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Brink

by S E Holmes

Copyright © 2011

Smashwords Edition

Maverick Duology:

Brink

Rift

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

1. Maverick, Now

2. Three-hundred and sixty-two days ago, Maverick

3. Now

4. Three-hundred-and-sixty-two days ago, Maverick

5. Now

6. Seven Years Ago, Maverick

7. Now, Pod

8. Three-hundred-and-sixty-two days ago, Maverick

9. Now, Maverick

10. Three-hundred-and-sixty-three days ago, Driller

11. Pod

12. Maverick Agri-Barn

13. Pod

14. Maverick Apex Atrium One

15. Now, Maverick

16. Pod

17. Maverick Agri-Barn

18. Pod

19. Maverick Bunker

20. Maverick Foyer

21. Desert Mineshafts

22. Atrium One

23. Desert Mineshafts

24. Maverick Quarantine

25. Freight Highway

26. Maverick Apex

27. Maverick Apex

28. Hidden Storeroom Quarantine Wing

29. Apex

30. Desert Barracks

31. Desert Barracks

32. Pod?

33. Maverick

Maverick

Now

As soon as the abandoned Institute on the bottom of the ravine below came into view, Io knew it was a mistake to return to Ruin’s Gorge. Especially so close to the anniversary of that awful day a year ago. Her Q-suit communications unit crackled the same urgent message on loop since she’d escaped their sub-terra pod six hours earlier.

Return to base. Come back, Io.

She tapped her wrist control to switch the suit’s on-board computers off, shutting out the transmission and initiating basic operations. She couldn’t do anything about the suit’s tracker, but at least she didn’t have to listen to the drone of his voice. Did her podmates always pick Wim because he annoyed her most? Or did he get-off constantly hassling her? A more likely explanation was that he led those tasked with dragging her back.

Io fingered the stolen medigel secreted in a thigh pocket of her suit. Desperation pushed guilt over the theft to the back of her mind. If they caught her before she broke in to Maverick her chance to access the sentient node snapped shut forever. Everyone just called the computer NEN. Among NEN’s many skills, she translated molecular information like a vintage print-and-paper book. She also kept the derelict domes functional without human guidance.

If Commander Phi was sick, NEN could make a diagnosis using the tiny pellet of blood samples and DNA. Lately, her grandmother’s skin hung too loose and grey on her bones. Even that prickly, stubborn old woman couldn’t pretend anymore with NEN’s evidence. She’d have to accept a cure for whatever was wrong. Cure. Nothing else mattered.

Weathered sandstone dropped two hundred metres from the plateau on which Io stood, meeting a slope of iron-bright scree on the bottom that curved to the broad plain. She peered over the edge. Mid morning sun blasted the terrain, UV rays so bright her eyes stung. The desert canyon hiding her former childhood home tapered to an impassable end several kilometres opposite. This was an ancient place that used be called Wollemi by the original inhabitants, carefully chosen to deter the uninvited.

The Maverick Institute for Advanced Thought’s five interconnected biospheres – three massive domes and two smaller ones – squatted on an inhospitable sea of rust-hued sand like a cluster of sparkling beetles. Io reckoned they’d be the type of bugs whose opal lustre masked skin-dissolving acid. A black-level emergency still ruled: an inviolate seal against entry. No visitors, invitation or otherwise, were likely to brave the airlocks of Maverick ever again. Lasers within a ten-metre radius deterred trespassers, aside from a foolhardy seventeen-year-old girl. It was overkill in an unpeopled world. But that was a problem for later. If getting down from this height didn’t kill her first.

Sweat beaded her forehead, unreachable beneath a titanium-reinforced pressure-sealed visor. Io ignored a voice getting louder that spoke of her doubt. She was now without the usual graphics feeding a continuous stream of information in luminous blue along the base of her visor. A lousy year without practice wouldn’t make a difference. Surely? These peaks were her playground growing-up and she used to tackle even the most death-defying pinnacle. The quarantine suit’s colourless reflective scales suctioned to her body like wet paper, the humid wheeze of her breath the only noise not muffled by her helmet. An auxiliary mode Q-suit resembled submersion in a tepid bath, temperature increasing by the minute. She pitied the claustrophobic.

With her focus glued to the ground, Io sought and found a jagged V-shaped split in the mesa. An outcrop half way down obscured the view and it was slightly too narrow. Hopefully, the obstacle was negotiable. She hated leaving so much to hope, which had delivered nothing but torture over the long past year. Turning her back on Maverick, she dropped into the cleft, wedging her body with limbs outstretched to inch a slow descent.

At first, climbing in the vast outdoors seemed excellent therapy. Gone were the pod’s cramped low roof of smart mesh and podmates without a scrap of respect for her personal space. However, after several arduous minutes the decision to free climb proved her second miscalculation of the day. The muscles of her arms, weakened by sub-terra living, trembled in complaint. She’d never had to scale a rock face in an annoying, constricting Q-suit. Clunky thick-soled boots and fingertips encased by nano-fabric made for stilted progress. Let alone without bringing her mountaineering pick that would’ve announced her intention, even to oblivious podmates.

Several times, Io kicked free a toehold or under-estimated the girth of her fingers to fit in a crack, scrabbling for grip. Wind battered the spot where she inched down with hooked knuckles throbbing. Her visor impeded peripheral vision. There were easier ways but Io had been too gutless, now cursing her choice to spurn the Institute’s front path.

When she eventually arrived at the mid-section outcrop marking half way, a whoop of relief died in her throat. The jut of sandstone that at least offered a ledge upon which to rest was impassable. A glance over the lip confirmed that her nice, convenient ladder had merged to become featureless rock. Time’s incessant metronome ticked on.

Io closed her eyes and took long draughts of stale, recycled air, a breathing technique to keep her calm which usually achieved nothing of the sort. The fresheners too, shut off without the capacity to draw extra support from their pod power grid. Luckily this day’s roasting 57 degrees Celsius provided plenty of solar to keep her suit’s cells charged. Once midday hit, she’d have to turn her computer back on or they’d find her soft-boiled inside her shell. Or maybe she’d remain stuck here and become a desiccated husk like the chrysalis cases of the palm-sized cicadas she’d collected as a kid. But that was then. Nothing lived unprotected in the void. Io refused to become another Maverick casualty.

She opened her eyes on a panoramic vista across the valley. And caught sight of the impossible. Her pulse stuttered. A concentrated dot of sunlight weaved across the plain. It tracked parallel to an extensive grid of rectangular pools dotting the arid bedrock at the rear of the Institute’s smaller utility domes. The surface of the pools reflected the sun in a blinding golden haze. They had formerly grown nutrient-rich algae for protein and fuel production, now toxin-riddled like everything else exposed to the atmosphere, maybe still good for fuel but not the manufacture of food.

Anxiety had her seeing things. Phi insisted on many occasions stingy of detail the fifteen of them were it: a bleak collection of scientists, doctors, engineers, and assorted prodigies, who’d failed spectacularly to avert tragedy.

Keep it together, she whispered, her voice still too loud in her suit.

The question what is it? cycled over and over, earning no answer. Io balked at using the word who? Hope’s mean spirit flared, but she mentally pushed it deep. There was no recovery from more of that constant false enemy. She christened the moving light ‘the twinkle’ as it made a slow arc in her direction, until the domes loomed to block a picture of further progress.

No.

Teetering on the very cusp of her platform, Io leaned out and scanned either side. Her reluctance to enter Ruin’s Gorge disintegrated, replaced by an urgent need to find that twinkle. To the left, an unbroken wall offered no help without rope and anchors – she no longer trusted herself to do it any other way. On the right, the range folded outwards in a craggy spur that finished in the angled rubble at the bottom. It was easy climbing with a soft landing.

Unfortunately, her salvation existed on the other side of an inward curving chasm she guessed was ten metres wide. She searched below for her twinkle, which hadn’t reappeared. Had she imagined it? Io didn’t think so. Retrace her climb? Or dare a ten-metre leap, collide with unforgiving stone, and then clutch madly for sufficient hold to stop a one hundred metre dive? Hell, she’d done it before.

Pressing back as far as the cliff allowed, Io bounced on her toes, ran two steps and launched from the edge, spreading her body to slow her speed. She tore through the air, thrusting her arms out as the shelf neared, and lunged. The crash was brutal, punching the air from her lungs. She bit her tongue and tasted blood. Her fingers closed on crumbled rock. Flailing her arms, she couldn’t gain traction, rebounding to flip further metres from her target. She bounced anew on each smash into rock. Io squashed panic. If she stayed close to the cliff in her chaotic hurtle, she could snag a handhold. She knew this; she’d been in this position and lived. In fact, she’d outlived far worse.

The red-smeared vista through her helmet spun. It took every reserve to still her thrashing arms and legs and endure yet one more somersault. With ultimate force of will, Io blinked through another revolution of mocking blue sky until a meagre lip of shale raced towards her. Then, as casually as reaching for the table salt, Io stretched out her arm and grabbed the sill, praying the soft stone didn’t fragment under the wrenching might of her abruptly halted trajectory.

Bruised and aching, Io dangled by one hand, fighting hysteria over the realisation her fall had cut the descent by half. Inside her suit, the weather was tropical and stifling. Her ragged breathing grated in her ears. It was too late to worry if she’d split the titanium-reinforced carbon filaments modelled on spider’s silk. Even the smallest breach exposed skin to the corrosive elements and deadly viruses that roamed like ravenous pack animals. Her demise would be quick, if not at all painless.

The twinkle didn’t reward her by materialising. When her hyper-extended shoulder joined the litany of her body’s other complaints, she resumed climbing. Finally, Io jumped into knee deep pebbles, wading on rubbery legs to the hard-packed dirt of Ruin’s Gorge for the first time since that shameful day. She’d expected the reunion to drown her in crippling sorrow, but she just felt numb. Good. That was one less thing she’d have to battle.

Almost directly overhead in a crystal expanse of blue, the Australian sun blazed its cancerous beams. Grudgingly, she reinitiated her computer via the wrist control.

Phage, Io! Are you okay? Answer me, please.

Wim’s pleading joined a volley of on-board alarms warning of imminent dehydration, a haematoma forming on her right shin, a hairline fracture of her left ulna and a lacerated tongue – trivial injuries that hurt but didn’t hinder too much. Thankfully, a pronouncement of fatal contamination didn’t occur. Life detection sensors and a proximity blip heading her way were also absent. She’d been so sure.

Get out of there, Io. I order you home. Commander Phi added her authority to the babble. Search party, location report.

As if their pod would ever be home. Io didn’t belong anywhere, anymore. The best she could do was deactivate her microphone so they couldn’t hear her. They seemed abnormally desperate for a simple act of insubordination, not like she hadn’t disobeyed before. She didn’t catch the staticky reply pinpointing the search party’s position, but knew the chase grew short.

Water, Io commanded and a straw slid to the side of her mouth.

After several gulps, she sprinted a wide arc to the right of Maverick, keeping near to the shelter of the cliffs. The Q-suits toxicity levels read thirty percent, but in this blistering heat the body fluid microfilters and UV purification would churn over rapidly, until the microfilters themselves required cleansing in an irradiation cabinet. She figured the point of no return neared, forcing her to give up or be poisoned on the way back to the pod by the very device keeping her alive.

In the distance on the left, the track she should have taken started at Maverick’s front door. It eventually carved a winding course from the valley. The giant main dome known as Atrium One dwarfed the plain, diminished only by the soaring cliffs concealing it. One’s impregnable curved shell of hexagonal panes glittered like a thousand malevolent eyes, each riveted to her progress. Being back at Maverick – ground zero for the worst extinction event to afflict the world since the meteor crashed into the Gulf of New Mexico 65 million years ago – had made her paranoid. It was all in her head; the Institute was empty.

Which raised the problem of entry. Adjacent to the main dome, Io swerved to approach the front airlock from the side, as if the lasers might recognise stealth and forgo her obliteration. It was an appallingly inadequate plan and she had two measly kilometres to sort a better one. Sand scudded around her boots in lazy wisps and whorls, the atmosphere stilling in the cloying height of day to create a mirage of shimmering water on the desert’s surface. Io squinted in the wavy haze, always seeking in the direction of her lost twinkle. On several occasions, she skidded to a halt in a plume of grit, mistakenly believing a reflective flash signalled its re-emergence. Her proximity alert stayed mute.

Io crossed the gap in two minutes, arriving at the ten-metre no-go zone. Atrium One swelled to eclipse all else.

Elevated blood pressure. Increasing stress levels. Commence anxiety reduction measures.

No joke. Stupid computer, she muttered.

She struggled to block images of her missing brother, mother and father. Her dead grandfather, killed before her eyes in the most horrible way. Io stooped to pick up an apple sized rock. She hurled the stone with the force of twelve month’s worth of pent up rage and despair. It hit the glass with a crack and ricocheted to her feet.

Where was the puff of light-blasted destruction? She gingerly breached the laser’s perimeter with the tip of her boot. Nothing happened.

This was not right. Was NEN malfunctioning? The last time NEN deviated resulted in an event so catastrophic it still outstripped imagination. Io vacillated between quitting and calling the cavalry, or ignoring mounting dread and sticking with the plan.

Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know.

She brought a forefinger to her mouth to gnaw on a nail, forgetting the visor’s barrier. Commander Phi would never admit weakness voluntarily. She’d carry on until sick beyond help, rejecting fuss and dismissing concerns in the usual brisk manner. There’d be no argument, unless Io presented undisputable facts to the rest of her podmates, forcing them to intervene.

But even she could not disregard wrongness spreading from Maverick like poisonous spores. Io stared up at her birthplace and former home, unable to shake the feeling a shadowy foe stared back from the other side. How ridiculous. Everyone and everything inside the black zone was dead. She glared at a mirrored image of herself, balled her fists and took a defiant stride.

Before she could lift a second foot in challenge, an unintelligible wail cut the wind’s hiss, Whadaryadoiiinnnn?

Movement flickered to the right on the margin of vision. Rammed from her feet, Io flew to crash to earth in a tangle of arms and legs. Too shocked to do anything else, she sprawled on her back staring at the boy in a holographically obscured Q-suit who straddled her stomach. Her own suit’s life detector bleated a tardy warning, which provoked resentment. He grabbed her shoulders and shook.

Idiot! Get up. We’ve got to run.

So this was her twinkle. She knew his voice. Zeph?

His visor cleared and suit faded into clarity from cold camouflage. No one in their right mind used holographic thermal regulation in the desert: the power draw was huge. It was the reason he’d been invisible to both her computer and her scrutiny.

Zeph!

She threw her arms around him in a fierce hug of joy. He was so much thinner since that day, and like all sub-terra dwellers his eyes were sunken to emphasise the bones of his face through his visor.

Up, up. Hurry.

He squirmed from her grasp, not at all stunned by this miraculous meeting. In fact, Zeph’s attitude was decidedly nonplussed. The question of why opened the floodgates. Where had he come from? What was he doing here? Who was he fleeing from? Goosebumps crawled her flesh.

Most important of all: if other survivors had escaped the disaster, could her brother Calisto still live?

Three-hundred and sixty-two days ago

Maverick

The archives always made her late. And furious. Or did fury come first? They should have called the poor primate ‘the old man of the dinner table’. It would have been far better if humans only bred once every eight years. Last bell for class commenced a countdown to yet another detention.

Io grabbed a protein bar from the kitchen on the way to collect her standard-issue clogs waiting by the entrance to their penthouse. Stuffing her omnipage into the pocket of her shorts, guilt’s hollow ache was ever present. Her parents and brother were no doubt exactly where they should be. They performed their duties without a hint of complaint. To excise her anger, she’d risen at dawn and climbed until her fingers bled.

Of course, NEN sensed particulate matter when she tried to get back in, securing her in the front airlock until all trace of contaminant had been irradiated. Many of the residents never ventured beyond the curve to avoid the time-consuming admittance process altogether. Everyone in this place had a vendetta against dirt, which was why white was the decor of choice. She could eat off floors that were probably cleaner than her newly sterile hands.

She hastened out into the topmost mezzanine of Atrium Two, the residential and academic dome. Failing to attend class in a uniform only earned demerits so it was an easy sacrifice. Peach rays of early morning sunshine flooded into the central void through a curved oculus of glass overhead. Juggling her third replacement omnipage and the shoes – designed for sedate walking and studious conversation, not a flat-out sprint – she ran to the railing, gripped the descender on a rope she’d anchored there previously and swung out over the side, rappelling ten storeys to the inner courtyard garden below.

The incriminating rope dangled past every gallery spiralling down to the bottom of the rotunda, where any passer-by could look out and see it. The Safety Warden cruising the halls would be livid if she found the equipment, but Io had no time to remove it now. Consistent with her day so far, she almost made it to the ground before getting caught.

For Einstein’s sake, Io. Not again? Iz wasted the morning searching for you.

Her father popped his head over level three’s balustrade, sandy mop hanging in his eyes. They were a startling shade of lilac blue that reminded her of Dampiera wildflowers that used to bloom spectacularly after rain when she was little. But the rains had vanished years ago, and with them a vivid kaleidoscope of seasonal flora.

Sorry. Io mourned a rare encounter with Hugh Calypso spent on yet another lecture. With a schedule as brutal as his, even a haircut took too long. If her family would give up policing her she could stop abusing apologies. There are a few minutes left, I can make it. Not to mention telling such obvious lies.

No sunblock? I can’t force the mesh or a hat on you, but at least use the balm. One bad sunburn usually triggered disfiguring mutations: a cancer so lethal death resulted in months. His head disappeared, before the whole of him materialised at the bottom of the ramp a moment later. He scruffed his hair, peering absently at his wayward daughter. Or take a capsule. Please. And wrap-around glasses are non-negotiable.

Don’t worry. It was barely daybreak and I took the UV gauge. Didn’t he understand that free-climbing with slippery hands was dangerous? Minuscule handholds disappeared with her eyes obscured by goggles.

Precautions and vigilance equal safety, he quoted mechanically. Maybe her father was just as over the Institute mottos that seemed to multiply like those horrible skin lesions?

But I haven’t even gotten a freckle.

Hmm. Try not to rile Puce any further. I’d prefer to avoid a long lecture on how my lax parenting is encouraging your misdeeds. Off you trot. Hugh winked and gave her a tired smile.

She beamed at him, dropping her focus to her feet to gather courage. Dad, I—

But he’d already strode a considerable distance along the hall, her promise to do better unspoken between them. Thinking about it, his presence in the residential wing at this hour was odd. As Senior Geneticist, responsible for Bio-Contaminants and Disease Control, he held Fellowships in Virology, Pathology and Cloning and more doctorates than Io had molecules in her body. The only one who exercised more authority was his wife, Violet. Her father had already been on shift for hours and should be in the basement labs many levels below.

The incessant bell forced her onwards without puzzling over it further. She must conserve mental energy for the ordeal ahead. Her destination, nicknamed ‘the Hothouse’, constituted a maze of lecture halls and classrooms located on the other side of the courtyard. The aim was to solve the calamity of the planet and its residents. Io believed Mother Nature merely took vengeance for eons of neglect and misuse. Famine, soil erosion and bee extinction, ocean acidification and drought, rising seas devouring land, dwindling fuel sources, virulent new plagues, polluted cities in perpetual riot, blah, blah, blah: an ever-growing list.

On the outside, widespread and escalating rebellion from people without access to fresh water or regular meals was rumoured to be met with increasing military might. Raids on vertical agricultural banks where crops grew in enclosed high-rise complexes had become so common, electrified fences with guards stationed in watchtowers around the clock now surrounded them.

Violence went in tandem with the ever-present spectre of worsening pandemics and containment gassings of those afflicted, turning scant land into uninhabitable Grey Zones. The privileged barricaded themselves in enclaves of affluence, while everyone else endured physical jeopardy and hunger daily. Crime and exploitation of the vulnerable were rife. But Io found it hard to commit to the benevolent cause when she’d been born here and the concerns of others seemed a million miles away. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t care; she had her own concerns.

She ran the meandering path through the gardens, not stopping to admire a riot of colourful plants displayed in hand-made ceramics or sculptures and paintings of countless variety. Maverick Institute was truly beautiful. The greenery supported the atmospheric recyclers and some of the precious herbs and rare flowers, which no longer existed in the wild, were used in the manufacture of medicines. Nanobiotic swarms – tiny, flying robots that looked like titanium spiders with wings and grasping pincers on their legs under an electron microscope – undertook repairs and cleaning, cross-pollinated, and otherwise cared for this dazzling village.

But no amount of prettiness or cleanliness could conceal the underlying truth: if any of the horrors contained in the labs beneath ever escaped, Maverick would make a very lovely tomb. One just had to look a little closer. Covered corridors that relied on UV light zones to sterilise connected individual domes. In the event of a Code Black contamination, thick barricades sealed in sections to lock the infected inside a death zone until none remained alive.

After automated incineration of the bodies and venting of ash to residue chambers, an anti-pathogen curtain of gas would cleanse the area and release the locks, as good as new. Minus a few unfortunate scientists. Lasers sorted any harbouring ideas of escape. Long waiting queues to fill few vacancies implied universal acceptance of these conditions. Io labelled everyone who volunteered to come here a lunatic. She often felt as though she’d toppled to planet Earth from Martian lands and it was just a matter of time before her true relations arrived to collect her from her kindly foster family. Today would be ideal.

The bell stopped as Io barrelled right into a cul-de-sac sporting the main seminar hall, and tiptoed to the door. Through its transparent half panel, row upon row of bright-eyed, abnormally enthusiastic geniuses sat at rigid attention, ready to steamroll any defect in logic or calculation. Some had barely hit their teens, all attired in the white jumpsuits of the best Hothouse students, hair slick and nails manicured. Out of uniform, her auburn curls unkempt, bruises and scabbed over wounds from falls patterned Io’s arms and legs. She would never be one of them.

Her grey-matter seemed to have packed into Iz’s head giving her older brother a double quota of their parents’ brilliance. Her eyes were green, his the radiant burnt-copper blue of their father, same straw mop, same exterior of impeccable calm. In fact, the only aspect the siblings shared was a name after the moons of Jupiter.

She slid on her clogs, retrieved her omnipage, gripped the doorhandle and turned. It didn’t budge. Spotting Iz at a lectern in the last row, she waved to gain his focus. Many students glared at her in condemnation. It was amazing how much venom they could convey through such a narrow pane of glass. In another blow to good fortune, her brother took the post of Seminar Chair, his lips trembling silent guidance to the rest of them via the ESP button implant at his temple. His lesson projected in floating algorithms from the omnipage on each desk.

Within proximity, the holographic tutorial activated through her clenched fist where the omnipage pressed divots. Light shone from the transparent cube through