“And that’s the name we’re going with?”
Awkward glances were shared around the boardroom. “This suggestion actually came from the Directors,” Todoroki explained quietly.
Of course, Maeve thought. This had the Company written all over it. Names were everything to the directors of Cruemann Haines, and this one, she realised, would be more important than any that had come before.
It had been nearly twenty seasons since a new colony had been founded, and faith in them amongst investors had waned. If the company wanted didn’t want this to be the last, then they had to get everything exactly right. And that, of course, began with the name.
Solace. A world where you could find peace and comfort. Well, Maeve Yeoman had been here for half a season already and had yet to find anything that come close to being called peace. If she was ever going to find it, picking a fight with the Directors was not the place to start. “Fine,” she said. “We’ll stick with ‘Solace’.”
There was a collective sigh of relief from around the room, and more than a few eyes shot a grateful look towards Todoroki. It wasn’t a glance Maeve missed.
“What’s next?” she asked, keeping her gaze fixed on the young man.
He shifted uncomfortably. “The demonstrations are scheduled to restart in a few days’ time,” Todoroki stated.
“Again?” Abercrombie growled. “Why do they care so much about some old rocks?”
“They consider them to be ‘artifacts of significant historical value’,” Hayle explained, her lips curled into a cynical smile.
Abercrombie snorted at this. When he did so, Maeve noticed that his jowls began to wobble like the surface of a disturbed lake. “Significant to who?” he asked. “Whatever used to live here before us died out centuries ago.”
“I don’t think they see it that way,” Todoroki said. “They say they won’t stop demonstrating until the artifacts are preserved.”
“Bloody archaeologists,” Abercrombie murmured.
“What do the Directors have to say?” Maeve asked, leaning forwards.
Todoroki glanced down at his notes. “They haven’t made an official statement, yet,” he said.
I see, Maeve thought. So, it’s up to me. She considered for a moment, then let a thin smile spread across her lips. “Tell the demonstrators,” She said slowly, “that we will do everything in our power to preserve these artifacts.” She held up a hand to stifle the outburst from the others. “However,” she said, raising her voice slightly. “Due to certain unstable elements recently discovered on the planet’s surface, we cannot guarantee the artifacts’ safety.”
She could see the questions lining up behind Todoroki’s eyes. Abercrombie, however, had been working with Maeve for a lot longer. A laugh burst out from him. “Unstable elements?” he boomed. “That’s a good one!”
“You think they’ll buy it?” a young woman whose name Maeve could never remember asked.
The Regional Manager gave a listless shrug. “That’s not our problem,” she said. For now, anyway. When it came to a colony world, so long as they weren’t still around, humanity didn’t much care about whoever came before. It had been that way throughout history, and Maeve doubted it would be changing any time soon. However, this time was different. It felt as if everyone was watching this world, waiting with bated breath for something to go wrong. The colony programme was in a vulnerable position, and even a minor protest about rocks could prove disastrous. So, why hadn’t the company made an official statement?
It’s so they have someone to blame when it all goes wrong. She gave her head a slight shake, hoping to rid herself of that sneaking voice. It can’t be, she thought. Given some of the things they’d recently done for her, Maeve was under the impression that getting rid of her was the last thing they wanted to do. Nevertheless, the idea persisted.
The door suddenly swept aside and her assistant stepped into the conference room.
“There’s a visitor down in the East entrance, ma’am,” he said.
Maeve nodded, then got to her feet. She paused briefly, then glanced down at Todoroki. “You, with me,” she commanded. “The rest of you, get back to work. Let’s get this place ready for business.”
They called it the East Entrance, but to be more accurate, it was more or less a loading dock. The proper entrance, the one that would be used by the arriving colonists, was attached to the main landing platform. That was a sprawling piece of architecture, set in a naturally formed crater, and designed for the landing of long-haul shuttles. For everyone else, the loading docks sufficed.
These were large hangars filled with the cacophony of engineers working day and night, deliveries being unloaded from the orbiting stations, and the expedition teams leaving and returning from surveys of their new world outside. Maeve, if she could help it, avoided places like these. Instead, she and Todoroki waited for their visitors on the observation deck above. The hangar supervisor hadn’t been happy about being turfed out of his station, but he, like everyone else in the complex, wisely avoided arguing with her icy stare.
As she stared out the window at the busy scenes below, Maeve threw over her shoulder: “How long have you been with the company?”
She could see Todoroki’s reflection jump at the sudden question. “This will be my third season,” he answered, recovering quickly.
Maeve nodded. “And what do you see for yourself in the future?” she asked.
There was a brief silence as the young man considered. “I’m not quite sure,” he replied. “So much seems to be changing at the moment. It’s difficult to know what will happen.”
That was certainly a different answer to the one she had expected. And it was definitely not the one she had given when asked the same thing by her regional manager at the time. Of course, her answer had been that she wanted to be on the board of directors. She smiled at this memory. It was a dream that, with each passing season, grew more and more absurd.
It was then that the heavy door rolled to one side, and the visitors joined them. Maeve was taken aback at the sight of them. It was a group of eight; six men and two women. They all wore slate-grey military uniforms with their helmets tucked under their arms. Why they hadn’t taken the time to fully remove their exterior suits, Maeve didn’t know.
Each of them had cropped hair, steely expressions, and rigid postures. Their presence immediately sent alarm bells ringing in Maeve’s head. From the group emerged a ninth; this tanned man was a good foot shorter than the others. He wore a flat-cap on his head, and a broad grin on his face. His uniform was the same as the rest, but the zipper was halfway down, revealing a cotton undershirt. He stopped just short of Maeve, and his smile grew. “I’m guessing you’re the one in charge?” he said.
“Maeve Yeoman,” she said, holding out her hand reluctantly. “I’m the regional manager, yes.”
The stranger nodded, then took her hand in a grip that made her wince. Not only was it strong, but it felt like she was shaking a bag of gravel. “Solomon Khandy,” he said. “I’m captain of this security team.”
“Did the head honchos not give you some warning?” Khandy said with a laugh.
Maeve’s eyes flickered towards Todoroki, but the young man’s face was as blank as her own. “We’ve recently been stationed up north,” the captain went on, “with what’s-his-name.”
“Romanov?” Maeve suggested.
Khandy’s eyes glittered. “That’s the one!” he declared, baring his teeth with joy. “We’re visiting all the sites,” he went on. “The Company is very eager that nothing goes wrong with this colony.”
Suddenly she understood. “You mean the demonstrators?” she asked.
The man scratched the back of his neck and nodded. “Can’t have anyone interfering,” he stated. “Even if they think they’re doing good.”
“Well, if that’s the case,” Maeve said, feeling somewhat relieved, “why don’t you all get a little more relaxed, and we can discuss the matter further in my office?”
Solomon gifted her a broad grin, filled with his tombstone-shaped teeth. “Sounds like a plan.”
“Good. My colleague Mr Todoroki will direct you to where you can get changed.”
As she said this, Maeve made another glance at Solomon’s team. The bulk of them stared straight ahead, not a flicker of emotion passing across their faces. They could have been statues. Except for one. There was one, around six-foot-three, who couldn’t stand quite still. It was only slight, but once she saw it, it became impossible for Maeve to ignore. He was shifting his weight from foot to foot, and a vein in his neck was pulsing. It looked as if the man was using every ounce of his strength to hold something in. After such a long journey, Maeve was sure it was something perfectly natural. But, looking into his eyes, she began to think it was something else. Something that, if she discovered it, would fill her with terror. Then it was gone. Khandy had barked an order at the group, and they, as one unit, had turned around and marched from the room. As Todoroki followed them, and Maeve found herself alone, she continued to think of that soldier’s wide, hollow eyes that must have hidden such horrors.
Out of the military-grey spacesuit, Solomon Khandy looked somewhat different. One glance at his protruding gut, bow-legs, and his ever-present flat-cap, and you would never guess that he was the head of a security detail. He stood in the doorway of Maeve’s office and gave it an appreciative study. “Nice place,” he murmured, tucking his thumbs into the loops of his blue jeans.
“Thank you,” Maeve said with a strained smile. “I apologise about the smell.”
The man frowned, then gave a theatrical sniff. “Smell?” he said. “Smells like the rest of the place to me.”
This she couldn’t believe. The stench had hammered into her as soon as she had stepped into the office. It had been an overwhelming mixture of iron, salt, and something sweet. She didn’t know what was causing the odour and, after a fretful handful of minutes searching, she had escaped finding an answer. The fact that Khandy seemed unfazed by the smell astounded her. It was all she could do to stop herself from retching.
“Must be a faulty air filter,” Maeve said, trying to keep her stomach under control.
Khandy responded with a toothy smile, then joined her at the desk.
“So, what brings you to my little outpost?” Maeve asked as the pair sat down.
“As I said earlier,” the man said, folding his hands in his lap, “the boys-upstairs are very eager for there to be no disruptions in the launching of this new colony.”
The director nodded slowly. “I must say though, it is a little irregular,” she pointed out.
“Have you been a Regional Manager for long, Miss Yeoman?” Khandy asked, tilting his head like a curious dog.
“This will be my twenty-third season.”
“Ah,” the man said, knowingly. “But you’ve never managed a new colony outpost, am I right?”
“Admittedly,” Maeve said, reluctant to see the little light of triumph in his eyes, “this is my first new outpost.”
“Of course it is!” Khandy said, leaning back in his chair and spreading his lips in a large smile. “There hasn’t been a new one in . . .?”
“Nineteen seasons,” Maeve said quietly.
Khandy nodded. “So, as you can imagine, there is rather a lot of pressure for things to go . . . smoothly.”
Oh, Maeve understood all right. There was the pressure for the launch to go smoothly, but also for it to go quickly. The company’s investors were far from patient, and that made the Directors even less so. There was an unspoken competition amongst the colony’s managers to see who could open their outpost first. Not only would they have the glory of opening the first new colony in years, but there was also the promise of a lucrative bonus from a very grateful Cruemann Haines. With that boiling constantly in the back of her mind, Maeve considered that having Khandy and his unit around wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
She opened her mouth to say something, when that putrid stench threw itself down the back of her throat. She clamped her lips shut and fought the almost overwhelming urge to retch. Now she knew what that sweetness reminded her of.
When she was ten, growing up in an outpost not too different to this one, the daughter of the Regional Manager had been gifted a pet cat, Taffy. Maeve had been wild with jealousy, as had most of the children, and a fair number of adults too. But, one day, the cat had gone missing. Everyone had helped search for it, but with no luck. Until a few weeks later when the smell had started drifting from one of the filtration vents. Maeve’s father, part of the maintenance staff, had been the one to fish the creature out. Out of curiosity, she had joined him on that job. The sight of dead Taffy’s glassy eyes staring out from a mass of putrefying flesh had haunted Maeve’s nightmares for months. That was what she could smell now. The dead meat of a cat stuck in the vents.
Once her stomach had settled down, or at least enough for her to trust herself to speak, Maeve turned back to Khandy. He looked as if he hadn’t noticed her sudden discomfort. How the Hell was he not smelling that?
“My team and I are going to need a place to stay,” Khandy explained.
“Right,” Maeve said, hoping the tremble in her voice was only imagined. “The maintenance quarters –”
The man cut her off with one swift shake of his head. “We will need privacy,” he insisted. “For everyone’s benefit. We’ll be up and about at all times, day and night. The last thing I want is to disturb you and your workers.”
Maeve locked eyes with the man. She could only see innocence staring back at her – but was there perhaps something else? Something dark swimming under the surface? “The eastern block is nearly finished,” she said, looking away. “Though some of the amenities –”
“That will do nicely!” Khandy said cheerfully. He was about to rise, when Maeve went on.
“These demonstrators,” she said. “Do you really think they could pose a threat to the colony?”
The smile that seemed a permanent fixture on Khandy’s face, slowly diminished. “If they get their little message out to the wrong people,” he said quietly, “it won’t just be this colony that’ll be threatened.”
The temperature seemed to plummet in the room. The man jumped to his feet, the grin springing back into place, then turned on his heel. He paused at the door. “This place,” he said, looking back at her, “what are they calling it?”
“Solace,” Maeve said.
“Solace, eh?” Khandy said, tasting the word with relish. “I like it.”
He shot her another, toothy grin, and it sent goosebumps racing along Maeve’s spine. In that moment, she wanted this man not just off her outpost, but off the whole damn planet.
“And how long has he been there?”
“Three days now,” Maeve said, patting her damp hair with the towel. “Abercrombie tried getting in touch with his contact in the Northern outpost, but apparently their relay is down again.”
“Really? Maybe you will be the first up-and-running.”
“Maybe,” she murmured. She looked over at Faye and felt her entire body ache to be close to her. But she couldn’t. They were light-years away from one another. The image in front of her was nothing more than a hologram. But, still, it was better than what anyone else in the outpost could have.
“Have you made your transfer request yet?” Faye asked, annoyance flickering on her face as she already predicted the answer.
“Not yet,” Maeve admitted guiltily. “Things have been hectic, as you know.”
“It’s just one quick message.”
“The only message they want to get from me is the one telling them we’re ready for the colonists,” Maeve said, sensing the Argument on the horizon.
“Well, I’m ready for you here back on Earth Prime,” Faye said with playful sourness.
This was old ground, and it felt like they traipsed over it each time they could snatch one of these conversations. Maeve knew that it would devolve into bickering in no time, and given the thundering headache she currently had, that was the last thing she needed. “Once everything’s finished here, applying for a transfer will be the first thing I do.” She glanced at her wife, hoping to see some understanding in her eyes. “I promise.”
“And what if you are the first?” Faye asked, sitting down on what Maeve assumed was her favourite tattered, green armchair. “What if you become Solace #1? You think the directors aren’t going to push for you to stay on as Regional Manager?”
“I’ll still apply for the transfer!” Maeve insisted, hurling the towel across the room. “Besides, I’ve been in the business for too long. A project like this? They’ll want someone younger running things.”
“They’re already trying to get you to stay on.”
“No, they’re not,” Maeve said dismissively. Tightening the robe around her, and feeling like someone was beating a drum behind her eyes, she marched over to her drinks’ cabinet. She paused as she took a decanter out. This had been a gift from one of the directors. No one else in the outpost had one. Nor did they get their own supply of alcohol delivered with the last shipment. She tried to bury this guilty thought.
“Who else has a holo-directory?” Faye pointed out, her signature superior tone dripping from her words.
“They gave every Regional Manager one,” Maeve snarled, hoping it was true. “It’s a not-so-subtle reminder for us to keep in contact with them.”
“You don’t need a personal holo-directory for that.”
“Look,” Maeve snapped, “I’ve said I’ll put in for a transfer. I want to put in for a transfer. So, can we drop it?”
There was silence between the pair. It could either lead to a vicious row, or it was the start of a temporary truce. “All right,” Faye said, opting for the latter. “What were we talking about before?”
“Nothing fun,” Maeve said. “That security team.”
“Apparently they’re heading to the Western Peaks in the morning,” Maeve went on, pouring herself a drink, whilst ignoring the gnawing guilt, and the throbbing in her skull.
“I thought there was nothing west of you?”
She gave this a shrug. “Khandy seems to think the demonstrators might be holed up somewhere near there.”
“But, if they were on the planet already, wouldn’t you know?” Faye was frowning so much, there were little divots appearing on her forehead, and one lock of hair had fallen over her eyes. Maeve’s fingers began to itch as she longed to tuck that errant lock away.
“Khandy seems to think they’re too far away for our scanners.”
“This Khandy seems to think quite a lot, doesn’t he?”
“I don’t like him.”
“I think that was obvious,” Faye declared.
“There’s something else,” Maeve commented, speaking more to herself than her wife. “Something he’s not telling me.”
She actually burst out laughing at this. “You really expect something like that to work?” she asked. “Besides, what am I supposed to ask? All I’ve got is a feeling.”
“Sometimes that’s enough.”
Staring at the wall, and feeling the ache inside her head grow steadily stronger, Maeve heaved a sigh. “I’ve got more important things to worry about right now,” she murmured. “And Solomon Khandy is not one of them.”
She was surrounded by looming dark figures with jackal-like grins. They held thick clubs above their heads. She tried to raise her hands to defend herself, to beg for mercy, but there was nothing. As each blow connected with her body, the air began to fill with that rotting stench from her office. It became so overpowering she began to feel she might suffocate before she was beaten to death. A piercing scream rang out, blocking everything from her mind until –
Maeve woke with her own strangled scream. She was sat up in bed, her chest heaving, trying to steal enough air to convince herself that she was alive and that it had all been a dream. Her bed sheets were soaked, as was her body, but when she touched her fingers to her face, she realised that her face was wet with tears. “What is happening?” she asked herself.
A hammering suddenly began on her door. In an instant Maeve knew that the scream had not been a part of her nightmare. That had been real. She swung herself off the bed, threw a robe over her damp body, then strode to the door. It slid open to reveal a haggard-looking Todoroki. His clothes had been hastily thrown on, and his tie was only halfway done up. There was also a gleam of restrained panic in his eyes. That look was briefly shaded by concern as he took in the Regional Manager’s appearance.
Do I really look that bad?
“What is it?” Maeve asked, her voice cracking with dehydration.
“It’s the security team,” Todoroki said, breathlessly. “They’ve come back and . . . something’s gone wrong.”
In two minutes, Maeve had thrown on some clothes, and was allowing Todoroki to march her down the corridors. As he explained the situation, she began to gently probe portions of herself, parts that she vividly recalled being struck by those clubs. Was it her imagination, or could she actually feel bruises starting to form? Ridiculous, she thought. It was a nightmare, nothing more.
“Galloway was on shift,” Todoroki explained, leaving Maeve to assume that he was one of the many maintenance men she had yet to come across. “They all knew that the Eastern quarters were off-limits, as Mr Khandy requested, but Galloway seemed to think that, as the team had left on one of their expeditions, he would be able to conduct his bi-seasonal inspection a little early.”
Maeve nodded at this. It was a trick her father used to do back in the day as well. If they stuck to protocol, those inspections would take up their time for a whole week, often working sixteen hours a day in order to get it all done. But done in portions, spread over a matter of weeks, then the work was cut down, and it left more time to relax. It also threatened the integrity of the outpost.
“He didn’t see everything before they’d gotten the two back to their bunks, but he saw the blood. And he heard the screams, of course.”
Screaming, Maeve thought. “So, that’s what I heard.” When Todoroki rounded on her, confusion in his eyes, she realised she had said that part out loud. Their quarters, what they liked to call the ‘Backstage Area’, was completely sealed off from what would soon be the colonist’s living area. Even when standing on the other side of the connecting door, there would have been no chance Maeve could have heard what was going on. So, what had she heard?
Thankfully, Todoroki chose not to ask that question. Instead, they walked on in silence, striding past the windows that stared out at the alien world cocooned in darkness. Maeve knew that the darkness was mostly artificial, created by a holographic film over the window’s surface in order to replicate an Earth night. Outside, she knew, the surface would still be illuminated by that orange-coloured moon and the billion stars that humanity would never visit.
The door to the eastern quarters sprang open, and five figures rounded on her, hostile looks burning in their eyes. Only Khandy relaxed slightly when he recognised Maeve.
“Director Yeoman,” he said, stepping forward. His face was painted with weariness, but he still managed a small smile. “What brings you down here?”
“I heard there was an incident,” Maeve said, her eyes sweeping the room for sight of – there it was. Droplets the size of coins were scattered across the floor leading towards an even larger pool. Some of Khandy’s men seeing where her eyes were going, tried stepping in front to block it, but it was too late. “Whose blood is that?” Maeve asked, rounding on Khandy.
“Just a little accident,” the man said, trying to sound sincere. “Nothing you need to worry about. It’s not your concern.”
“Everything that happens in this outpost is my concern,” the Regional Manager said, injecting liquid-hot steel into her voice. “And if someone is injured, then I need to know.”
Khandy matched her glower, thrust his hands behind his back, and let the smile melt from his lips. “All right then,” he said. He turned to the remainder of his squad and gave them a quick nod.
Maeve hadn’t even noticed it, but each of their hands had been resting on the butts of their guns. With that little nod from their captain, their grips loosened. Khandy strode forward and into a separate room. Feeling a chill down her spine, Maeve quickly followed. She paused in the doorway when she saw a woman lying prone in a cot. What was her name? Penn? Pine? She knew Khandy had mentioned it once. Whatever her name, Medi-gauze had been wrapped around her throat; already it was soaked red. A tube had been jabbed into her exposed forearm, and the health monitor at the head of the cot was beeping periodically, but Maeve had seen that look in the woman’s eyes before. She had seen it on a cat being dragged out of an air-vent so many years ago.
“What happened?” Maeve asked, trying to find the strength to raise her voice above a whisper.
“Just an accident,” Khandy said sombrely. He had removed his flat-cap, revealing a single tuft of almond-blond hair at the crown of his head. “It’s a treacherous terrain.”
“Will she . . . be all right?”
The soldier shrugged. “Too early to tell,” he replied. “But Pryce is a fighter. If anyone can pull through, it’s her.”
“One of my men mentioned . . . screaming,” Maeve said. Looking at the bandages around her throat, Maeve was adamant the injured woman wasn’t capable of making much noise above a gurgle.
A gleam of flint appeared in Khandy’s eyes. “Oh? Spying on us, eh?”
She took a hesitant half-step back. “He was just conducting some maintenance checks, that’s all,” she said. “Besides, even accounting for Pryce here, you’re still two men down out there.”
There was a deep pause, only broken by the beeping of the life-support machine. Eventually, the tension seemed to relax in the room. “I suppose, as Regional Manager, you might as well know,” Khandy said, his eyes softening only by a fraction.
Once more he led her out, and this time down a short a corridor. At the end, outside what was meant to be a storage room, stood another one of Khandy’s men. This one had his rifle out, and an almost panicked look dancing in his eyes. But his stance was like a statue, and he barely reacted when Khandy stopped in front of him.
“Any change, Omor?”
The man, barely in his twenties, Maeve realised, shook his head. “He’s still . . .” the man began, then his gaze fell on the woman and he fell silent.
“Understood,” Khandy said. “Open the door.”
Omor paused, his eyes still on Maeve.
“I gave you an order,” Khandy growled.
Snapping to attention, the young soldier slammed a thumb against the door controls. It slid aside and Khandy stepped through. Maeve hesitated for a moment, her eyes darting towards Omor. He was no longer looking at her. His gaze was fixed solely on the contents of the room, and the panic was back in his eyes. It was also travelling along the rest of his body, causing his gun to begin trembling. Terrified of what she might see, and the visions of her dream dancing once more in her head, Maeve stepped inside the room.
It was cramped, and uncomfortably warm. A single light blazed above and the walls were bare. In the future the room would be full of shelves stacked with food, but, for now, the only occupant was one of Khandy’s men. He was sat on the floor, his arms wrapped around his legs, and he was trembling like a child.
When he sensed he wasn’t alone, his head snapped up. Maeve winced as she heard something in his neck crack. She remembered this one. He was the one, when they’d all first arrived, who had seemed so restless. The one who looked as if something was writhing behind his eyes. Now there was no doubt about it.
His lips were peeled back to reveal yellowing teeth anchored in pastel-grey gums. He stared at them with blazing orbs set in dark craters. There were patches of dried blood on his head which, Maeve realised, were from where he had begun tearing out his own hair.
“Blood!” he wailed, spit flying from his mad tongue. “So much . . . blood! Didn’t want to . . . stop! Wanted it to . . . stop! So much . . . everywhere! Blood . . . everywhere! Not my fault! Didn’t want to . . . couldn’t . . . stop!”
As Maeve stared at the soldier, raging and slobbering like a rabid mongrel, a hand suddenly wrapped itself around her arm. She let out a startled yell and tried to pounce back, but the grip was like iron. Her relief did not bloom as she looked into the unsmiling face of Solomon Khandy.
“What the Hell happened?” Maeve demanded.
She filled her cup to the brim with coffee, barely reacting as the scalding liquid slopped over the side and onto her hand. She did wince, however, when she took a sip and it burned the side of her tongue.
Khandy took the seat opposite her and filled his own cup with a firm and steady hand. He had suggested moving back to Maeve’s office, but she had said the canteen was far enough. In truth, however, she hadn’t been in her office for several days now. The stench of rotting meat had become unendurable. In spite of having the maintenance crew tear apart the filtration system, and having the office deep-cleaned a dozen times, it still remained, and she was clueless as to its cause.
“As I said, the terrain is treacherous.”
“Dodgy ground does not tear apart a woman’s throat,” Maeve snarled. “Nor does it turn a man into a raving lunatic.”
The soldier made no reaction to her accusations. “Guiseppe is . . . he’s a new addition to the crew,” Khandy explained, blowing delicately on his coffee. “Normally I wouldn’t have agreed to it, but his uncle is . . . an investor.”
Maeve caught what the man was implying, and she felt her hackles rise.
“It was obvious from the start he wasn’t cut out for this work, but what could I do?” the man went on with a playful smile. “We were just making a routine expedition tonight – we had reason to believe some of the geologists might be making camp deep in the Western Peaks – when Guiseppe lost his footing.” Khandy gave her a meaningful look from behind the steam of his drink. “The damn idiot hadn’t turned the safety on, had he?”
“You mean to tell me,” Maeve said slowly, “that this was all caused because he tripped?”
“Yes,” Khandy stated.
“He shot her in the neck!”
“If he had meant to do it,” the soldier said, “he would have aimed for her head.”
“And how do you explain the state he’s in now?”
“Guilt.” The soldier let his lips ooze into a smile. “I told you, he’s not cut out for this work. The sight of a little blood, that he caused to spill, and he falls apart.”
Maeve sat back, toying with the handle of her cup and drumming her heel against the floor. If the man really was the nephew of an investor, that meant she was completely powerless. It was pointless to try and stand up against someone like that. But why would she want to? Pryce was nothing to do with her. She didn’t work for the outpost, she hadn’t been hurt whilst at the outpost, and she hadn’t been hurt by anyone attached to the outpost. So, why was Maeve worrying? Was it simply concern for the woman? Or was it because, deep down – no, not deep down, she almost knew it; Solomon Khandy was hiding something. But what?
“What did you say?” Maeve asked, her head snapping up.
“A lot,” Khandy replied with a cheerful laugh.
“You called them geologists?”
Did the smile falter? For a microsecond? It was too difficult to tell. But it was still there when he turned his eyes onto her. “Did I?” he cooed.
“They’re archaeologists,” Maeve said, feeling her mouth begin to dry up.
“My mistake,” Khandy said. “To be fair, I don’t pay much attention to these things. The company tells me to clean up some demonstrators, that’s all I feel I need to know.” He raised the coffee to his lips, smile still intact. That’s when the first drop fell. It trickled down from his little finger, beaded at the heel of his hand and then plummeted down and splashed onto the pristine table-top. Maeve had watched it with bated breath. How had she missed it? Khandy’s hands were coated in a dark purple liquid. As he took a long glug from his coffee, the fluid continued to drip and patter from his fingers and hand onto the table. He placed the cup down onto the growing puddle and, as he let it go, he left behind a gleaming handprint.
Maeve felt the bile begin to crawl up her throat as Khandy cupped his chin in his hand, squeezing the liquid between palm and cheek, and sending it coursing down his bare arms. He frowned as he saw the revulsion on her face. “Is anything the matter, Manager Yeoman?”
“What’s . . . what’s that on your hand?” she managed to ask.
He moved it away from his dry, clean face and took a look. He raised the other one, then showed them both to Maeve. “Nothing,” he said innocently. And he was right. They were spotless. As was the coffee cup, and the table. “I always keep my hands clean,” Khandy said.
In an instant, Maeve was flung back to her dream of the jackal-grinning figures and their clubs. Now she remembered, as she was beaten and tortured, unable to raise her hands to defend herself, there had been one more shadowy figure in the background. One who always kept its hands clean.
Just what the Hell was going on?
Lying in the dark, she stared up at the wound in the dark ceiling. Silhouetted against the bruised purple sky was the spire. Its peak punctured the broiling clouds and stared down at her, impassive and far away. She was here because she wanted to reach the spire. It had been important for her to reach the spire; she could feel it in her bones. The reason was . . .
It was always then that Maeve awoke, sweating and trembling.
A week had passed since Khandy’s disastrous expedition, and since then the Regional Manager hadn’t seen anything of him or his group. She had no idea what happened to Pryce, or to Guiseppe. Frankly, they were far from her thoughts. Her nightmares hadn’t stopped; they were only getting worse. She hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep in days, and the effects were now beginning to show. People looked at her with alarm and fear. She could understand why. One morning she had caught a glimpse of her reflection and she had dropped a glass out of fright. So, of course their alarm was justified. Not that their concern was just for her wellbeing. If the colony opened ahead of schedule, Maeve wasn’t the only one who had been promised a bonus. Everyone’s future depended on the success of the outpost. And the success of the outpost, depended on the performance of its regional manager.
But she ignored their panicked looks, and their whispered conversations. None of it mattered to her. All that was important, right now, was the Spire. She had no idea what it was, but she had been dreaming about it for days. Longing for it every single night, and now that sensation was seeping into her daily life.
In the briefings her eyes would stray towards the model of the outpost that sat at the centre of the table. And, in her mind, she would see herself stepping out of the building and across the surface towards that towering structure. At one point Abercrombie had been forced to pinch her shoulder in order to break her reverie. Then, when she had calls with Faye, she would disappear, back into that cave with the gash in the roof that gave sight onto the spire. This had led to bitter arguments and, after Maeve had been distracted for the fourth night in a row, Faye had not called back.
Sitting up in bed, feeling her heart thundering inside her chest, Maeve came to a realisation that only one thing might free her. “I . . . have to go,” she murmured. After saying it out loud, rather than invoking a sense of dread in her, she only felt calm. Usually, the idea of stepping onto alien terrain was abhorrent to her. She had spent her life in outposts, only leaving for the outside when it was entirely unavoidable. And to go onto a planet that hadn’t even begun the terraforming process yet? But she knew she had to walk on Solace. She wanted to.
And something else wanted her to go as well. Something was calling her.
“You want to go on an expedition?” Khandy asked, looking her up and down with humour-filled eyes.
“Yes,” Maeve said, steeling herself. “After your incident the other week, I want to see for myself the danger this planet may pose.”
The man’s smile thinned. “Why?” he asked quietly. “Your colonists won’t be going out that far, and neither will you.”
“The colonists will be terraforming this world,” Maeve stated. “At some point the outpost will expand, and if the terrain isn’t suitable –”
“Your surveys will tell you that, surely?”
“Our previous surveys didn’t, who’s to say future ones will?”
Khandy stood still, his arms folded over his chest and a sharp gleam in his eyes. “I have to admit,” he said, “this has caught me off-guard. People like you don’t normally take a hands-on approach.”
“I’m not your typical regional manager.”
A large smile welcomed this remark. “And if we run into any demonstrators?” he asked slyly.
“Then I think they’ll be very eager to speak with me, don’t you?”
For a moment, as his eyes hardened and the smile started to falter, Maeve thought she would have to fight him. She refused to take no for an answer. He was her only chance to get across the surface. Fortunately, his face broke open into an almost child-like grin. “How could I say no?” he asked with a laugh. That seemed harmless enough, for Khandy. But behind the laughter Maeve sensed an edge. She was stepping out of her safe little bubble and into his world.
“You’re in luck,” Khandy went on. “We’re heading out on a little excursion tonight. Does that work for you?”
Even with the sense of dread this gave her, Maeve knew there was no backing down. She quickly accepted, trying to block out this growing sense of fear. It was a sensation that only mounted as the day wound on. She made no attempt to hide her distraction during the daily meetings, but neither did she confide in anyone as to what her plans were. She knew, if Abercrombie, or Todoroki, or Faye especially, knew that she was intent on joining Khandy’s expedition, they would have had her isolated in a medical bay instantly.
The hours seemed to drag on until, finally, Maeve found herself clambering into one of the outpost’s trawlers. The cabin was cramped inside, already occupied by the remaining members of Khandy’s force. She couldn’t make out either Pryce or Guiseppe among the number, and remembering what happened to the pair only made Maeve’s anxiety flare. But the time to turn back was gone. The door behind her had sealed shut, and the truck lurched forward. Before she was thrown down, Maeve took the seat closest to the door, then glanced at her fellow passengers.
Gone were the stoic expressions of just a few weeks ago. Now, behind the visors of their grey helmets, their eyes darted around the cabin, as if seeking out enemies, or a way to freedom. A couple of them drummed their heels against the steel floor, whilst another rocked quietly back and forth. Not for the first time, nor for the last, Maeve wondered just what she was walking into.
The silent, jolting journey across the surface seemed to be unending, and it was impossible to tell how far they had actually come. The trawler had no windows in the cabin, as it had been designed to ferry cargo, not passengers. But eventually, when Maeve was beginning to feel the tendrils of sleep crawl over her, the vehicle drew to a halt.
After a sustained hiss of escaping air, the door rose open. Her legs trembling, and her breath already beginning to labour, Maeve stepped out of the trawler. Khandy and the driver were already out, standing on the edge of a weathered hill. Joining him, the regional manager stared out at the alien vista. The outpost wasn’t even visible on the horizon. All she could see was the vivid purple sky and its broiling clouds up above. The ground, only a slightly darker grey than the soldiers’ suits, was uneven and devoid of anything that could be mistaken for life. Boulders jutted up like crooked teeth as far as the eye could see. Though, winding amongst the monoliths, Maeve could just make out the tracks made by the trawler. Already a strong breeze was beginning to sweep up a wall of dust to mask this temporary road. Whatever she came here for, Maeve thought, she would have to be quick.
There was a crackle in her ear and, turning, she could see that Khandy was beginning to speak. Flicking a switch on the chin of her helmet, the static cleared and his voice came through; tinny and small, but nevertheless hearable.
“– and Holloway, you check out the northern quarter. Omor? You’re with Sturgess, make sure the east is clear as well. All understood?”
The soldiers nodded, though without much enthusiasm, then slowly made off for their assigned duties. Once they had gone, Khandy turned to face her. “Shall we switch to Channel Beta?” he suggested. “We’ll have a bit more privacy there.”
Obediently, Maeve made the change. A shaft of sunlight pierced through the clouds and landed on the pair. The glare obscured every part of Khandy’s face, except for that eternal smile. “How do you like it?” he asked, turning to stare out at the empty horizon.
“I prefer my office,” Maeve admitted weakly.
“Thought you would,” Khandy said. He had turned away from her by now, and his face was fully hidden beneath the helmet. “So, what is it really that drags you all the way out to this god-forsaken pile of dirt?”
A knot formed in her stomach. That tone was unlike any she had heard in Khandy’s voice before. “I . . . we already discussed this . . .” she began, but her mouth began to dry up.
“Oh, it’s not me you’ve been talking to, is it?”
Ice ran down Maeve’s spine. Every inch of her was screaming out for her to run. But she remained rooted to the spot, unable to look away from the diminutive man’s back.
“They’ve been saying all sorts of things, haven’t they?” he growled. “Telling tales of what I’ve been making them do? Ha! They didn’t need any encouragement from me, not at the beginning. But what happened to Guiseppe, and Pryce, well, now they’re all too scared.”
Mustering what strength she could find, Maeve managed to take one small step back.
“Well, I’m not scared. What’s the worst that could happen? Nothing, that’s what. I’m going to do what I was sent here to do, and nothing’s going to stop me. You hear me?” He suddenly rounded on her, and Maeve felt a gasp of horror escape her.
The grin was still there, but now it had stretched to a gruesome length, revealing too many teeth and dangling open like a dog. His eyes, wild and gleaming, were fixed on her.
“You think I can’t hear them?” He took a loping step towards her. “I always hear them! But I don’t care! I know how to shut them up!” The man suddenly lunged towards her, a roar filling her ears. Finding new reserves of strength, Maeve sprang back and began hurtling uphill.
Khandy’s grunts and fevered yells over the radio filled her ears, never dulling. She couldn’t turn to look back, not without slowing down, and she knew if she did that, she’d be dead. She could only pray that whatever madness had come over him, was in some way slowing him down. Climbing up the slope, Maeve dodged past rocks and pitfalls, cursing the cumbersome suit that only seemed to restrict her movements. Each breath stabbed at the back of her throat, and a burning pain was flaming in her ribs. When the pain grew too much to ignore, and the only sound she could hear was static over the radio, Maeve allowed herself to slow down. Whilst doing so, she turned. There was no sign of Khandy. She had climbed further than she thought, and the trawler was far below, just a shining black bug.
Fearful, Maeve scanned every inch of the hill she could see. There were several large boulders behind which she was sure Khandy could hide. His suit, also, gave him the advantage. The pale grey would help him blend in amongst the rocks, and now the sun was hiding back behind the clouds, there was no promise of a glare giving away his position. She, on the other hand, was wearing the blood-red suit of a colonist. She was visible for miles around. As her breath began to return, and the jabbing agony in her side was dying, she began to look further along the hill. Perhaps there was someone else she could turn to. Someone who could protect her from –
Then she remembered Guiseppe, and the rest of the crew. They were all affected by whatever the madness was. She wasn’t safe with any of them. Then what was she to do? Once more she cursed herself and her stupid dreams. Perhaps she too was mad. After all, what sane person would allow themselves to be dragged out to this desolate waste just because of a recurring nightmare?
Maeve span around. The crooning voice had slithered out of the radio, and for a moment she had believed the man was whispering directly into her ear. Once more, her eyes darting from every crevice and rock, Maeve couldn’t find him. “Sorry if I scared you,” Khandy murmured, his voice slightly breathless. “Why don’t you come back down? We can talk like . . . grown-ups.”
He was climbing, she was sure of it. She backed away, still staring directly down. Surely there must be something of him she could see?
“You need me to get back, don’t you?”
That was right, she thought. He was her only way back to the outpost. The outpost that she should never have left.
“Stop this childish game, and we can go back, together!” Khandy offered, his voice almost soothing at this point. “All you have to do is . . . turn around!”
There was a sudden explosion in her ears. Static roared like thunder, only just smothering Khandy’s animalistic screams. Throwing her hands pointlessly over her helmet, Maeve staggered back, releasing her own shriek of terror. Her foot landed on nothing. She yelled again as she fell backwards. She threw her arms out, hoping to catch something, anything. But she only continued to fall. Darkness washed up past her, then something hard and jagged caught her in the back. She rolled, flopped back into the air, then landed again with a crash. Her body continued to roll, beaten and clawed at by rocks as she passed. This went on for an age until, with one final jolt, she crashed against the floor.
Static filled her ears like a rainstorm. It continued on for minutes until she eventually had the strength to flick the switch beneath her chin. Then there was nothing but silence. She continued to lie there, too weak and afraid to open her eyes.
“Get up,” she whimpered. Now furious at herself. “Get. Up!” Slowly, crying out as lagoons of pain flared up all over her body, she managed to push herself onto her knees. Blinking quickly, Maeve tried to look around. A thin, hazy beam of light was filtering down from above but, apart from that, she was in darkness.
She rested a hand against the wall, then tried to assess exactly what state she was in. She was in quiet agony all over but, as far as she could see, the only true damage was to her left arm. It dangled uselessly by her side. She could twitch her fingers, but even that brought fresh, excruciating pain flooding up her body. Gritting her teeth, and ignoring the taste of blood on her tongue, Maeve heaved herself to her feet. The suit, designed to be long-lasting, seemed to be intact. But it would be a miracle for it to stay that way for long. If she was forced to run, or even jog, she was sure the whole thing would tear at the seams.
Stifling a small sob, Maeve tilted her head to look up at where she had fallen. There was a long crack in the roof, around thirty feet above her head. Rocks jutted from the walls either side; it was these had broken her fall. But, with her arm in the state it was, climbing back up would be impossible. Rescue was also out of the question. Then she froze.
The Spire towered above her. Even in the gloom of the night, Maeve could see its body looming high above, just as it did in her dreams. She was here. “Great,” she whispered with a hoarse voice. “But now what?”
It wasn’t a voice that arrived in her head. It was a simple order that went straight to her legs. She started taking hobbling steps before she had even realised it. The path she took sloped ever slowly downwards, and the darkness grew deeper around her. Save for her ragged breathing, it was silent. She began to miss the static of the radio, but the thought of hearing Khandy’s voice again was enough to stay her hand.
She wasn’t sure how long she walked, and she had no idea how far she went, but she kept following the twisting, downwards path with no thought of halting. Eventually, she was sure, she would find something. Hopefully, she thought weakly, it would be a way out. She kept her good hand on the wall, letting it guide her. Gradually, a light began to grow around her. Tracts of something luminous ran through the walls like veins. The light was only faint at first, but it was growing with each step she took.
Finally, with the pain in her arm nothing more than a dull ache, and her throat dry and cracked, Maeve stepped out of the darkened tunnel and into what struck her, at first, to be some enormous cathedral. The ceiling was high and vaulted, sloping up into a point. The glowing veins coursed up the walls, erupting occasionally into deep blue crystals. Hundreds of these minerals climbed the room, cascading the chamber with soothing aqua-coloured light. Almost bewitched, Maeve collapsed to her knees. Her pain was forgotten, her thirst ignored. She simply stared in awe at the glittering walls. A noise suddenly arrested her.
It was the first to break the long silence, and although it was soft, it rang through the room like thunder. Then Maeve knew exactly what she had come here for. Something was huddled on the other side of the room, leaning against the far wall. It took a moment for Maeve to comprehend just what she was seeing.
It was a gelatinous mass, almost transparent in places. A pair of stalks pointed out crookedly from the top, twitching slightly, as if probing the air. Along the surface of its flesh bright lights flickered and ran. Their source was impossible to tell. Slowly, as she studied it, the thing’s body rose and fell. Startled, Maeve realised that it was alive. Watching its, for want of a better word, chest rise and fall, she took a hesitant step forward. The creature seemed to recoil, and the orbs of light within it tightened into a cluster.
A throbbing pain suddenly welled behind Maeve’s eyes. She stopped. “What . . .?” the rest of the words died in her throat. The stalks on its body flickered and then straightened out to her. Two beads of light began to glow on the tips.
Her dreams . . . her nightmares, they were coming from this thing. It had been sharing what it had been seeing, what it had been feeling. The ache in her head was beginning to grow, but Maeve knew she had to get closer. With feet like lead, she took a step forward. The lights grew brighter, and the flesh began to writhe. Maeve shrieked with pain then collapsed forward, landing with a crash on her knees and her injured arm twisting with an electric jolt of agony.
She clamped her eyes shut, but she didn’t stop seeing. She saw what the creature had seen. It had been here for millennia, it and its kind, growing indolent as the eons passed. They felt the humans arrive, but were ignorant as to what it meant. Then the songs began to pass among its kind. Songs of things with limbs, and fire. The images flashed through her mind. They came and tore through the creatures, then disappeared. Right now, Maeve was as connected to these creatures as they had been to one another. The pain and fear of a thousand beings was being pumped into her body. Then something new blossomed in her. Hatred, and vengeance. The creatures, knowing that death was imminent, had fought back. Through the eyes of one of the vengeful she saw the strangers arrive, already sporting their monstrous grins. Then she struck, in the only way she could with this body.
Maeve’s eyes burst open and threw herself back, gasping for breath. “Madness,” she gasped. “Madness . . . but . . .”
The mass before her, the centre of its body now a swirling storm of light, continued to feed information into her vulnerable mind. There was pain, and blood, and screams these creatures were unable to give voice to. And all of it had filled the minds of Khandy and his men. But not like with her now, she could sense that. This one wasn’t trying to harm her, it just wanted her to understand. Already the sensations and memories were draining out of her. This one had come to this place, using strength its kind hadn’t known for centuries, for a reason. It had some meaning to its species. A wave of . . . peace washed over her as images of it from every angle flickered through her head. Here it had been able to reach her because . . . an ocean of regret filled her. The ones that had infected Khandy were dead, and there was no way to undo what had been done. No way to stop it from going further.
If the soldiers left this world, then it would spread. Like a virus, it would pass to every one they met, filling them with the same madness and desire to burn. Maeve could see it vividly painted inside her head. Across every populated world, grinning jackals would murder and rave, repaying the blood that had been spilled on this planet by a thousand-fold. And she had to stop it. This creature, hiding from the ones that knew it was still alive, was trying to undo its people’s final revenge.
The lights began to grow dim, and its body ceased to quiver and writhe. Maeve fell back against the wall, panting and sweating. Her legs were too weak to move, and the throbbing pain in her arm returning, she stared at the mass against the wall. It was no longer moving, and the orbs of light were winking out one by one. It was dead. It had delivered its message, and had finally allowed itself to give in to the pain.
Tears were rolling down Maeve’s cheeks. But who were they for?
“I didn’t ask for this,” she sobbed quietly. But that didn’t matter. Realising this, and with a new edge of steel running through her mind, skewering whatever tiredness she felt, Maeve staggered to her feet. Beside what remained of the native creature was an opening to a fresh tunnel. “It will lead me to the surface,” Maeve murmured, holding her damaged arm against her body.
Thoughts that didn’t feel her own swam through her mind, urging her onward. Limping, she obeyed. Stepping back into the darkness, Maeve knew that she was stepping out of the life she had grown used to, and there was no turning back. The Maeve Yeoman that had stepped into the trawler was gone. What she had become, she wasn’t sure. All she knew was one thing; she would never return to Solace.