Denmark, July 2358
by E.Escher - 12th Jan 2017
'Situation hopeless. God help us.'
Cille wiped a little more dust from the faded display, and frowned. The complex was back online, more or less, but the system had become stuck partway through its opening diagnostic, and now the doors were opening and closing at random, some areas were lit but not others, and the corridors echoed with sporadic blurts of an alarm siren that stopped after half a second, with no explanation. The ventilation was irreparable, and a glitchy computer voice kept announcing the fact at odd intervals, repeating itself in several languages.
The computer was unhappy with the damage she'd caused to the doors, that was clear. It was possible the power plant had been modified after installation, and the feed they were giving it was no longer within tolerances. Whatever the reason, the computer was jammed up and the bunker was flashing, hooting funhouse until they could get it under control.
Rather than tackle the system head-on, Cille had repurposed one of the consoles and was now hacking the ancient databanks, searching for a maintenance log. Instead she had found a security file, still in the storage buffer, and it made grim reading.
'Ernst? I'm in the security logs, and I found out why the place is dead. They had a Sobek outbreak in 2236, and the security system sealed the complex with everybody inside.'
'For Helvede!' came the reply. 'The security staff had nothing bigger than stun rifles?'
'Nothing officially. Maybe somebody brought something from home. It's not that hard to take down the infected. They're still flesh and blood, when you get right down to it.'
'How many were there?'
'Just one, but that's how they always start, right? What they don't kill ends up infected?'
'Patch me in to the system, and then get out of there. Send Wheeler on ahead.'
'Because if they sealed this place up in 2236 and never came back, the infection is still here. The original nanites are still functional, that's why we still see random outbreaks all over the world.'
'I did a scan for active particulates, there's no Sobek infection here.'
'Okay, but did you do a scan for Sobek victims?'
'There's no life signs.'
'Infected don't register as life signs, Cille.'
'There could be hundreds.'
'No, I mean, they'd have rotted away by now. Right? The infected don't just stick around forever, do they?' She knew Sobek victims could sometimes be cured, but she'd never heard of any Revenants dying of old age. Usually they were only mentioned in the newsfeeds when they killed themselves. She had no idea how long they lasted without the cure.
'I've got no idea, but half the doors are open so anything that was trapped is now loose, and I'm not taking any chances. Get out of there, let Wheeler do a full scan, and then we go back in with a full combat rig and sweep it clear.'
'Okay, okay, post a sentry at the exit, I'm on my way. My gut feeling says this place is empty, but you're right. Better safe than sorry.'
She summoned Wheeler to her location, and made her way back through the two ruined doors. She wasn't scared of empty tunnels, but she didn't especially fancy being trapped with a horde of rampaging Sobek zombies.
'Ernst? The hazard suit will withstand animal bites, yes?'
'For sure, but stay calm. It won't come to that. If you do see something moving, just back away slowly and let Wheeler draw it away until the coast is clear.'
Right on cue, the recon robot arrived, bumping over the thick cable on soft knobbly tyres. One of the hovering camera drones followed, the downdraft kicking up little clouds of dust. 'I have eyes on,' Ernst's voice was steady and reassuring. 'This is just like that time when we thought we'd found a nest of feral AIs. Follow procedure and we'll get through this.'
'But that was a false alarm,' she protested. 'The nest was empty.'
'We know that now, and maybe tomorrow we will share a laugh about this place as well, but for now stay alert and just do as I say.'
She bit back a sigh, and set the robot on ahead to scan for danger. She counted five seconds, then set off at a slow walk. 'You know, if there is something down here, it'll be a desiccated husk. My exo-suit would tear it apart like paper.'
'We don't know that. Left untreated for over a hundred years? I'm trying to get some info, but it seems like nobody's got any information, not even theoreticals.'
Cille felt a flutter of excitement. 'Ernst! Do you know what that means? If there is an infected down here, it's the oldest infected on earth! We've got to find it, and capture it!'
'All right, settle down. Why must everything be treasure with you?'
'We could be about to discover something amazing! Medical history! What if the victims have recovered? What if the virus dies off after a while? Even if the infected has died, nobody knew that could happen. New knowledge! A genuine discovery.'
'Think about it!'
'Be quiet, woman! Wheeler reports movement. I'm moving up.' The drone at her side zipped ahead, leaving her alone with a cloud of dust and the beating of her own heart. She strained to listen, turning up the suit's audio pickups. Was that the buzz of Wheeler's motors?
'WARNING!' The computer voice blared from a nearby speaker, making her jump. 'Atmospheric quality is be-be-below acceptable tolerance! All staff are *skrrrt* to exit by your assigned evacuation routes immedia...' the message degraded into a bark of static, then a couple of plain tones, and then echoing silence.
'Ernst? Did you find anything?'
'Tracks in the dust. Wheeler's investigating. Stay where you are.'
'Aye.' She brought back the map, and followed the robot's progress as it explored room after room. Her visor presented a camera feed, so she could see through its eyes.
The tracks were more like dragmarks than footsteps, and she had to admit that Ernst was right to be cautious; there was at least one former-human shuffling around in these tunnels.
What would the infected be like, exposed to a hostile reconstructive nano-virus for over a century? Sobek victims went from normal human to homicidal killing machine, like a flicked switch, without displaying any other symptoms. Nobody was sure how long the initial transformation took, but once they became actively murderous it was already too late. They felt no pain, could access the full "lunatic strength" their human muscles could provide, and they were enormously tolerant of physical damage. The only sure way to stop them was to cut off the head, or destroy the brain, but even the latter got more difficult the longer you waited. The virus was a nano-machine, and post-mortem examinations had found instances where large portions of the brain had been supplanted by electronic analogues.
In effect, the Sobek virus transformed the victims into computer-controlled meat puppets, by hacking into the near-ubiquitous cybernetic implants everybody used to link to their social contacts. Cille's own implant could pick up a feed from Ernst when he spoke, overlaying his words with emotional overtones that couldn't be sufficiently conveyed with mere sounds.
The video feed from Wheeler suddenly lurched, then spun around. She glimpsed a figure, just as it ducked out of sight.
'I saw it, drone is in pursuit. I'm sending Wheeler back to you. Time to move.'
'On my way.'
She blinked the video feeds aside to clear her vision, and started walking, briskly. Her heartbeat was racing, pounding, and she had to force herself to breath slower. Her visor was treated and wouldn't mist up, but panic was the enemy in any dangerous situation. Stay calm, stay cool, stay in control. She was safe in her suit. Infected were just animals, basically humans with bad attitude and brain damage, usually just stumbling around, giving no thought to anything except killing and eatting.
She heard the buzz of Wheeler's motors as it whirred into view from a side corridor, kicking up dust as it drove. It chimed a message, but she had the feed minimised in favour of her own vision. 'Yeah, yeah, I see you, let's go already.'
She took a step toward the robot, gesturing impatiently for it to turn around and head for the exit. 'Come on, what are you doing?'
A dark human figure sprung out of the doorway and pounced onto the little robot, grabbing at the articulated legs and twisting. Carbon fibre struts snapped like twigs, and Cille screamed in shock, backing away. The creature was dressed in the rags of a business suit, the asymmetrical lines of 23rd century fashion still recognisable despite the covering of dust and crusted-on gore. The head snapped her way, attracted by the scream, but it didn't attack. Its hands continued their work, methodically crippling Wheeler and scrabbling at the hard casing. It yanked the camera rig free, dug out the comms transmitter, and then got a finger in through the access port. The robot wouldn't hold its attention for much longer, she knew, and then it would be onto her.
She was dimly aware of Ernst, a million miles away, yelling at her to run. The infected kept his eyes locked onto hers, and she knew it would attack the instant she moved.
Running wasn't an option. She watched it smash Wheeler's ruined carcass against the ground, finally shattering the case and tearing out the electronic innards.
She had seconds at most, and then she would be next. The suit would protect her from collisions and falling stone, but with a determined, concentrated attack she was sure it could be torn open. After all, she only had to twist off the helmet and the rest of the suit could be unzipped. Even the exo-frame was fastened onto her arms using velcro straps. The whole arrangement was designed so emergency crews could remove it in a hurry if required.
It was also slow, unable to run faster than a sedate jog, and while the arms could tear through an armoured doorway with ease, the reactions times were far too sluggish to use in a fight, and if she disabled the motors they were simply an encumbrance.
Should she try to grab the thing, and hold it at bay? Maybe she could use a pincer to inflict some damage while it tried to attack. Perhaps she could try to break its legs, and then make her escape.
The computer chose that moment for another impromptu demonstration of the alarm sirens, blasting three different tones, one after the other. The infected didn't flinch, but it did pause to listen, its concentration broken, the robot forgotten. It dropped the smashed remnants to the ground.
Cille tensed. This was it. Any second now it would leap, and she was going to try to dodge. If she was lucky, she might get a blow in, knock it down, and then she was going to run.
It was a bad plan. Luckily, Ernst had other ideas, and sent the camera drone buzzing past the creature's face. 'Damn it, Cille!' he yelled over the chat channel. 'Go now!'
The infected man lashed out at the drone, but the copter's collision-avoidance software kept it out of reach. Ernst had a direct command feed to the drone, and used it to distract the infected, trying to lead it away back down the corridor. It wasn't quite taking the bait, although it clearly wanted to destroy the buzzing machine.
Cille took a couple of steps, moving quietly so as not to attract any attention. This wasn't going to work either. Sooner or later the infected would catch hold of the drone, or it would remember her and come back. She wasn't about to wait for it to get bored. She had to attack.
If the thing was distracted, she could use her machine-enhanced strength to great effect. She had a few moments at most to prepare herself for a fight.
Turning away from the creature, she ran back to the wrecked doorway. She'd torn off several lengths of metal framework, and she now grabbed hold of the topmost two, gripping them firmly with the exo-frame's pincers. She heard rapid footsteps from behind and heaved herself around, yelling as she swung the longer beam like a baseball bat at head height.
She caught it a glancing blow on the shoulder, and caught a confused glimpse of outstretched hands as it spun aside and crashed headlong into the wall at her side. She had the second beam gripped in her left pincer, held out vertically in front like a shield. The infected snapped its head around to glare at her, not the least winded or disoriented by the impact. It lunged and grabbed hold of the vertical beam with both hands, exactly as she'd hoped it would. It pulled back, trying to yank the beam out of her grasp.
Yeah, good luck with that. She grit her teeth and used the longer beam to sweep her improvised shield clean. The creature was flung to the ground by the impact, but immediately rolled back into a crouch. Its right arm was broken, hanging limp at the elbow, and it paused a second to survey the damage. The muscles spasmed as it tried to control the shattered limb, then stopped. She wondered if it had been right-handed in life, and whether that made any difference after the Sobek took control.
It bared its teeth and lunged again, this time trying to push the shield aside to get at her. She pushed back, flexing the exo-frame's powered wrist to flick the beam out horizontally. It caught the creature under the ribs, smashing bones and launching it up into the tunnel ceiling with a sickening crack.
It dropped to the floor like a broken marionette, head twisted at an obscene angle. The body thrashed, twitched, drummed its heels on the ground for a few seconds, then stopped as though switched off. By sheer luck it had landed facing her, and those eyes still glared with inhuman intensity.
For a moment Cille thought she'd killed it, but it was already dead to begin with. It had been dead for a hundred years or more. All she'd done was damage it.
'I'm okay, I'm okay, it's okay,' she shouted into the chat channel, sending reassuring emotes over the secondary layer until Ernst stopped yelling. 'It's safe. I broke it.'
'Did it hurt you?'
'No. Suit is fine, I'm fine. It's neck is broken. Bring something to secure it.'
The curious tale of Colin CampbellPart One - How did it come to this?, Chapter 1, Earlier that dayChapter 2, Earlier stillChapter 3, Making a withdrawalChapter 4, August 18th, 2362Chapter 5, Angel of DeathChapter 6, Welcome to 2016.Chapter 7, Denmark, July 2358Chapter 8, After the crashChapter 9, Music of the SpheresChapter 10, Denmark, July 2358Chapter 11, Harbinger FMChapter 12, Denmark, July 2358Chapter 13, Excuses and liesPart Two - So here we are, Chapter 14Chapter 15, Quite a rideChapter 16, Talking the talkChapter 17, Leisurely pursuitChapter 18, Dinner Date with DestinyChapter 19, Chips with everythingChapter 20, HarbingerChapter 21, Time to leaveChapter 22, ManchesterChapter 23, Colin's HouseChapter 24, On the roadChapter 25, Chateau HarbingerChapter 26, ShowdownEpilogue, Debriefing