All of a sudden, Karl Valvanchi was afraid. Tall and slim with a military build, he had let his hair grow back these past six months, now it fell in white curls across his forehead, down the sides of his face and all down his back in a short thick mane. Karl was Zaracan, an exceptional soldier with advanced telepathic powers, there was no good reason for him to be afraid, but he was. From the raised platform he looked out over the burning buildings. Offices and workshops were all aflame and liquid fuel had been sprayed on so they would burn until they were blackened husks. Yet like the thousands of buildings before, these would burn in vain. Nothing more than a last desperate attempt to slow the advance of plague-bearing insects, known to dislike heat and smoke, yet still they came. The only real defence was the shimmering wall of fire through which Karl looked. Karl glanced up at the silver dome as it reached high into the sky and then down to the cube-like generator, and its accompanying trailer of brown crystalline monazite. What if the generators broke down? What if the monazite ran out? The firewall would fail, and plague would spread with impunity across the planet. These were the nightmare scenarios that haunted Karl’s every waking hour. Over seventy thousand people had died and more would die unless…
Karl looked behind him at the suited men at his back. He had handpicked these twelve from over sixty volunteers. They were all exceptional soldiers with a minimum of five years space combat experience and no families. Karl could have chosen from a pool of talent ten times larger if he had not been firm on this one stipulation: no families. There were also six huge Battle Borgs for the heavy lifting. The Borgs were the fearsome vanguard of the Dome Elite. Heroes who had died in battle resuscitated to live a second brief life as defenders of the Empire The days of their second life were counted down by the blackening of their remaining human limbs, and the cracking, flaking, falling flesh that had been their human bodies. Brave ruthless and bold, early in the crisis, the Borgs had been used exclusively in the plague zone but their reactions proved unreliable. Human instinct for survival was essential in life and death situations, so now all missions were led by humans.
As he watched, three huge trucks rolled forwards, it was time. Karl moved with smooth, swift paces down the stair and did not look back. He waved his men forward, closed his visor and twisted his gloves closed into his protection suit and jogged on. He ran towards the wall of shimmering fire and called for the door to be opened. At his approach, it opened like a circular door. Karl jogged on, the suited men at his back, and as the door opened wide, the three trucks followed. All at once they had passed through the firewall and into the plague zone. They checked their equipment; there was no sign of any plague insects in the immediate vicinity. Only one of the men glanced behind, as the door closed in a spiral of fire.
Following a map projected inside his visor, Karl led his men forward at a trot. His first destination was not far. They found the double metal door leading down to the cellar and it had been blocked closed by stones and beams. The Battle Borgs were quick to clear these large obstructions and more borgs ran up with a large black box marked with the gold insignia of the Dome painted on one side. Inside the crate was a neatly folded fabric structure. The four soldiers, who had brought the case, reached in to take the four corners of what looked like a fabric tunnel. They pulled it out and spread it over the double doors, then, the fabric started to inflate. In an instant, a huge inflatable dome had exploded above the door to create an inflated igloo the size of a room and inside stood Karl Valvanchi.
“Secure,” cried one man.
Now Karl bent over the double door and pulled it open. He dragged out bundles of cloth that had been pushed up against the door and using a long knife cut through further layers of clothes that had been pinned up on the door. He now jumped aside as another blade cut upwards, followed soon after by a man’s dirty hand. Within moments, Karl was pulling the man up out of the tunnel and into the inflatable protection zone.
“There,” he said on greeting the first man and he pointed to a rack of survival suits with clear signs above them for sizes and shapes. The man ran to pull one on. Now more people are climbing up out of the cave. Karl helped them up and he counted them as they came in. He pointed each one to the survival suits.
“Fifteen,” he said at last and sighed. There were only fifteen survival suits and he now saw two more families, nine people in total clambering up out of the tunnels and into the protection igloo. “Ok, wait here,” He said to the two families. Karl took a moment to check the fifteen suited individuals, then said, “You fifteen, move outside. The Elite will show you the quickest route to the safe zone.”
“We want to go, too.” A young unsuited boy objected.
“No,” Karl said to the family. “You will wait here and we will bring you survival suits. It won’t take long.” Karl was already dialling up the instructions, a door opened in the inflatable and the entire structure trembled. Karl stood alongside the door, holding it almost closed, as the suited individuals climbed out.
“We could run,” the boy protested. “Really, I’m fast. Fast as Guy Erma they say.”
Karl smiled but restrained the boy with a firm hand, “Wait.”
The Dome Elite closed up the inflatable from the outside. It was strangely serene inside the small space, and they heard nothing as high above a burning beam shook loose and in falling dislodged a cascade of rocks. Even as Karl turned towards the noise he saw the first of the trucks engulfed in flaming debris. The soldiers were scattering pulling open doors to free their colleagues from the fire. Even as Karl moved so he could have a better view, he felt a shadow and looked up and saw a slab of stone arching directly towards him. Next the inflatable igloo was collapsing in. As the material melted or was ripped, the structure exploded outwards. Karl and two families were standing unprotected in the plague zone.
“Run,” yelled Karl. There was no other choice. One of the women wanted to climb aboard a truck, but the debris was raining down all around and the rocks were exploding near to the tires.
“No,” Karl cried, he reached down to grab the woman but she had pulled open the door of the truck to lift her two children inside.
“Maybe she as right,” thought Karl. Locked inside the cab, they would be safe from the plague and perhaps protected from the fire and burning rocks as well. He turned to the remaining survivors:
“Let’s run.” As Karl reached the corner, he heard an enormous crash and explosion. More falling masonry had fallen onto the truck, its outer padding was burning and suited soldiers were lifting the woman and her children back out of the cab. Karl waved them forward then headed on, leading his own survivors to safety. He raced up to the spiral door and with relief, the five survivors willingly stripped and abandoned their clothing, shoes and belonging and dived naked through the circular opening to the other side. They would be quarantined, washed and shaved and their blood tested. Then they would be incarcerated for five days but if they were clear of plague, they would be free.
Karl turned back to the last woman and two small children; she was running and stumbling forward with two soldiers on either side, each carrying the infants. Karl sprinted forward to help but even as he did, a deadly spiral of plague flies curved down from the right. The flies were drawn to the smell of animal flesh. On Karl’s visor, they appeared like green wisps of clouds. He saw the woman looking up, she had no visual clue to the plague, perhaps she had heard the low drone of their approaching wings.
Now Karl was sprinting as fast as he could. He handed the second child to two of his men and yelled for them to run. Then, taking the woman by the waist, Karl propelled her forward. Ahead of them, the soldier with the smallest child was arriving at the spiral door. Taking a moment to rip the child’s clothes from its body, he pushed it through the opening. At Karl’s side, the woman stumbled and fell. Karl bent to help her up but his helmet was ringing with alarm and his vision was blurred. Plague flies were all around spiralling down to the woman. Instead of rising from the ground, she fell back; her face and arms freckled with red spots, a multiplicity of bites. Suddenly all of her flesh seemed red and flushed her eyes bloodshot and bleeding. Karl stood over her, knowing there was nothing he could do and trying not to pay too much heed to the dials and chart that told him his suit was still safe. The insects spiralled up and around him; he glanced over his shoulder to see the second child had also made it through. Just the mother was dead. Only one, he told himself, only one. Yes, but she was a mother, another voice reminded him.
The soldiers regrouped around him.
“Where are the others?” Karl said after a quick headcount.
“Three dead, two suits were ripped. We still have one truck.”
“So we carry on,” Karl said. “We saved as many as we could, now we must get the generator.”
There was silence as they ran on. The last truck had been reversed away from the burning buildings and they followed a longer route to their second destination. Within the great fire-dome, they came upon a second fire-dome. This had been an earlier, smaller protection dome. It had been sufficient, Karl reminded himself, even sixty days ago but the plague had found a way through as always.
The generator was buried by a half-wrecked building but the wheels were intact and as the last truck rolled into position, it looked like it was possible to pull the machine free. The soldiers and borgs moved forward quickly and efficiently. Karl stood back and tried to assess the rubble in the building above.
“Move slowly,” he ordered.
It was a risk but they needed this generator. Alongside he saw a truck full of monazite, essential as fuel. He gave the order and two of the soldiers ran towards it, climbed into the cab, and finding the engine worked, they revved the engine and let the machine and its precious cargo move away. The slight roar of the engine caused a high stone pillar to crumble and fall. Karl hesitated. He had hoped to remove one generator in such a way as the smaller dome would shrink. He had hoped to capture and constrain some of the plague flies within a smaller dome but as they pulled the generator free, the shimmering firewall was setting fire to a high building and more debris was starting to fall. A large window crashed nearby in an explosion of glass. The men looked at Karl. He only had one truck left to pull the generator free. He could not afford for it to be crushed by falling masonry.
“Ok, switch it off.” The command was given. There was a whining noise as the generator started to wind down, then all at once with a cough and a splatter, the dome firewall evaporated and a rippling whoosh of wind between the inner and outer areas. This was unexpected but then no one had ever switched off a generator before. Before Karl had time to think, the building above him started to sway, it could not possibly hold.
“Everyone get out of here.” The Borgs had been pushing the generator towards the truck, now joined by Karl and all the others and sweating, they heaved the generator out from amidst rocks and one huge cyborg with mechanical arms hooked it onto the tow truck. The truck now gunned its engines. Karl, his men and the borgs leapt up onto the moving truck and generator and the convoy started to move smoothly away and quickly picked speed.
A slight roar of engines was enough to set the fragile building crumbling but Karl and his men were clear. Karl looked back to check, yes, all were accounted for. His visor, however, was still sounding as a strident alarm. Rising from the previously enclosed area was a spiral of plague flies and their hum, distinct and fear to produce, was loud enough for Karl to hear it through his helmet unaided. As Karl watched, the spiral rose like a tornado and from all around, like wisps of smoke great trails of plague flies joined the spiral so the tornado expanded and grew. Even as the truck he clung to accelerated away, the column of plague flies he was looking at grew ever larger and larger until it stretched so high it appeared to brush up against the top of the fire dome. Indeed, a shower of tiny blackened corpses fell down. Karl realized the flies were testing the top of the defensive fire dome and dying in their attempts to pass through.
The shimmering firewall now appeared to be but an ephemeral thing, barely a protection shield at all. How long could it hold, really? It was Zaracan technology, of course, all of the generators. As for monazite, it was a rare brown crystal which when heated created helium coolant needed to keep the generators burning. But likes the generators, this essential coolant came from outside the Empire, the people of Freyne were extremely vulnerable, their very survival beholden to the goodwill of external powers. Karl switched on a private calls channel and said:
“Tell Teodor, we need more monazite and more generators.
He should do whatever it takes to get them.
Whatever it takes.”