Thirty minutes later I was kitted up and had received a huge welcome from Essy, involving lots of face licking and belly rubs and both of us were standing outside Spurrell’s office. I raised my hand to knock but a thought raced through my mind and I looked at Essy.
“I need you to obey me without question tonight baby,” I sent her the thought and she looked up at me, her eyes focussed in that way I had come to recognise as understanding. “I will ask you to do some things that are a little different from our normal work but I need you to trust me and obey.” We locked eyes and I knew she understood and I breathed a sigh of relief as I knocked on Spurrell’s door.
“Come in Joss,” he said as he stepped aside. “Thanks once again for coming in at such short notice.”
“No problem,” I replied. “What’s the panic? You said there was an accident?”
“Yes, one of our latest umm, patients went a bit crazy and injured a couple of our security guys. It started a bit of a riot and we had to lock the place down to contain it.”
“Oh I see. Are the guys okay?”
“Yeah, they’ll live. They’re in the infirmary now. It took several guys to hold the patient down so we could get some sedative into him. He’s calm now.”
“Where would you like me to begin my patrol Sir?”
“If you go and relax for a while and maybe begin at eight? Is that okay with you?”
“Of course Boss.”
“Thanks. You’ll be starting with the patient’s cubicles tonight so report there for duty at eight okay?”
“Yes Sir,” I nodded and turned to leave, Essy at my heels as always. I raced back to the staff accommodation and went into the same room I had used the week before. First, I called Marlo and asked if Ren had got home okay. His reply chilled me to the bone.
“He never arrived home Joss. We’re worried sick.”
“Oh shit no,” I said as I remembered my conversation with Spurrell just minutes before. “I think they have him prisoner here. Oh fuck I have to get him out of here.”
“What can we do?”
“Get to the tunnels as quick as you can and wait for my call. I’m going to call in the troops now, which will mean we have two hours until the shit hits the fan.”
“Okay, I’ll round everyone up and we’ll be there within the hour. Be safe buddy.”
I then called the troops, gave them the details, and heard the siren going off in the background as I spoke with their commander.
“We’ll be with you in two hours Joss. Just hold on. We’ll have you both out of there, I promise.”
Another call to Kobey sent him into a panic, which did not surprise me knowing his obsession with schedules. He rose to the occasion though and said he would do what he could with the guards he had on duty and promised the troops would not encounter any problems when they arrived. The next two hours dragged by, the slowest two hours of my entire life and I spent every minute worrying for Ren. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any longer and reported for duty fifteen minutes early. Spurrell was in the patient cubicle when I arrived and smiled when he saw me enter.
“Hello there Joss, nice to see you eager for work tonight. Come and meet the source of all our problems.”
I sent a thought to Essy as I walked to the end of the narrow corridor lined with patient cubicles.
“Be ready girl, watch my back.” She slowed her pace a tiny bit and fell into line behind me. I reached the cubicle at the end of the corridor and slowly turned to look through the glass partition wall. He was hunched on the floor, one knee drawn up, his head resting in his hand. Bloodied scraps of cloth dotted around the small cubicle explained why he was shirtless, the bruises already forming over his chest and shoulders telling me of a severe beating.
I leapt forward and banged on the glass.
“Ren, buddy. What the fuck? Why is he being held here? He’s my friend, he works here. I don’t understand. What the fuck is going on?” I yelled at Spurrell, who took a step back from my angry onslaught. I heard growls from behind me and turned to see Essy holding off an approaching lab guy who wielded a huge injector. Instinct drove my hand to my tranquiliser pistol, hidden beneath my jacket and shot Spurrell at point blank range. He was unconscious within twenty seconds and I turned back to see how Essy was doing. The lab guy was retreating towards the door at the far end. He didn’t make it; the sedative dart ensuring he was out cold before he was halfway there. I turned back to Ren, who was almost unconscious in his prison.
“I’ll be back for you buddy, I promise.” I called Essy and together, we raced out into the corridor.
Calmarin Research Station was a short hover bus ride from our apartment in Tower 1874 and took no more than thirty minutes to get from door to door. The other folks on the bus were friendly and most had smiles on their faces. Ren said hello to a couple of guys and introduced me as his friend from the military and told them I was here looking for work.
“These guys work at the Station too,” Ren informed me. “Hitch here is security and Melk is in R and D.”
“Hi there,” I smiled, delighted to find Ren had a pal in the R and D department who may very well turn out to be a useful source of information later on.
“So what kind of work are you after Joss?” Hitch asked.
“Well my background is military and security. I’m not an office type.”
“I know we’re a couple of guys short in security at the Station so you shouldn’t have a problem getting hired.”
“That’s great,” I replied.
Three hours later I shook hands with Kobey, Security Chief at the Calmarin Research station. I’d filled out masses of forms, had my fake papers examined, had a firearms proficiency test and endured yet another but much shorter and far less thorough medical examination and now he was officially offering me the job of security guard.
“Welcome to Calmarin Joss,” he said. “We run a pretty tight ship here as you’ll discover. We may be just a research establishment but that doesn’t mean we slack on security.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “I’m happy to be here Sir.”
“Good, good,” he nodded. “I’ll take you down to the security HQ and introduce you to Pendle. He’s your immediate supervisor. He’ll show you around and get you a uniform and tell you all about the job. Follow me.”
As we walked, I studied Kobey and knew right away that he was going to be useless to me as a source of any information. He knew nothing, and anything he might think he knew was just smoke and mirrors to make him feel important. I also realised that I might not be able to rely on him to help me out, especially if that help necessitated him telling a lie or turning a blind eye. His manner and speech showed me that he obviously had a strict code which he allowed to rule his every waking minute and he would sooner die than step away from that code. The first word that came to my mind as I looked at him was inflexible. His code and routine defined him so much that to step away from either would leave him unable to know what to do. This also meant that he would always tell the truth, should I choose to question him about anything but it would be what he perceives to be the truth, which may or may not actually be the truth. That depended upon people higher up the chain and knowing a little about Calmarin, I was not at all confident that they would tell him much. Kobey cannot read between the lines; he has neither insight nor intuition and would not know what to do with either if they slapped him on the ass. It would take a huge leap for him to change his ways and I realised that if something were to happen to make me have to rely on him in an emergency, I would need all of my people skills.
As we walked, I looked around the place to get my bearings. It was all corridors and offices in the main section but as we left the office building I noticed a door with a weird looking security locking mechanism keeping all but the favoured few firmly out. There was no sign on the door indicating what might be going on behind it so I asked Kobey.
“What’s in that room Chief?”
“That’s Research and Development,” he replied without bothering to explain further.
“What kind of research do they do here?”
“They’re trying to find out what’s killing the trees around here and then stop it from killing more,” he replied.
“Oh, okay,” I said.
“You won’t need to worry about what they do in there Joss,” he said as he indicated for me to enter a building to my left. “They have their own security guys.”
“Really?” I exclaimed in genuine surprise. “Wow.”
“I guess they’re dealing with potentially dangerous pathogens or something,” he replied, “and they don’t want to let any organisms out to create further havoc.” He obviously didn’t realise that he’d just told me he hadn’t a clue what was really going on here, so I crossed him off my mental list of suspects.
For a moment, all we could see was the star filled night sky and the dark forest that loomed in the background. A faint golden glow of the security guards’ flares played on the dark grass and I knew they were lined up behind the camera, marking out a landing strip. After a minute or so, I noticed movement against the dark sky, accompanied by a faint hum and a black shape grew and as it got nearer, it became obvious that it was a shuttlecraft coming into land. All four flew across the film and disappeared out of the range of the Consoria hidden in the grass. Ren moved the film forward a few minutes. One of the shuttles came into view and landed right in front of the camera and the hum of its engine stopped. Then a loud metallic knock followed by the sound of a gear mechanism clicking into place and the camera began to vibrate slightly. The vibrating continued for a couple of minutes accompanied by the metallic grinding noise that told me the elevator was descending. An intermittent squeak told me something needed oiling and the patch of star filled sky gradually got smaller until it was too small to see.
Bright light suddenly exploded as the elevator reached its destination and we saw the white walls of what looked like some sort of cargo bay, a domed roof and the dark circle of the elevator shaft above. I heard the familiar sound of a shuttle hatch lowering and was annoyed that I had positioned the Consoria so it only saw the nose of the shuttle. I wished I could see the hatch area and resolved to move the camera to a new position the next time my shift pattern took me to the North Western sector. A man leapt out of the shuttle and walked out of sight, a digital console in his hands. A few seconds later, he reappeared with two others and stood by the shuttle as if waiting for something. Faint murmurings told us they were talking, but the surrounding noises, hums, metallic knocks and the general noise one hears in a cargo bay, prevented us from hearing their conversation. We heard the sound of an engine; probably a hover cart or buggy, and the three men looked round and smiled. The rear portion of a large hover cart came into view and we clearly saw the loading platform filled with several large drums, all painted with the Heibat Power and Energy logo. They were fitted with what I recognised as security jackets so I knew right away that whatever those drums contained, it was highly toxic.
“Security jackets,” I murmured.
“Huh?” Palko asked.
“Those drums have security jackets,” I explained as I continued watching the men load them into the shuttle. “That means the contents is either highly toxic or flammable or both. It also means that if there’s a spill on board, they can jettison them and they’ll automatically explode after twenty seconds of zero gravity without causing problems by landing on a planet and killing everything.”
I counted a dozen drums in all before the hover cart disappeared; replaced three minutes later by another and the whole process began again. All the drums looked identical to me and as the process repeated the third time, I took the opportunity to concentrate on what else I could see in the shot. In the far background, hover carts manoeuvred crates and empty drums into what was obviously a storage area. A couple of security guys with their fearsome Hymilont companions wandered across the shot, then a door opened, and we got the shock of our lives. A security guard and his Hymilont stepped out and stood to the side, the creature snarling and dripping drool to the floor. Then a line of people emerged and began shuffling forwards. Their heads bowed slightly, they slowly shuffled along in single file, looking as if each step was painful. Their one-piece garments were a dull grey and their faces equally so. Most of them showed signs of losing their hair but not in the way people normally do. Their hair loss was patchy and uneven, some were obviously women, and they were equally balding. Suddenly the guard shouted at them to stop and they obeyed without question. From the right, a man in a white lab coat appeared with a box, which he placed on the floor and slit open with a knife. He lifted out several trays of auto injectors and as the line of people stepped forward one by one, he gave each one an injection, after which they turned tail and shuffled back through the same door from which they had appeared.
“I wonder what they’re injecting them with?” Donal said.
“Hmm,” I responded. “I intend to find out as soon as I’m able.”
Once again, I heard the familiar sound of a shuttle hatch closing and then the elevator started its climb back to the surface, before the whole procedure started over with the second shuttle. The second shuttle went down and was loaded with the same drums as the first one had been, but this time there was nothing of special interest in the background. As the third shuttle was loaded, luck smiled upon me as I saw someone stand right next to the camera. Whoever the man was wore a white lab coat and black pants; we could only see the very edge of his right shoulder, arm and leg down to mid-thigh level so I would never be able to recognise him again. The door from which the shuffling, grey clad people had emerged opened once again and another line of equally grey people shuffled out. This lot looked worse than the previous group; all were completely bald and many had obvious patches and sores on their heads. Their eyes were ringed with black and their skin, a lifeless grey. They hunched forward much more than the previous ones had done and their shuffling was slower, more laboured. As with the previous ones, they each received an injection, but these auto injectors were different.
“That’s a different injection these ones are getting,” I said.
“How the fuck do you know that?” Doniss said.
“The auto injectors are different,” Ren answered for me and I nodded.
“Are they? I didn’t notice that.”
“Yeah,” Ren replied. “These ones have a pointy top, whereas the last ones had a flat top.”
“I wonder why they’d give them a different injection,” Donal said.
“Probably because they need something different because of the state of them.” I glanced at Donal and saw him frowning at me. “Look at them; they look three quarters dead. The others weren’t so bad so they’re probably giving them something stronger or different to try to keep them alive longer, to get the most work out of them that they can I guess.”
Donal nodded slowly. “Shit. Those poor people. We have to help them guys, we have to. What they must be suffering down there I’d hate to even guess. We can’t let this kind of treatment continue for fuck’s sake.”
“We will buddy,” I replied with as much conviction as I could, “we will.” I was about to say something else when a clear voice made me shut up and listen. The guy by the camera obviously had a buddy with him.
“How long will these last?”
“No more than three or four days before their usefulness is gone.”
“Is there room in storage?”
“Yeah, the freezer is only half full. We’ll last another three weeks without a problem.”
“Good. How’s production going?”
“I reckon we’re running at optimum now.”
“What’s your estimate of how long the seam will produce?”
“From what we can see, I’d guess a couple of years at our current production rate.”
“Workforce turnover is a problem though. What are your guys doing about that?”
“We’re building more housing for the workforce so we can double our intake and work them one day on, one day off. That will double their working life and halve our clean up problem.”
“So you haven’t come up with anything to block the stuff yet?”
“Not yet but we have been able to design a special suit that slows down penetration by almost half.”
“What about slowly desensitising them by gradual immersion?”
“You mean like a sort of vaccine? Allow the body to build its own immunity?”
“The only way that would work would be with a solution equivalent to one drop per twenty gallons of water, given no more than monthly and we estimate it would take five years for the average humanoid immune system to build up enough of a defence to make total daily immersion safe. It’s just not a viable prospect, seeing as how we expect to be gone from here in a couple of years.”
“Okay, then the best way is to double the workforce and maybe triple it as soon as you’re able to. Disposal is becoming a chore.”
“Yeah, we’re hopeful we can double the workforce within the next six months and then we could probably triple it within another six, so long as recruitment can keep pace.”
“It will, don’t worry about that. There are innumerable planets out there and all have drop outs, low life’s and bums just waiting for an opportunity to make their fortune and get away from the home worlds that outcasted them.”
The rest of this conversation was lost as the elevator started to rise again and I looked around at my companions, eyes wide and sighed with shock.