Helionox: Tales from the Systems End – The Tears of Icarus

Part 4: In the Shadow of Silence

By T M Romanelli

Within minutes she had reached the courtyard of the design quad, her programmed landing zone, and touched down smoothly just outside the main building’s elaborate entrance. The engines were throttled back to idle and as the ramp lowered she set the security lock out on the FlightCOM to prevent anyone from jacking the runabout while she was gone. Lysirah grabbed her pack and ran down the ramp, passed an abstract sculpture that was the centerpiece display on the grounds, and entered a multilevel atrium clad in stark white ceramic tiles. The offices were stacked like enormous blocks, each offset from the other so that some of them were cantilevered above the ground floor, their base-to-ceiling windows displaying conference rooms and laboratories. Two transparent columns rose from an open foundation just beyond the empty security desk, one of which housed the elevator while the other contained a stairwell. When she looked down at her feet, she was standing in the middle of a large inlay that decorated the lobby floor. Carved and polished from the dense core of an exotic asteroid, the iridescent material was shaped into two letter C’s that nested closely together, creating the logo of the Cassini Consortium.

Momentarily transfixed by the display of Pleida’s vast wealth, she also saw its total impotence in the face of an impending solar eruption. The iconic symbol of the industrial conglomerate would be consumed along with everything else on Kepler.

Ok, I’m here. Where do I need to go?

Fourth floor. Eastern wing. Remember that they only know me as William Ardennes, a substantial investor in their project. They may not even know what is transpiring, so you will need to exercise caution.

Lysirah went to the stairwell and took the steps two at a time, taking deep breaths at regular intervals, before exiting onto an elevated walkway that connected the balconies of the fourth level. The entire complex appeared deserted, and as she passed by open office doors and overturned chairs, it was obvious that the occupants had left in a hurry. Following the long hallway deep into the eastern wing, she occasionally checked the building plans projected on her data slate, trying not to think about the old ghost stories her mother used to share with her when she was a child. In was eerily quiet, and she would have been more spooked than she was if not for Pleida’s continuous presence delivered through their link. The hallway ended in a set of armored doors like those at the Life Sciences Center and was flanked by a security panel with an embedded biometric scanner. The panel was shattered, exposing interior circuits and extensive charring from a high-voltage discharge.

A small screen was mounted within the doorframe.

4520. Materials Processing and Testing. Restricted Area. M. Nabakova, Director.

The fortified entrance was an unsubtle advertisement about the value of the room’s contents, but the layered security measures were also preventing her timely evacuation of Pleida’s engineering team. Even with her tools, it would take too long to force the doors. The vandalism of the security panel was also worrisome, and she hoped that no one else was still lurking in the building.

It looks like someone tried to force a way inside. Are you sure they’re here?

If they followed the emergency procedures as directed, they should all be gathered at this location. However, I have not been able to contact them directly.

Let me give it a try.

Lysirah pounded the Halligan bar on the outer casing three times and waited.

“Leave us alone!” commanded a stuttering, synthetic voice from the broken panel. The sound quality was badly degraded from the damage.

“I’m here to evacuate you,” she announced, hoping they could hear her clearly. “Mr. Ardennes sent me.”

“How do I know you’re not lying?”

“Pakshet ka,” she muttered in frustration. And then, “Open the damn door! Now!”

A minute passed, and then another. She closed her eyes and imagined the engineers furiously debating her credibility, hoping their analysis of the viable options available to them would speed to the undeniable conclusion that there were none. Moments later, the heavy clunk of retracting bolts echoed down the hallway and the armored doors separated to admit Lysirah into a well-lit workspace filled with drafting consoles, additive printers and a monolithic server tall enough to reach the ceiling. There were other equipment installations spread throughout the lab, and an overhead grid of spotlights and ducts. The team was comprised of two men and two women, all of whom she recognized immediately since Pleida had given her access to his own knowledge via the cortical interface. They were crouched behind a large console, where one of the men wielded some kind of baton and a grim expression.

This was not the reception Lysirah had been expecting.

“I’m looking for Dr. Nabakova,” she said, feeling a little stupid because she was looking directly at the team leader. None of them responded, although the man holding the baton glanced at his superior for a brief moment.

“I’m Nabakova,” she finally answered, and stood up. The others did the same. “These are my colleagues-”

“Reika, Peiter and Karl, right?” Lysirah interrupted, pointing to each member of the team in sequence. “And you’re Magda, yes?”

“Well, yes, but I prefer Dr. Naba-”

“I’ll call you Magda,” she said quickly, cutting her off. “I’m aware that you all have a lot of official titles attached to your names but we’re going to keep things simple.”

“Just wait a damn minute,” Karl growled, holding the baton tight enough to make his knuckles turn white. He pointed at Lysirah. “Who do you think you are that you can come in here and take charge? Where the hell is Helena?”

They were expecting Helena. You should be tactful when-

“Helena’s dead. She’s not coming to rescue you,” she said flatly. “I am.”

There were a few gasps, and then they all began to talk at once. Nabakova raised her hand and barked an order in her native language, immediately silencing her colleagues.

“And you are?” Magda asked. Her tone was suspicious, which seemed appropriate under the present circumstances, but at least it lacked her colleague’s open disdain.

be certain all of the materials have been secured.

“My name is Lysirah Borromeo. Mr. Ardennes sent me to extract this team to a safe location,” she said as she stepped forward and handed Magda the data slate. “I need you to collect all of the items on this list before we can leave.”

Magda reviewed the information on the data slate and nodded. “Yes, we’ve already assembled these materials. We began right after Mr. Ferran notified us.”

Confirm their inventory and depart immediately.

“Wait a minute,” Peiter said. “Why are you the only one here? Where is colony security?”

“Have they swept and cleared the building?” asked Reika.

“Are any of you aware of what’s going on outside this room?” Lysirah asked slowly. She looked at each of them in turn, seeing only confusion and fear. They had been in lockdown soon after the crisis began, but without any communication due to the interference. She didn’t want to upset them anymore than they already were, but she also needed everyone to follow her instructions without question.

So she told them.

The stunned silence didn’t last long, and then they were jabbering loudly again. Except for Magda. The chief engineer was slowly shaking her head, mumbling something until Lysirah approached close enough to hear her clearly.

“We can’t go, I can’t…” she said, and then looked at Lysirah. “I can’t leave Daenni.”

“Will you all shut up for a minute!” Lysirah yelled. “Magda, who is Daenni?”

“My daughter,” she said. “Her father was supposed to… but he was delayed on Ceres. We’re not… I mean, she’s still with me. Here, on Kepler. Please, she’s only twelve.”

Did you know about this?

No. I was not aware of the details of her personal schedule. Make sure they take everything when-

Wait! We’re just going to leave her behind?

Absolutely not. You will see to it that Dr. Nabakova evacuates with the rest of the team.

What about her daughter?

The daughter is not my concern. All of you should leave immediately.

It was very awkward for Lysirah to follow two simultaneous conversations, especially because one of them was happening entirely in her head. Magda was falling apart, tears streaming down her face as Reika tried to console her and Peiter and Karl added their own unsolicited commentary. Pleida was apologetic but unwavering in his instructions to complete the evacuation, even at the cost of condemning the young girl to certain death.

“You have to help me,” Magda continued to plead. Her expression changed abruptly, as if she had just remembered something very important. “The holocode keys! We can’t leave without them!”

“What keys are you talking about?” Lysirah quickly asked. The others didn’t say anything.

“There are two sets of holocode keys used to activate the drive,” Magda answered. “We can’t leave unless we have them both.”

Is she right?

Yes. They are a part of the drive activation system.

“Magda!” Reika said. “You were supposed to keep them with you at all times. It was for security.”

“I know! I know that!” Magda yelled back. “But now we need to get them!”

“Where are they?” Lysirah asked, aware that each new complication wasted time.

“On my desk… in my flat,” Magda claimed. “Daenni is there. We need to get them.”

She is lying.

How can you be so sure?

Time is very short. Do not permit yourself to be distracted by her cunning.

Pleida, we just can’t-

I require your obedience, not your dissent. You will do exactly as I have instructed!

The light in the room dimmed, and the voices faded even though everyone was talking loudly. She felt Pleida enter her consciousness, in a way that was more direct than it had been before, and he actively suppressed her thoughts to emphasize his own imperatives. The anger directed at her for questioning his decisions was dwarfed by an even greater desperation, and a palpable fear of loss that his grand machinations would be ruined on the very brink of total fulfillment.

You cannot comprehend the scope of this achievement.

The directive that lodged itself into her subconscious almost transformed her into a puppet, but the desperate look on Magda’s face was identical to the one her mother had just before she died. Lysirah knew all too well what it meant to be the child left behind. Despite Pleida’s invasive direction, she had already made her decision.

This matter is far beyond the life of a single child.

No. It’s not.

Do not think about doing this! Even if you could-

The light in the room flared, bright enough to hurt her eyes, and she covered them with her hands. A wave of vertigo passed through her, and though her knees almost buckled, something held her steady. When the sensation had passed and she looked around, she saw it was Peiter that had reached out and stopped her from falling. The engineers had gone silent, staring at her with concern.

“Pleida?” she called out softly, not realizing she said it aloud. There was an emptiness within her that defied description, but she instinctively knew that he was gone. She hadn’t meant to anger him, and felt that he would understand if only she had the chance to explain herself. The child of Alhambra wondered whether he had abandoned her in contempt, or if the growing solar storm finally disrupted their link. Lysirah was only certain of one thing.

She was completely on her own.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Magda observed. “Are you alright?”

Lysirah slowly nodded.

“Who’s Pleida?” asked Peiter.

Pleida had told her when they first met that the choice to leave would always be hers, and now she would have to accept the consequences of that decision. Rescuing the engineering team and Magda’s daughter before Kepler was destroyed would be incredibly dangerous, but Lysirah knew without doubt that this was the right thing to do. Despite the isolation, uncertainty and fear, she would keep her promise to Pleida.

She would not fail.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “We’re leaving together. Right now.”

“And we’re going to follow you because… why?” Karl asked.

“Because she’s in charge,” Magda answered sternly. “And we all need her help.”

Lysirah instructed the engineers to collect the material samples and data cubes from the testing protocol, before she took the data slate and accessed the colony navigation menu. The device projected an interactive map of all the precincts, including the one they currently occupied. She set an origin point and connected it to the FlightCOM on the runabout.

“Let’s get your daughter and those keys,” she said, then turned the slate so that it was facing Magda. “Show me where we’re going.”

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