minutes later the craft came to a halt at the jetty near the lift and let him off. A lone figure sat on one of the benches in the small parkland terrace a short distance from the terminal. Drawing closer, he could see that the figure wasn’t Human; its shoulders were far too narrow and its hair irregular chunks of dense, brown sponge intertwined with a leafy wreath. Several small, orange fruits arranged between the waxy foliage caught his attention. As he stared, the being turned.
His heart stopped. He recognised the type of face from pictures he’d seen in security briefings; the light ochre skin; the flat, almost non-existent, nose with thin nostrils; the large, golden almond-shaped eyes that slanted up at the outer corners; the small ears and the slim arms that showed little in the way of muscularity – definitely a Folian. It wore a long, shimmering black robe with threads in the fabric that complimented the colour of its hair; the satiny tapestry of gold, bronze, and black drew the eye in, like staring into a distant galaxy, its complexity so deep, so soothing.
‘Greetings,’ the Folian said in a soft, genderless voice. ‘Can I help you?’
‘I—’ Sebastian’s thoughts raced, trying to find an excuse to speak to the creature. ‘Forgive me, I’ve not seen one of your kind before.’
Its piercing eyes scanned him up and down and a faint smile played across its thin lips. ‘You are forgiven.’
He finally found the excuse he was looking for. ‘My name is Sebastian Thorsson. I work in the security office … I don’t think we have received security protocols for your ships.’
‘Greetings, Sebastian Thorsson,’ the Folian said with the slightest of nods. ‘We are Ambassador Tolinar, and in answer to your question, our ships do not integrate with your systems.’ Its eyes smiled. ‘The protocols are … unnecessary.’
‘Oh, I’ll make a note of that in our records, thank you.’ He turned to leave.
‘Is there anything else we can help you with?’
He hesitated. ‘Actually, I know this may seem inappropriate, but may I have my photograph taken with you?’
‘Photograph?’ The Folian tilted its head to one side.
‘A static image recording.’
The alien’s features smoothed. ‘Of course you may.’ It smiled again.
He looked around for someone to take the picture. A glistening Karan came jogging along the walkway. Perfect timing. He beckoned to her.
‘Greetings,’ she said with a bow as she tried to catch her breath.
The ambassador nodded.
‘Can you take a picture of the ambassador and me?’ Sebastian held out his wristcom.
She stepped back and held it up. ‘Say cheese.’
A moment later she handed it back. ‘I’ll meet you at the lift,’ she said, and headed off.
‘Thank you, Ambassador. My nephew will be very happy. It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to speak directly to someone of another race in the three years I’ve worked here.’
‘We are glad to have given you the opportunity for a new experience,’ Tolinar said, nodding slowly. ‘We hope that your nephew enjoys the image.’
Sebastian bowed his head in mimicry, hoping it was the correct etiquette, and bid the alien farewell. He turned to continue his journey to the lift and glanced back at the fruits in the Folian’s wreath. Were they bigger than when he’d first set eyes on them? No, he must have imagined it.
Karan stood waiting at the lift with one hand on her hip. ‘So, why are you having trouble sleeping?’
‘I’ve been having bad dreams lately and this morning’s woke me up.’
‘I’ve had some weird dreams, too, but nothing that’s disturbed my sleep. Hey, have you heard the news?’
‘Security, level three,’ Sebastian said, addressing the lift. ‘It depends on what news you’ve heard.’
‘Someone in the department is being given a new high-level assignment and Bannik didn’t get put forward for it.’ Her eyes were wide with excitement.
‘Really? I thought she was well overdue promotion.’ He hadn’t realised how much Karan hated the woman.
‘Apparently it’s not a promotion.’ She folded her arms. ‘As much as I can’t stand her, I’m not gloating. It’s a SpecOps opening.’
‘Oh my Gods. Do you know who got it?’ He’d dreamed of getting an exciting job like that, but Special Security Projects and Operations was well out of his league.
‘Not a clue, I just heard the rumour going around that they’d selected someone based on their psych test.’
‘Oh.’ He deflated.
Karan grinned. ‘Don’t be such a depresso, you’re awful.’ She leaned against the wall of the lift in mimicry of ‘I’m a little teapot’ with one hand on her hip. ‘I’m a mechanical depressive, here’s my handle, here’s my support mechanism.’ She laughed at her own joke.
He didn’t want to smile, but she was so stupid sometimes.
‘You’re good at your job. I’m sure you’ll get a promotion one day.’ The lift stopped and they both stepped out. ‘I’m off to the changing room,’ she said. ‘See you around – and cheer up!’ She headed off down the corridor.
It was fine for her; she was bright and bubbly all the time. If SpecOps was offering a placement based on psych tests, he definitely wasn’t going to get it. He was only a security programmer after all, and they’d surely think him too prone to panic and idle daydreaming to even consider giving him the job.
As he entered the security department his supervisor, Eleanor Bannik, stepped out of her office, directly into his path.
‘I need to have a word with you tomorrow, Thorsson,’ she said, her stony glare boring deep into his skull.
‘Can I ask what about?’
‘Just be in my office at 09.00 tomorrow.’ The Ice Queen spun around and slammed the glass door behind her. What on Earth had he done wrong?
He sat at his desk to begin the day’s tasks and within a matter of moments an alert sounded from his workstation.
‘Security breach detected,’ the computer said.
‘What kind of breach?’
‘A systems breach in the maintenance subsystem.’
‘What effect has the breach had?’
‘Code has been inserted and is redirecting funds from the core banking system.’
‘Where did it originate?’
‘The maintenance terminal in bay thirty-five, on level three of the habitation ring.’
‘Is anyone in that bay?’
‘So, how did a hack originate there? Do you mean nobody is actually in the bay, or nobody is registered to it?’
‘Nobody is registered as currently occupying the bay.’ It was so unhelpful; whoever wrote the main security system needed to be shot.
‘Scan the bay. Is anyone present?’
‘Sensors are not functioning.’
‘Oh, by the Gods! Turing Unintelligence.’ It was such a convincing simulation at times he had to remember that it couldn’t think for itself. Obviously today wasn’t one of those days. ‘Check the terminal – is it being accessed via the screen, keyboard, plug-in module, or what? If it’s a manual intervention, send someone down there to catch the perpetrator!’
Karan ran past seconds later, stun-stick and handcuffs hanging from her belt. Sebastian hunched over the screen, nibbling his nails, watching the dot – her dot – move down the corridors to the bay.
Ten minutes later she burst into the office pushing a bald, purple-robed figure – an Antari – in front of her, its hands cuffed behind its back. Sebastian stared at them as they walked past on the way to the brig.
‘Gotcha,’ Sebastian said under his breath.
The Antari drifted by, almost as though pushed on a trolley, and turned to look at him. The tops of its ears folded, making them pointed, and its lips curled, turning the ordinarily serene Antari expression into a fanged snarl.
Hacking was fine if it made the system better, but not when it was like this; this scumbag had been leeching off the system like a vampire. At least that was another out of the way.
Karan filled out the arrest log at the desk and prodded the Antari through the door as Bannik came by. Her stare was as flat as ever, with not even a hint of recognition or gratitude on her face. He knew it. SpecOps was out of his league. He’d never get a better job – he was going to be stuck under the Evil Queen’s thumb forever.
By 17.00 his tasks were complete; all the required security fixes for the day had been put in and new protocols written. He was glad to be able to get out of the office – even though it brought tomorrow closer.
That night sleep came in short passages punctuated with a jumble of work-related images that drifted through his mind, snagging on his consciousness. Tiny problems magnified a thousand times consumed all of his attention while meaning little.
The images eventually stopped, leaving him hanging weightless in the dark. How had he come to be in that predicament? It was like zero G. What a strange feeling. Almost like falling.
As the wind whistled in his ears, it didn’t occur to him it might be dangerous. He caught a dry, dusty odour and the darkness peeled back to reveal the walls of a grey rocky shaft hurtling past. Something trailed down through the centre of the tunnel close to him – a rope? He reached out and grasped it. The rope bit into his hands, cutting deep. His fingers stung at first, then burnt. The sensation erupted in a roar of pain that shot up his arms, causing him to grip tighter and tighter. He fought against the reflex to hold on, and let go. The bones of his fingers were exposed and etched with deep striations. He held his hands away from himself in disgust.
That was when he became aware of the floor of the shaft rushing up at him.