Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Kerby Dewbre
I froze, and quickly scanned the dusty red Martian landscape. The sound had been barely perceptible, a breath, silk on silk. Without my nano augmentations, I wouldn’t have heard it. I didn’t see anything as my goggles whirred and focused, clearly showing me the empty desert for miles around.
Odd. I thought. I know I heard something.
Just to make sure, I switched my goggles over to Infrared. The Martian terrain suddenly jumped to a 3D map of reds, greens and blues, showing me the various temperature differences of the desert. Nothing. I switched the goggles back to normal, took one more precautionary look, and resumed my hike. After all, I had to make it to the Machinists Hall by sundown.
I neither heard nor saw anything else in my trek, though I turned all my cybernetically enhanced senses to discovering what had made that quiet sound. I turned up my hearing augmentations until the sound of my beating heart made it impossible to hear anything. My goggles whirred and shifted, zooming and focusing constantly. The nano microchips sewn into the fabric of my boots and gloves and plugged into my surgically implanted cybernetic nervous system constantly took soil, temperature and pressure reading, feeding them to the heads up display in my mask. I didn’t detect a single living organism within a hundred mile radius. Not surprising, here in the barren outback of Mars. The colonists all lived in close knit, sealed domes, rarely roaming more than a few miles from their home colonies, and even then traveling in sealed convoys on marked highways, miles away from where I was. The only thing out here was the Machinists Hall, and I still had quite a ways to go before I reached them.
The Machinists. I shuttered. Nearly everyone on Mars had some form of augmentation. A cybernetic nervous system with its nano outlets was necessary to operate most things on Mars. But the Machinists had taken cybernetic enhancements to the extreme, replacing whole limbs with cybernetic constructs. I had heard of machinist replacing the entire nervous system with a cybernetic one, to “become one with the machines.” One Machinist had reportedly replaced his heart with a silent pump and secluded himself away, in order to listen to the earth moving beneath him.
I spun around, swinging the battle stave I carried from back to the ready position. I knew the sound had been close behind, was sure of it. But only barren red rock greeted me. I shifted my goggles to view in full spectrum, from Infrared to Ultraviolet, and scanned the area. Nothing. What was going on?
I slung my battle stave back around, and turned to run for the Machinists Hall.
The Machinists Hall rose up out of the Martian desert like a behemoth in some long dead sea. Built from jet black metal that could not be scratched by blade or claw and withstood even high powered blasters, the Machinists Hall was a fortress of technology. I walked up to the immense doors
cut into the west side of the Hall and gently touched the door. Somewhere deep inside, goliath gears turned ponderously, and the doors silently opened on oiled hinges. Standing in darkness of the massive entry hall, a Meta waited for me.
“Greetings, Master Talvor,” the Meta chattered at me. “You are expected.”
Of course I was.
“Lead the way,” I told it.
The Meta nodded and turned to lead me deeper into the fortress. As we walked, I studied the Meta. I had only ever seen one other Meta, traveling with a Machinist to repair colony vent systems. The Meta were not human, though they looked. This one Looked like a young human, perhaps sixteen, wearing an air mask. But the air masks where not necessary indoors. I had unhooked mine, and it was hanging on my belt. On closer inspection of the Meta, you could see that the mask was flat, rather than contoured for a face, and the air hose went in straight under the Meta’s chin. In its sleeveless work overalls, you could see that the Meta’s skin was a blotchy mix of metal and flesh whirring with augmentations far beyond those of even a Machinist. The Meta where grown in vats deep beneath the Hall, and implanted with cybernetic augments before they were fully formed, born more machine than man. The Meta could not leave the Machinists Hall without being within ten feet of a Machinist, or their life support systems failed. I shuttered again. The things freaked me out.
The Meta stopped at an iron door that I almost missed. It knocked respectively, opened the door and motioned for me to go in. As I stepped through the door, the Meta shut it behind me.
Standing in front of a large holo-screen, surveying the shifting Martian landscape, was tall man dressed in a billowing great coat. As he reached up to manipulate the screen, I caught a glimpse of a claw like, four-fingered hand that spun and whirred as the Machinist folded the holo-screen. The Machinist turned toward me, showing a face that was half metal and half flesh.
“Avorn Talvor,” He said, his voice an odd mix of static and speech. “I am Corm, Secondary Machinist to the Prime.”
I bowed and replied, “My greetings, Machinist Corm.”
He returned my bow with much whirring and clicking. When he looked back up, he said in a disappointed tone, “You should have been here an hour ago. What took so long?”
“With all due respect, Machinist, but how can you know the exact hour I left my colony?”
“You should have left immediately after the air lock shut you out, instead of loitering around like a fool.” His expression was a flat mask, but his voice betrayed impatience.
I thought about what he said, and realized the implications. “You locked me out of my colony,” I
accused him. “You wanted me here. Why?”
“Because we have a need for your unique abilities,” Corm replied, as though it where an obvious answer.
“You need a Bounty Hunter?” I starred at the Machinist incredulously.
“Yes,” he said, humor leaking into his voice at my surprise. “We need you to find the Martians.”
I almost laughed in his face. The Martians? The original Martians? He must be crazy. The original Martians had disappeared shortly after the first men landed here and set up a base. They were assumed to be extinct. And now a Machinist wanted me to find them?
The Machinist seemed to read my mind. He handed me electronic file. “We have discovered evidence that the Martians may not have died out. Instead they are merely hiding.”
I pressed the file, and a series of pictures glowed into view. I selected one and it magnified. It was an image of a tall, thin being with long arms, dressed in a flowing robe. It seemed to be transparent, one side more so than the other, as though it were fading out. I could see the red Martian sand through the being.
“As you can see, Martian is in an ethereal state,” Corm said
“So it’s…….What? A ghost?” I didn’t know what to make of the image.
“No. We believe that the Martians can travel across dimensions. This is an image of one crossing out of our dimension once it realized our cameras could see it. It wasn’t quite fast enough.”
I flicked through the other pictures. Some were obviously security images, like the first one, but with less detail. Others were taken with hand held cameras, or were frozen goggle images. All of them showed a transparent figure dressed in flowing robes, but most of them were obviously different beings, of varying heights and thicknesses. I looked up at the machinist. “How am I supposed to hunt something that travels across dimensions?”
“We have been working on an experimental device that we will implant at the base of your skull, near your cyber cortex, that should allow you to travel across dimensions and distance the way the Martians seem to.”
“Experimental? Should? What kind of risk am I taking if I do this?” I demanded.
“We have successfully transported a prototype across dimensions, but we were unable to retrieve it. Our connection was lost as it crossed over. However, you will be traveling with the device, thus maintaining the connection.” The Machinist seemed sure of this. Then again, The Machinists always seemed sure. “If you agree to the surgery, we will allow you to keep the implant, and we will provide you with enough credits to live comfortably for life.”
Now that was tempting. An augmentation that would allow me to travel across dimensions, plus unlimited credits. “What would I have to do?”
“Simply capture a Martian and bring it back to the Hall,” replied Corm. “We will place it in a time lock for study.”
I thought it over in my mind. This could give me the advantage I needed to become the best Bounty Hunter in the galaxy. I could become incredibly rich in a very short time. I handed the e-file back to the Machinist. “Where do I sign up?”
I was lying on my stomach with my shirt off, a gas mask on my face slowly putting me to sleep. All around me stood Machinists in white surgical coats, their cybernetic arms clicking softly as minute scalpels slid along their tracks in the Machinists fingers. My last sight was a peripheral view of Corm himself leaning down to cut into the base of my skull.
I came too slowly, blinking sleepily. I was in a dimly lit dormitory. A female Machinist was quietly cleaning the walkway between the rows of beds. When she saw I was awake she smiled softly. Her face was mostly human, only one temple plated in metal. She reached for the glass of water on the bedside table and handed it to me.
“Drink this,” she said. “I will fetch Corm.”
She left quietly. I drank the water, wetting my parched mouth. I glanced at the chronometer on the wall. Eleven hours. I had been out for eleven hours, not bad for a major surgery. I looked up when I heard footsteps in the hallway.
Corm walked into the room. “Good, you are awake. How do you feel?”
“I feel fine,” I replied. “Better than I ever have after a surgery.”
“It was fairly simple. Only two small incisions and connector installation to plug the device into your cyber cortex. You can use just as you use your other augmentations. A simple thought will activate it. You can then choose in which direction you want to travel and across how many dimensions. Simple.”
I closed my eyes and fell into the shallow meditation all augmented men were trained to fall into, and followed the electrical neuron trail into the device, making sure all of the connections lined up. I opened my eyes and smiled. “All’s well. When do I start?”
After I dressed and cleaned my battle stave, Corm led me out to where the Martian had been caught by the security camera.
“You should be fairly close to a main camp when you cross here. Most of the sightings where centered on an area a few miles from here. I believe a single dimension shift will bring you to their plane.”
“Right then,” I replied. “Wish me luck.” I triggered the transporter………and felt as though someone had reached up from the side and yanked me down and across in a rapid, jerky movement.
And I was somewhere else. It looked almost the same as the landscape I had just left, except for the fact that the color was off. The sand here shifted from a dark, blood red, to a rosy pink, and back again. Not only that, but there were odd rock formations that hadn’t been there before. I focused on one and took a step toward it……and suddenly I was at the foot of it, right where I had been heading.
Wow. That was cool. I looked up to the top of the cliff and jumped. Now I was standing on top of the formation. I grinned. This was fun. I scanned the valley below me, and hit the jackpot. From my vantage point, I could see the whole valley, and there was a large settlement of red brick houses not two miles away. I laughed at the simplicity of all this, focused on the village, and took a step.
I landed in hell. The streets were empty, devoid of life. But the air was full of voices. No, wait. My mind was full of voices. I fell to the ground, clutching at my head.
~Who dares to enter our domain?~
~Kill Him? ~
~No, use him~
~Against the humans~
Avorn Talvor stood in front of the Machinist Hall, an unconscious Martian at his feet. Corm smiled happily has he handed the Bounty Hunter a credit token, good for life.
“We truly appreciate your assistance, Master Talvor,” the Machinist said, genuinely excited. “You have no idea how much we will learn from this specimen.”
Avorn Talvor smiled slyly. “Oh, but I do.” With that, the Bounty Hunter turned and walked away into the desert, slowly fading away into the wind.
I awoke in a lab, strapped to a table. A harsh light burned my eyes. I felt afraid. Tried to shift, to travel, to cross the dimensions. I couldn’t. I tried to trace my cybernetic system, to use my augmented strength to break my bond. No cybernetics, no augmentations. What had happened?
Suddenly a dark shape blocked out the light, slowly resolved into Corm. Oh, thank God, I tried to say, Help me Corm, something’s wrong. Nothing came out.
“I see my biostatic chemical is working,” the Machinist said, half to himself, shining a light into my eyes making me track it. “No movement except the eyes, brain active. Perfect. You will make an amazing specimen.” He turned off the light and began to push me into a case in the wall. A time locker. No. No. This couldn’t be happening. I was human. Wasn’t I? No augmentations…….no device……What was happening?
The Machinist was still muttering to himself. “A perfect specimen…….just as I expected……these Martians are just exquisite beings……perfect…..perfect.”
The time lock door shut and I heard it seal. A sudden shift…….and I knew no more.