The Golden Key

A thrilling science fiction adventure

A stagnating colony many light-years from Earth has known no outside contact for almost a century.

An obscure professor thinks there might be a threat to the colony – but he’s vanished.

An agent is dispatched from the orbital Platform above the planet Tormost III – an unusual young woman called Phoenix – tasked with  finding  the missing professor while protecting the secrets of the Platform – and her own.

What is the danger that haunts the tunnels beneath the city, and can the Colony survive it?

Excerpt from The Golden Key

A science-fiction thriller. Copyright © David Wallace 2019

Prologue

The elderly man made his way purposefully down a tunnel, humming softly to himself.   He held a torch in one hand to illuminate the path ahead, and a notebook in the other that carried the logo of Beckland University.  He was wary of slipping – this was a storm drain tunnel – but the floor was dry, smooth and clean.  He wondered a little at that.  Was it drier, smoother and cleaner than the last time he had passed this way?  He rather thought it was but was not sure what that meant.  Perhaps the absence of moisture explained the behavior of the rats?

He checked the time on his wristwatch and estimated the distance he had covered.  Pausing, he made a quick record in the notebook and shifted his shoulder bag from one side to the other, before continuing forward.  A few minutes more brought him to the side-tunnel he had sought.  Another time check, another note, and he turned to his left and carried on.  This was now virgin territory, at least to him.

He thought he heard something up ahead.  He stopped walking and humming, and let the sound of his own footsteps, echoing along the tunnel, fade away.  Was he imagining it?  No – there it was again.  A rustling sound, from somewhere in front of him.  He lifted the torch above his shoulder to get a different angle on the light, and panned the beam from side to side, squinting up the tunnel as if that would help.  But no, he could see nothing.  He switched the torch off, plunging the tunnel into inky blackness, and stared ahead, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the absence of light.  Still, there was nothing to see.

“Imagination,” he murmured to himself.  He switched the light back on and continued walking.  It was no doubt just a rat, scurrying around in the darkness, looking for something to scavenge.

Except that he had seen no sign of rats in here today.  That was what had struck him as odd about the rats’ behavior.

When he realized that he had been slowing his pace he rebuked himself silently, and stepped out, lengthening his stride and pacing himself to the beat of the little tune he resumed humming.  But unlike before, now he was uneasy, his humming a little discordant, straining to see ahead in the torchlight as far as possible.  Another sound from somewhere in the blackness stopped him in his tracks, and he fell silent, peering all around.

“Old fool,” he muttered.  “Nothing there.”

He sighed and put it down to his imagination… and then heard it again.  He flicked the torch off again, hoping to see the glow of someone else’s progress, a city engineer, perhaps, working in the tunnels.  He again had to wait for his eyes to adjust.  And again, he could see nothing.  He told himself he was being foolish.  As everyone knew, there was nothing in the drains except foraging rats, the odd hungry cat, and the inevitable insect – none of them big enough to warrant jumpiness.  And yet … he remembered noticing how clean the main drain had been.  Now that he thought about it, this drain was also cleaner than he would have expected.  So, he wondered, has something changed the environment down here?  Perhaps a blockage that was forcing storm runoff to take a different path, making this path too barren to sustain rats and insects?  But then, what else could that odd sound be, except rats?  He berated his own foolishness, switched on the torch, and resolved to move forward.

As he took a step, there was a faint swish and a current of air against his face.  Startled, he dropped his bag and looked around.  He saw nothing, but then he felt something – a faint tickle – on top of his head.  He looked up and let out a grunt of exasperation as something cool, viscous and moist plopped onto his face.

The pain, when it came, was excruciating.

He began backing away.

He could feel a tickle, and then a stabbing, burning pain in his left ear, and shook his head but felt himself wobble, off-balance.

He stumbled from one side of the tunnel to the other, bouncing from wall to wall, clutching his face and yelling at the pain.

He wiped down from his left eye to his chin, so hard that it should have hurt his jaw, but it was nothing compared to the appalling burning in his eye socket.  Now his hand began to burn, too.  He wiped again, using his sleeve, but it did not help.  He held up his arm and looked at it in the torchlight with his right eye – his left seemed to be losing its vision.  When he saw the tiny yellow-brown spots on his old-fashioned jacket and realized what they were, he ripped off the jacket and tossed it to one side.  With a cry of despair, he rubbed harder at his face with his shirt sleeve and was appalled to see that it came away soaked by a mixture of blood and pus.

The pain was growing worse now.  The vision in his left eye was blurring and becoming a haze of colored blobs, spots, indescribable shapes.  He realized with horror that his optic nerve was being destroyed, and random neurons were firing, defeating his brain’s attempt to make sense of what was in front of him.  The torch went flying and the tunnel was plunged into blackness.  He clawed at the burning  in the eye socket and screamed with pain as his fingers probed too hard and ripped out his own eye; but the burning pain was worse than ever, and as he tried to tear the eye clear of constricting muscle and the remains of the optic nerve, he could feel the once-hard surface of his own cheekbone, crumbling under his own hands.  He dug into his left ear, trying to scrape out what was in there, but felt his fingers penetrate much further than should be possible.  Now his whole head was experiencing astonishing pain, as were his fingers, especially on the left hand where he had been trying to wipe himself.

He moaned as he realized that it was too late – it had gone too far.  He was dying, painfully and horribly.

He scrabbled at his pockets, letting out a cry of pain and surprise as a finger fell off.  But then he found the chalk.  With what remained of his consciousness, he intended to write something on the wall as a warning.  He was now so off-balance that he fell over and had to pick himself up and grope for the wall.  He found it, gripped the chalk and leaned forward to write – but could not summon the words that had been in his mind a few moments earlier.  Rats, he thought, that was it, and started to scrawl what he hoped would be legible as “rats” when searchers arrived.  In the dark, it was impossible to tell.  What about them?  He could not remember.  While he tried to think, his hand continued to move.  He realized he was writing “rats rats rats”, over and over, or at least he was trying to.  Suddenly another word popped into his mind.  “Birds”.  He tried to write that too but was no longer sure if his hand was even moving.  His consciousness was slipping away, coming back, slipping away.  He realized he was on the ground again but could not will his legs to move.  There was another flare of agony, and he screamed.  He felt his mind fading away and wondered what was happening.  He screamed again, and again, and again, and could not remember who he was, or what he was, or what was happening.  His mind was full of dark shapes and pale shadows, and his sanity was slipping.  He screamed, and screamed, and screamed but was no longer aware of doing it.

He could not hear the rustling, slithering sound as something out in the darkness closed in on him.  There was not enough brain left to process the signals from his nervous system.  The screaming was a primitive, lizard-brain reflex, that kept going until he was engulfed, his internal organs began to fail, and the only sound to be heard – had there been anyone capable of hearing – was a soft slithering, slurping noise.

And then that stopped, too.

1.  Phoenix

[Mind Link 6.29.4.103 Self-test complete.  Connecting…]

[ML: Rangemaster > Phoenix:  Ready.  Go on green.]

[ML: Phoenix > Rangemaster:  Ack.]

A slight figure stood by a closed door.  A red light strobed three times, followed by a green.  The waiting woman sprang into action, pushing through into a poorly lit room.  She saw the automatic pistol on the waist-high countertop on her left.  She swept it up into a two-handed stance and aimed downrange.  A little smile curved her lips, as she mentally corrected herself and aimed ‘on-stage’.  Since learning about the theatre, she had taken to referring to the firing range in theatrical terms: the targets were ‘actors’; bystanders were ‘extras’; the obstacles behind which ‘actors’ could dodge were ‘scenery’; and the storage areas from which ‘actors’ and ‘extras’ emerged were the ‘flies’ and the ‘wings’.  Her instructors had not said it right out, but she knew they disapproved of the inaccurate use of language.  She had decided that the theatrical analogy was strictly for her own entertainment.

Now mist was swirling in from the flies, in front of three actors, almost, but not quite, obscuring them from her view.  She was, of course, the hero – the ‘star’ of the show – and she smiled as her thumb pushed the safety off and her forefinger squeezed the trigger.  Six rapid shots, in pairs, two into each actor.  More actors rose from beneath the stage, dropped from above and swept in from the wings; her aim flicked from one to another and she squeezed off more shots, still in pairs, avoiding the extras, until her mental tally told her to switch magazines.  The empty dropped to the floor, and she swept up a fresh one from the countertop, slotting it in place and racking the slide to strip and chamber the first round with economical, well-practiced movements.  The mist thickened, and the light faded; she could hear more actors and extras popping into view but had to blink her eyes into different modes to see them, and to make sure she was hitting the former and not the latter.  She kept firing, and she kept smiling.

The pistol ran dry a second time.  She dropped it and sidestepped to her right, snatching up an automatic shotgun from the countertop.  She pressed it into her shoulder and sighted down its length, both eyes open, and squeezed off eight shots in quick succession at actors on-stage in the mist.  As she pushed shells into the weapon, she noted that the mist was being displaced by dense smoke, and the light was fading further.  She switched her sensors to active scan and continued shooting as more actors appeared.  She was concentrating too hard on targeting to be smiling now.

Again, she sidestepped, this time collecting an automatic assault rifle from the countertop and continued shooting, this time in three-round bursts.  The lights went out and alternating hot and cold gusts tried to confuse her infra-red acuity.  Again, she sidestepped, and then again, each time picking up a new weapon: a compact submachine gun; a pump-action shotgun; a sniper rifle.  Finally, she emptied a flechette pistol – only for Rangemaster to send her back down the line.

As she retraced her steps, she found fresh ammunition waiting at each position and wished she had taken the fraction of a second to do more than just drop the weapons on her first pass.  Now the range was filled with swirling smoke, loud noises and lights strobing around the visible – and some invisible – wavelengths.  She snatched up weapons, more often than not from the floor, loaded and fired, sidestepped and repeated.  The automatic pistol she had started with ran dry again and it was over.  All the lights came up, the sounds were stilled, and extractor fans began pulling the smoke and mist out of the room.  She replayed a few moments, observing her own performance, and concluded that – despite Rangemaster’s attempts to distract her – her score would be good.  The little smile returned.

[ML: Rangemaster > Phoenix: A creditable performance, Phoenix.  Speed was up, which is good.  But please take note, accuracy was down a little.  Remember, Phoenix, speed and accuracy represent a balance.  More of one tends to mean less of the other.]

[ML: Phoenix > Rangemaster:  May I have the metrics?]

[ML:  Rangemaster > Phoenix:  Hit rate was 100%, but kill rate was down, at 78%.  Collateral damage was 8%.  You hit all the targets, Phoenix, but if they had been real adversaries then one in five would have lived to fire back at you.  Almost one in twelve shots caught an innocent bystander, and that is not good.  Not good at all.]

Her smile vanished.

[ML: Phoenix > Rangemaster:  I agree, Rangemaster.  Any collateral damage is regrettable.  But you did throw a great many distractions at me.]

[ML: Rangemaster > Phoenix:  Of course I did.  You must focus on targets while filtering out distractions.  In the field, there will always be distractions.]

[ML: Control > Rangemaster; Phoenix: I regret the interruption, Rangemaster, but I need Phoenix.]

[ML: Rangemaster > Control; Phoenix:  Of course, Control.  We will resume this discussion later, Phoenix.]

The young woman pushed out through the door and began walking in the direction of her quarters.  Lights came on ahead of her in response to her presence and extinguished themselves behind.  The lights were an automated courtesy, because Phoenix could find her way around the Platform with her eyes closed.

[ML: Phoenix > Control:  What do you require, Control?]

[ML: Control > Phoenix:  I have a mission for you, which will take you below.]

“Below?  But…”  She had stopped walking.  “I am not ready.”

Control noted that she had spoken aloud but did not comment.

“Your training program is incomplete, I agree.”  Control paused.  She realized now that she had spoken aloud, and that Control was reciprocating out of courtesy.  “But you will go.  Ask yourself, who else could?”

“Of course, Control, I acknowledge your logic.  But I do not believe I can…”

“You have always been your own sternest critic, Phoenix, and in many cases, you are correct in your assessments.  However, your instructors and I have assessed your progress in the training program against the urgency of the task and concluded that it is within your capabilities.  You will learn and adapt as you proceed with the mission.”

Phoenix glared at the speaker in the ceiling ahead of her, as if it were Control himself and not simply a relay for his voice.

[ML: Phoenix > Control: I will do my best, of course, but the misgivings remain.]

[ML: Control > Phoenix: That is noted and understood.]

She resumed walking towards her quarters.

[ML: Phoenix > Control: Dress code?]

[ML: Control > Phoenix: Shipboard overalls will suffice.  Once you are below, Central will be able to provide for your needs.]

She pushed open the door and entered her quarters.

[ML: Privacy mode enabled.]

As she turned on the shower, she realized that she had not asked the nature of the mission.  She stopped to think about that.  She also thought about the odd feeling, like a fluttering, in her breathing and her heart rate.  Strange.

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