Read World of Fire (Dev Harmer 01) Online
Authors: James Lovegrove
Tags: #Science Fiction
The door had been blown open by the pressure of the cave-in. Dev picked his way over to it, feet slithering on shattered rock and pieces of broken equipment.
The corridor beyond was more or less intact, although several ceiling panels hung askew and part of a ventilation duct sagged like a length of disembowelled intestine.
Dev passed an open doorway to a chamber containing an upright plexiglass cylinder large enough to accommodate a person. Large enough, indeed, to have accommodated
The growth vat. Womb to the artificially engineered host form he was walking around in.
The glass was cracked and the nutrient solution inside was leaking out. A yellowish puddle was spreading, like spilled amniotic fluid. ISS would not be pleased that one of their nightmarishly expensive body-generating machines was trashed. They’d probably be upset about Junius Bilk too, but nowhere near as much. Personnel were more readily replaceable than cutting-edge proprietary technology.
Another door, marked
, was code-locked. Bilk would have known the code, but he wasn’t giving up any secrets now. Dev had no access to weapons for the time being. A setback, but not insurmountable.
He checked the equipment lockers and found what he was looking for: a backup transcription matrix, intact. That was something. He had a ticket out of here, when the time came. Spaceship flight was always an option, if push came to shove, but data ’porting, ISS’s preferred method for relocating their operatives, was swifter and more direct. Unless you were shifting objects of greater mass than an electron stream, ultraspace trumped infraspace every time.
An aftershock shuddered around him.
Time to get going. It was surely safer outdoors than in.
He slipped the keratin-derivative cap on his head, just in case.
He emerged from the front entrance of the ISS outpost, finding himself on a paved esplanade. Citizens of Calder’s Edge milled around, conversing anxiously with one another or communing silently via commplant with friends and relatives elsewhere, reassuring their loved ones that they were okay. Alarm and consternation showed on every face, along with an aggrieved weariness.
The outpost was situated hard against one wall of the cavern, atop a small plateau. The view from here was panoramic and remarkable, and Dev would have paused to take it in but for the fact that he had narrowly escaped death a moment ago and had no wish to hang around near a building left potentially very unstable by the earthquake.
He moved out across the esplanade, still stumbling a little as he acclimatised to the host form’s proportions. Only when he reached the railing at the edge did he stop to survey the scenery.
Calder’s Edge occupied a cavern as large as any he had ever seen – big enough to have served as a hangar for a billion-ton goods freighter and still leave room for a few long-range gravity-drive gulf cruisers besides. The opposite end of it was almost too distant to see.
Prefab habitats rose in spiral layers on the vast natural columns that vaulted between the cavern’s roof and floor. Living quarters, mostly, by the look of them; prefab modular polygons huddling along carved-out tiers.
A maglev rail system curved between them, dual guideway runners perched on support struts. A couple of the tracks traversed a deep chasm, from which fumes softly purled. There was a strong stench of burning in the air, with a sulphurous undernote.
From the roof of the cavern itself, amid jagged stalactites the size of cathedral pillars, hung pyramidal illumination clusters. Their dusky orange glow was weak by Terratypical standards, but more than adequate for the dark-adapted Alighierian eye.
Single-storey buildings were spread out across the cavern floor. These appeared to be business and leisure units, including a number of retail parks. If the column habitats were residential, the floor-based premises were where Calder’s Edge citizens shopped and pursued recreation.
Cantilevered out over the lip of the chasm was a binary cycle geothermal power plant, harvesting energy from heat. Not far from it was another huge manufacturing structure whose purpose Dev couldn’t immediately fathom. He opened up his commplant and ran a quick search.
Ionizer anode extractor centre. Uses an electrochemical process to release oxygen from metal oxides. Turns rock into breathable air.
That would account for the three tall chimney vents that crowned it. Here were Alighieri’s lungs.
Dev turned round.
It appeared that the earthquake had caused a section of overhang on the cavern wall to shear off and plunge onto the ISS outpost and adjacent buildings. The damage was extensive, though mainly confined to the outpost itself. Windows were broken all along the row of buildings and rooftops scarred, but only the bunker belonging to ISS had actually been flattened.
Chance? Or something else?
Now, somewhat belatedly, Dev noted that there were uniformed individuals among the dazed people on the esplanade, making up a significant proportion of the total. They had high-collared tunics, well-stocked utility belts, and an aura of officiousness that not even an earthquake could put a dent in.
Law enforcement was law enforcement wherever you went in the universe. The uniforms varied to some extent, tending towards black fabric and paramilitary styling. The people who wore them, however, were a distinct, unique type. It was in their posture, their stiff-backed bearing.
ISS, in their infinite wisdom, had placed their outpost on Alighieri just a few doors down from the local police headquarters.
With dismay, Dev spotted a couple of the police officers now heading towards him across the esplanade with purposeful strides. Whether their interest in him was concern or suspicion, he couldn’t say, but he feared the latter.
He elected to stand his ground. Contact with the local gendarmes might prove useful, especially since his ISS liaison was no longer in any fit state to be of help.
“You,” said the higher-ranking of the two officers. She pointed at Dev, then crooked a finger in a curt summons.
“Saw you sneaking out of the ISS place just now.”
“I wasn’t sneaking,” Dev said.
“Looked like it to me.”
“Then you and I have very different definitions of ‘sneak,’ Officer...?”
“Kahlo. Captain Kahlo. Chief of police.”
“Right. Ah. Should I salute, or prostrate myself, or...?”
Kahlo eyed him sidelong, coolly. She had tight-bobbed hair, a jutting jawline, and large, dark eyes set beneath a high forehead. She was not only strikingly pretty, but looked smart and capable, which to Dev were two reasons why he should tread cautiously.
“Who are you?” demanded the other police officer, a younger man, Kahlo’s subordinate. “Don’t recognise you.”
Kahlo interrupted. “I think, Sergeant Stegman, that this is none other than the ISS so-called ‘consultant’ whose arrival we were told to expect. Judging by the state of him, all tattered and covered in dust, he only just made it out of that building alive. Where’s Junius Bilk?”
“He didn’t,” Dev said. “Make it out alive, I mean.”
“Pity. I liked him. Good kid, though not very bright. Failed the police exams, but he thought ISS was the next best thing. As I say, not very bright. I’m just scribing an internal memo.”
Her eyes defocused as she activated her commplant.
“Send someone round to Bilk’s parents’ place to break the news. Also requesting a coroner’s retrieval unit to this location. Okay, done. Now then – name?”
“Harmer. Dev Harmer.”
“Welcome to Alighieri, Mr Harmer,” Kahlo said with a humourless quirk of her lips. She threw a glance back at the outpost. “I should point out that we don’t normally drop several tons of rock on top of everyone who comes here. Just the special guests.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Her expression hardened. “We also don’t take strangers at their word when they tell us who they are. You could be Interstellar Security Solutions; equally, your intentions towards Calder’s Edge and its community could be hostile. We won’t know until we’ve checked you out.”
This. Dev had been afraid of exactly this. He had seen it coming.
“Sergeant Stegman? Let’s take Mr Harmer in for questioning. Cuff him, but keep your mosquito handy in case he resists arrest. He won’t, if he’s got any sense.”
From his utility belt Stegman produced both a pair of smartcuffs and a compressed-air incapacitator gun loaded with tiny soluble neurotoxin darts.
“I’d be obliged if you’d come quietly, sir.”
Jurisdictional bullshit. That was all it was. Indigenous police not liking outside agencies on their turf. Feeling that their toes were being trodden on. Wanting to assert who was boss round these parts.
Bilk, were he still alive, could doubtless have smoothed over any difficulties. He at least had been a native, a known quantity, even if he
chosen to align himself with a little-loved private security firm. They would have listened to him.
Clearly Dev, in Kahlo’s opinion, needed taking down a peg, and she was appointing herself the woman to do it.
Well, two could play at that game.
Besides, this host form needed putting through its paces. Dev had no idea of its limitations, what it was and wasn’t capable of.
So he turned and ran.
LMOST IMMEDIATELY HE
learned that short legs and dense muscle mass do not a sprinter make. Quite the reverse. Each stride he took was about three quarters as long as he would have liked or hoped, and clumsy. It was more a lope than a run.
At least Kahlo and Stegman were labouring under the same constraints. Neither stood much above five feet tall, and both were broadly built. On paper, they were no faster than him.
The difference was, they were used to their Alighierian physiques, whereas Dev was a novice.
Soon they were gaining on him, Kahlo to the fore. People scattered out of their path.
Dev charged past some sort of municipal ornament, half-sculptural, half-horticultural: an arrangement of gigantic luminous fungi, cultivated with artful precision. Toadstool-shaped, some of them twice the height of a man, the fungi glowed lilac, peppermint and aquamarine.
He swerved behind this, then halted. He found he was sweating profusely, his mouth dry as a bone.
Less efficient thermoregulation
, Bilk had said.
Try not to overtax yourself aerobically
Too late to worry about that right now.
Kahlo followed him round the back of the ornament, not expecting to find him waiting. Her reactions were fast but not fast enough. Dev grabbed her wrist and twisted it round, levering her arm up behind her back. Kahlo bent double, forced down by the compliance hold.
An ordinary civilian would have been rendered helpless, but Kahlo had had training. She seized Dev’s ankle with her free hand and jerked his foot out from under him. She was startlingly, spectacularly strong.
Thrown off-balance, Dev lost control of the wristlock. Kahlo came up immediately with a palm-heel strike to his chin. He jerked his head aside to evade the blow, but she had anticipated this. In the same movement she brought her arm round the back of his neck and bore down.
Now Dev was the one bent double, and Kahlo was repositioning herself to get her other arm under his throat so that she could choke him into submission.
Dev jabbed an elbow into the back of her knee. Kahlo sagged forward, her grip on his neck loosening a little, just enough for him to tug his head free.
Kahlo went for a shin stamp, a classic but predictable attack, hoping to incapacitate him with pain. He turned his leg so that her instep scraped his calf – unpleasant, but not crippling.
His response was to seize her thumb and turn it back against its base joint, sharply enough to elicit a hiss of pain from her, but stopping short of actually dislocating the digit.
Kahlo refused to be beaten. She lunged, driving her head into Dev’s stomach and partially winding him. Dev applied greater pressure to her thumb. He could feel tendons straining, close to snapping. Kahlo merely growled, transmuting pain to fury.