In dark silence Achilles descended the icy shaft until a dim glow of light slowly became apparent deep below, like a torch in the bottom of a well. It was only the metronomic flash of the lead escort’s guide light that allowed them to see the wall around them – the ice lighting up like fractured, brilliant blue crystal-ware.
“Look, there’s light ahead. That must be the colony.” Gayle pointed.
Ty looked about as if the walls were caving in around her; Gayle detected discomfort in her voice. ”Can’t believe they live locked up down here.”
“It’s either that or freeze to death on the surface.” Meron replied.
“They survive off geothermal energy. The pressure of the ice above creates heat, there is a zone at the bottom where the ice turns to liquid water. They can harness that as power too and split the water into oxygen and hydrogen, supplying the colonies air and water and energy needs.” Meers added.
The dim glow had now evolved into a complex of lights trailing up and down the shaft. Gayle could make out shelves cut into the side of the shaft at various intervals and passing one saw a number of ancient vessels parked there, rusted and decayed.
“Check out those wrecks,” Gayle whistled like a kid. “Haven’t seen anything like them, not working anyway.”
Meers stroked his beard and bent over to look out the viewport, “Out here they keep everything working until it literally falls apart.”
As they glided downward their surroundings changed. The main shaft widened and dropped into an enormous spherical chamber, narrower passageways, parallel to the surface, diverted off like spokes into the ice while the main shaft continued downward into the black. Inside Achilles, mouths fell agape surprised by the magnitude of the place.
Dotted all around the walls of the chamber were dimly lit landing platforms, in some cases nearby to these were raised structures carved from the ice through which distorted figures could be seen moving about. As they continued downward to the floor of the chamber, occasional small vessels crossed their path, heading off down one or other of the side tunnels.
It soon became apparent that they were heading for a large icy field at the base of the spherical chamber where a few other vessels, including several more interceptors, were parked.
The lieutenant’s voice returned sharply bringing them out of their daze. “You will land your vessel in the zone marked alpha bravo twenty three, cut your engines and wait for further instructions.”
“Acknowledged,” Meers replied from the co-pilot’s chair. Gayle had made way for him as soon as the lieutenant had spoken.
Meron saying nothing, her face a frown severe enough to crack the ice, flew the ship over the marked landing zone, which had lights helpfully flashing around it, and brought the ship down onto the ice with a harder-than-necessary bump.
“Worst landing I ever seen you make.” Meers grinned.
“Your manifest if you please?” The official, a scrawny, dower woman demanded.
Meron stood with her hands on her hips, “You’d have to ask Captain Meers about that.”
Meers gave Meron a warning glance, “Major Field, it’s a pleasure as always. I’m afraid our official manifest record was lost when we had a . . . mid-flight mishap with an asteroid, as you may have seen from the damage we sustained we are lucky to be alive.”
It had been only a few minutes before when the inspector and her squad of heavily armed troopers had arrived at the hatch via a transport tug. They had efficiently secured and searched the ship, now the troopers stood in a circle around the room, their weapons trained on the crew of Achilles.
Meers handed the official a comDev, “I’ve done an inventory of our cargo and listed the contents here.”
The woman huffed, snapping the device out of his hands. “This is unacceptable Captain, you are lucky we are in urgent need of these supplies or this may well have ended badly for you.”
Meers bowed, “I appreciate your lenience Major, as you can appreciate it is a long haul out here and occasionally events out of our control intercede.”
Scanning the data on the device she looked up confused, “I don’t understand, this is only a fraction of what we ordered?”
“That was also out of our control, the shipment promised to me had been accidentally given to another party – this was all that was left in supply. I could have waited another eight days for the next load to arrive but I figured you would prefer a smaller delivery than none at all.”
The Major pressed irritably at her temple where a strand of hair had sprung loose, “I’m not happy Captain Meers, this smells of something to me!”
“I am sorry Major but it was out of my control.” Meer bowed again.
She sighed, “Your payment in velumium will of course be reduced as well as a ten percent penalty for breach of contract – perhaps that will encourage you next time to ensure you can deliver what you promise.” She waggled the device like a school teacher.
Meers nodded, “I understand major.”
“Your shipment will arrive in a few days whereupon you may weight and load it, until then you are restricted to the green zone.” She looked down her nose at the crew of Achilles and settled her doubtful gaze on Gayle, “I trust you will explain what this means to your crew.”
“Yes Ma’am they will be made aware.” He replied.
“Good.” She handed the comDev to one of the soldiers, “Now Sergeant Durak here will see to the transfer of the cargo and confirm it matches your inventory. Goodbye Captain, I do hope that there will be no further trouble, because if there is you can be sure that I will not be so lenient on you.” She turned on her heels and, followed by all but two of the troopers, exited back into the transport tug.
Half an hour later, having dispensed with the cargo, Gayle and the crew of the Achilles found themselves inside an enormous, near-empty, entry hall with corridors running off in all directions. Gayle imagined that it once had been a busy hub but now conveyed only a fraction of the traffic. Despite this it was well kept and attended by solemn-looking staff, all wearing uniforms bearing a green bar across the chest.
“The green zone is the region of Icarus base where outsiders are permitted,” Meers explained pointing to a nearby sign with a map of hanging on a wall, “These tell you where you are, although I’ve never been to any of the other regions but I’ve heard there are a number of other colour-coded regions.”
“I presume that if we try to leave this zone we will be detained?” Meron spoke brusquely. Gayle knew she must be still smarting from how Meers had taken over the situation.
Meers whispered as they huddled together, “Justice is swift and ruthless, they do not tolerate insubordination and are deeply suspicious of outsiders. If anyone is caught it will mean certain death.” He paused for effect, then pointed to the map, “There are secure checkpoints here, here and here that give access into the yellow zone, I believe there must be other ways into it via the main shaft and tunnels but I’d expect we’d need an authorised transport that way.”
“Where can we expect to find the ship we are looking for?” Gayle asked expecting to hear the worst.
“It will be deep down in the facility in one of the highest security zones, maybe at the bottom of the main shaft?” Meron said pointing at the feature that dominated the map.
Ty glanced about, there were several troopers watching them nearby, “We should move on before we get arrested for loitering.”
“I’ve got passkeys for each of you.” Meers said, handing out the small business-card shaped devices. “You’re supposed to have them on you at all times.”
“I assume these only give us access to green zone areas?” Meron asked.
Meers Nodded, “Yes, and it will give us access to our accommodation, simple rooms not far from here.”
Gayle had been watching the occasional passer-by, he was intrigued by their attire. “Check out these people, their clothes are antique, it’s like they are out of an old holoVid.”
“Not exactly, they are different somehow.” Ty replied.
Weavel reached out leered at a pair of girls passing, “Hello lovelies.”
Earning him a smack across the back of the head from Ty.
Looking at the passkey Gayle read the label, “Hotel Dominican, 13/185 Jasper tunnel, Green Zone East.”
Ty who had been receiving frightened looks from the passersby looked up at a signpost, “Dwyer Tunnel, Merton’s Circle, Jasper Tunnel.” She pointed to a tunnel off to the right.
“Alright, let’s go get settled and decide what to do next.” Meron said.
Like all the dwellings in the facility, the Hotel Dominican was carved directly out of the ice with rooms and corridors coming off of a main gallery. The gallery itself was maybe a hundred feet long and vaulted like a medieval church, the roof propped up by plexi-glass flying buttresses and columns. Along each wall were religious scenes, icons and crucifixes and between these were doors.
“What the..it’s..?” Weavel stuttered.
“It’s a church.” Ty finished, looking equally astonished.
Walking into the chamber, oblivious of their presence, appeared a middle-aged maid who proceeded to adjust some faux flowers. When she finally sensed them a hand came to her mouth in surprise. “Oh, my.”
Meers stepped forward, “I’m sorry to bother you ma’am, we’re supposed to have rooms here.”
“You are Captain Meers?” The woman seemed about to cry.
A man wearing a brown, hooded robe appeared from an open doorway, “Thank you Saran, that will be enough. Good day to you Captain Meers – we’ve been expecting you.”
“Have you now?” Meron interceded, she watched the woman scurry off, her eyes downcast.
The man, looking down his nose at Meron, turned back to Meers, “Err, yes, Icarus Command has informed me to expect you and your crew – I have three rooms prepared. One for the Captain, one for the other gentlemen—”
“—and one for the ladies, oh how quaint!” Meron said in a mocking tone.
“Yes, ladies. Indeed.” The man coughed.
Meers glared at her but smiled awkwardly at the Hotel Manager. “Thank you, you are very kind.”
The man bowed, “if you will follow me.”
Walking down to the far end of the hall the man opened a door that led into a long, ice corridor with a low ceiling; there were doors spaced evenly along each wall. He stopped at the second door, “This is your room Captain, your passkey has been programmed to give you access, as have all your crews keys.” The man indicated the door opposite, “Ladies, that is your room and gentlemen, your room is 113 just down this hall. I trust you will have a pleasant stay. If you have any requests please use the comDev in your room and I will be more than happy to assist you.” The man bowed and abruptly turned leaving them gathered in the narrow hallway.
“The rooms are almost certainly bugged,” Meers spoke low. He indicated a surveillance camera in the hallway, “And they will be watching us too.”
“We’ll need to create an opportunity somehow.” Meron replied adjusting her ponytail, it felt greasy and she longed to wash her hair.
Clearly reading her mind Meers spoke, “We could all do with a chance to freshen up first; this place has running water. Then maybe we can go take a look around.”
Running her hands over her own close-cropped head, Ty looked to the ceiling, “hall-e-lujah!”
After a brief respite the crew of the Achilles gathered in the foyer near a tiered fountain that bubbled over. Given such rare access to water, everyone had taken the opportunity to have a wash; Gayle was impressed that they almost passed as respectable.
“So any ideas how we can get past this green zone?” Meron said.
Gayle, watching beads of water drip from her still-damp hair onto her neck, shrugged.
Meers began slowly, “There are guards everywhere, and cameras too; it’s not going to be easy.”
“Maybe we can thump some guards and take their passes?” Ty suggested acting out the action with her fist.
Meron shook her head, “That will attract attention, we need a more subtle approach.” Leaning over the fountain she squeezed water out of her hair.
“We need information or help, maybe a bar or club?” Gayle said.
As they talked the maid who had been dismissed earlier return to the fountain carrying a jug, she smiled meekly at the group but kept her eyes lowered. Gayle noted that she kept glancing over her shoulder; he guessed she was checking for her employer.
“Leave this ta me,” With a wink Weavel sidled up beside her as she held the jug into the fountain, “Hello me dear, Saran isn’t it? Don’t happen to know where we might find a bar around these parts?”
“Yeah, a place to drink – preferably alcohol.” Weavel continued putting an arm around her shoulder.
She shrunk back from him, “Alcohol is illegal here.”
Meers nodded, “Most things are illegal here; I’ve never seen a bar the times I’ve visited Sedna.”
“Yeah but where there is a need there is a supplier.” Weavel replied grinning smugly.
“It is illegal but not impossible to find,” Saran said in a low voice. “There is a place you can get it.”
“Could you show us the way there?” Meron asked.
A worried frown wrinkled her forehead, “There are many troublesome men there.” She shook her head, “I don’t know.”
“Trouble is relative,” Meron replied.
“Yeah, and you always seem to find the worst kind.” Gayle mumbled. He noticed the woman smelled faintly of lavender.
The woman pursed her lips as if she were holding back. “ Maybe I can take you there, but you must promise to do something for me.”
Meron looked at her confused, “What can we do for you?”
As she leaned in close a sudden burst of emotion coloured her face, “You can take me and my son from this place. We have been trapped here since the war ended!”
“You’ve been here twenty years?” Meers’ mouth fell agape, “I thought no outsiders were allowed to stay on Sedna?”
“There are many refugees who fled here from unprotected ice mines in the Kuiper Belt, but we are all kept in the green zone. They don’t like us mixing with the true citizens and they don’t want us to leave in case we know too much and so they use us as slave labour.” Saran hissed.
“Well,” Meron considered, “I suppose we can squeeze in another two. Though Achilles is rapidly becoming a haven for the homeless.” She cast a dubious eye over the rabble that surrounded her.
The maid nodded with relief, “Thank you, thank you! I will tell my master that I need to take some sheets to the laundry, I can then show you the way.”
In the main passage there was a steady flow of people passing by who gave them a wide berth. Gayle looked at their out-dated styles, to him it was like dropping back in time to see his grandparents; He could still see his gramps in his best overalls with the high boots and utilitarian beret.
Saran led them through a series of tunnels that gradually became smaller and narrower, eventually the way became unmarked by signs which suggested to Gayle that these were areas that didn’t officially exist. The passages became roughly hewn from the ice and doorways were little more than cracks in the walls.
Sarah explained, “Sedna is riddled with natural cracks and crevices that extend for miles. The colony has encroached upon them and those who have the will, or no other option, have found a way to survive in them. But they are not well known by Icarus Command.”
“I imagine that if we take a wrong turn down here we may never find our way out too.” Gayle paused; he hastily rearranged his face to conceal his worry.
“Cheer up Gayle, if it comes to that I’ll be happy to cut your throat for you.” Ty offered, passing him in the narrow passage. Gayle wasn’t entirely sure if she was joking.
A few more turns and they came upon a narrow point where it was only possible to pass in single file. As they stepped forward to enter it a man appeared out of an unseen crevice.
“Halt!” The man held a blaster close to his side. “What do you lot want?”
Saran held up a hand, “We are a looking for the place to drink.”
The man circled them with a critical eye, picking at their clothes which marked them as outsiders, “Why are you on Sedna?”
Meron stepped forward, “We dropped off a load of electronic parts today in exchange for velumium – we’re waiting for it to be loaded and thought in the mean time we might see the sights, get a drink – but it seems like it’s kind of hard to get a good drop around here?”
The man spent a few more seconds examining and prodding them but eventually seemed satisfied that they were not from Command and waved them forward, “Well, you’ve come to the right place. You’ll find just about every drop of poison you might fancy here.”
About twenty yards along the passage turned abruptly back on itself, at that point Gayle noted a heavy portcullis raised into the ceiling. He guessed that it could be brought down with a moment’s notice, allowing those on the inside time to escape if unwanted visitors turned up.
The passage turned another sharp corner and then abruptly opened into a dimly lit bar, not unlike many holes-in-the-wall that Gayle had in his time visited across the system.
Immediately catching Gayle’s eye was a long bar extending along the length of the right-hand wall and stacked haphazardly behind it, on dirty ice shelves, were cheap varieties of the usual suspects – Bourbon, Scotch and vodka. To the left down a few stairs were a scattering of shoddy tables and behind them in a semicircle were a number of booths where shadowy figures shifted in the gloom.
A wiry dark-skinned man, leaning over the bar gave them a discomforting sneer. “s’pose you all want a drink then?”
Gayle moved forward and drew out a crusty-looking cash card he had, he had no idea how many credits he had left on it.
“We don’t take colonial credit – that shit ain’t no good out here. You can pay with gold or jewellery or anything else I deems to be of value,” the man drawled casting an appraising eye over the crew. He pointed across the bar at Meron, “That there ring there will do.”
Meron pulled her hand back self-consciously, “That’s not for sale.”
Gayle stepped in front of her and drawing a token out of his pocket tossed it on the bar, “I’m sure that will be to your liking.”
The man picked up the circular piece and examined it, then held it up to his eye. A crude smile grew across him face, “a nudeNook – nice.”
“A nudeNook? You dirty little thief!” Weavel sniggered like a schoolboy. ”You’ve been holding out on me!”
“What? Don’t look at me like that!” Gayle shrugged, “A fella gets lonely in space – a little holo company goes a long way.”
Meron shook her head and pushed past between the two men, “get me a brandy.”
Ty snatched a bottled of unknown amber-coloured liquor from the barman’s hand and Gayle grabbed a clutch of shot glasses following the others as they headed for a booth at the far end of the room.
Ty took a whiff of the whiskey, shrugged then haphazardly splashed the whiskey into the shot glasses, spilling some onto the table in the process. She grabbed one of the shots and poured the contents down her throat in one swift motion. “Mwah, I needed that!” She shook her head and slammed the empty glass down on the table.
Gayle took a shot too, held it to his nose and closed his eyes enjoying the smell. It wasn’t a quality drop but a few weeks in space without squat to drink cured him off any pickiness. He took a swig and let it burn its way down to his stomach.
The barman arrived with a dusty, label-less bottle and a pair of bulbous glasses, “I got no brandy but I found this old thing out back.”
Meron pulled off the cork with a satisfying plonk. She took a whiff and immediately flinched back from the pungent aroma, “I think it’s Cognac.”
Gayle leaned over and breathed it in, “Yeah, that’s the stuff. My mama used to drink it to keep warm when my Pa couldn’t.” He was about to snap it from her fingers and take a swig when she drew it away.
“Ewww, I think I’ve heard enough about your family, how about we just stick to the program.” She half-smiled.
“I don’t know, these people don’t look like the know how to get to the next zone.” he replied.
Saran’s eyes widened with concern, “You wish to go to the Yellow Zone? I thought you just wanted to drink?”
Weavel grinned, “Well that ain’t a lie but we also wanted to find a way into the heart of this place. We thought a bar was a good place to ask around.”
Saran shook her head and whispered, “You must be crazy, no outsiders can get beyond the green zone, those who try disappear or die trying. Why would you want to go down there anyway?”
The crew of the Achilles glanced cagily at one another.
Meron spoke, “That’s not something we’re at liberty to say. Frankly, it’s probably better you don’t know.”
Saran looked glumly at the table, “You’ll be killed and I will lose my way off this prison.”
“If we don’t complete our mission we’ll all be killed anyway.” Meron replied.
Saran considered this for a few seconds before she spoke, “There are many passages through the ice, natural crevices. I have heard that it is possible to travel downward into the yellow zone undetected through these but you will need to find a guide or you would become hopelessly lost.”
Weavel piped in, “This is my area of expertise, I’ll go speak with the barman, he may know someone.”
Saran clutched his arm, “He will not like your questions.”
Meron nodded, “Gayle, go with him.”
“Aye, aye Captain,” he gave a mock salute.
The barman was wiping down the tables in the centre of the bar when they approached. He turned as they reached him,“What do two want?”
“We just want a quick word Mister.” Weavel replied, holding up his arms peaceably.
Glancing about Gayle noted several figures that he’d not seen when they came in. They were not the typical bouncer types he’d expect in a place like this, but Sedna was not your typical place.
“Say what you want, I got work to do.” He turned back to polishing the table with a hopelessly-dirty rag, though only after he nodded to one of the bouncers.
Weavel came closer, “We’re looking for a way into the Yellow Zone, undetected.”
The man turned his head slowly, “That’s the trick ain’t it. How much have you got?”
“I’m sure we can scrounge up enough between us,” Gayle mumbled.
The man looked doubtful, “Pah! You outsiders don’t know what you’re talking about. Why the hell do you want to do that? Nothing but strange fucking shit down there!”
“We got our reasons.” Gayle replied.
“I might know a guide who can show you the way… but then again I might not.” He glanced past the pair.
Gayle figured that they were being observed and when Weavel went to turn he grabbed his arm in warning. “The man’s talking with us, best give him our full attention.”
The man smiled revealing a set of perfect teeth, “You got to understand we can’t have anybody just walk in and ask about shit they shouldn’t know about. That ain’t right. We work hard to keep this place secret – we like it that way.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Weavel whimpered.
“What’s to say you ain’t a pair of Command spies, set to dig us out? Hmmm?”
“We ain’t spies.” Gayle replied.
By this time Meron and the rest of the group were being ushered to the central table by the bouncers.
“Well you sure ain’t locals, no local is fool enough to come walk in here askin’ questions.” The man sat down and indicated for them to sit down also.
Meron was escorted to sit beside them, she gave Gayle and Weavel a disparaging look that Gayle imagined would have otherwise been a verbal barrage. “All we are after is passage into the yellow zone.”
“Why the hell do you want to go there?”
Gayle could see a plan ticking over in Meron’s mind. “Look, we represent Command it is true.”
“What?” Weavel’s mouth dropped open.
“Coolands Command,” She corrected.
The man looked at her confused, “Coolands? What do they want us out here?”
Meron flicked her chin at him boldly, “Commander Sabat is an ambitious man, he seeks to take control of this facility by infiltration – we are his agents sent to seek out those who might have an interest in helping out. In return those who do will be richly rewarded.”
Gayle tried to hide his expression; it was a bold bluff to say they were agents of Sabat. Everyone knew Sabat was a ruthless thug and a lackey of Meyconte. He was the kind of man whose reputation preceded him, even in this isolated place.
The man ground his teeth, “It’s true Sabat is jealous of the rich resources under our ice. Such an alliance might be good. Good if I knew it were true.”
Meron pulled her comDev out and laid it on the table, “Look at my messages and you will see that I have contact direct from Meyconte’s destroyer.”
A bouncer with widely spaced eyes and impossibly large hands fumbled with her device; somehow he quickly found the message from Meyconte relaying the information that had allowed Achilles to intercept Meers’ vessel. The man grunted and flash it and handed it to his boss.
“So, maybe you are agents of Sabat after all.” The man’s attitude relaxed and he regarded them with shrewd eyes. “Perhaps we can do business.”
Meron nodded, “Commander Sabat will be pleased, Mr—?”
“People call me Kode and I expect I will be well paid.” He grinned.
“The Commander will need strong people he can trust to take over, when the time comes.”
Gayle played along, “Naturally he’ll look to men like you to lead.”
“Hear that boys, Kode gonna be the boss of this icy piece of shit!” This caused a ripple of laughter through the room.
Meron raised a steady hand, “One step at a time. First we need to infiltrate the base and find the weak points – places to gain access to the inner sanctum.”
“Don’t worry, we got maps.” Kode snapped his fingers and another of his men appeared and handed him an antique comDev the size of a brick.
“Transfer the map to her comDev,” He ordered and in a few seconds Meron’s ComDev blinked to life. “The zones are clearly marked in their colours – green, yellow, orange and red. You’ll find our crag-ways marked in grey, as far as we know Icarus Command doesn’t know about them so you should be safe from them if you stick to them.”
Meron nodded flicking through the maps, “These are perfect.”
“Don’t get too excited, there’s a time limit on these maps, they expires in three days – after that they will self-erase. I gotta protect my assets see.”
Meron smiled, “Naturally.”
“I’ll tell you, it ain’t no picnic in the lower zones. There’s some freaky shit goes on down there,” Kode warned. “This place ain’t like the rest of the system. When you trap a city of people in one place for a couple of hundred years they go a little…weird.”
“I got it.” Meron replied.
“Oh yeah, there are other bosses like me in the crag-ways – some may not be so friendly,” he paused. “So I can’t guarantee you safe passage beyond my patch.“
Kode pulled off a crude necklace that looked like dog tags, “Take this and show it to anyone who challenges you, it’s a token of a loose alliance I have with some of the other bosses, I don’t think it counts for much but it might stop them killin’ you straight up. I’ll escort you myself to the edge of the yellow zone but from there you’re on your own.”
“Thanks, you can count on the Commander’s gratitude for your help.”
Kode got up from his chair and tossed her the necklace, “Yeah well, do me a favour –survive so I can collect on that promise.”