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Alter Genus

by Charlotte Allen 2 months ago in Sci Fi
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A New Kind

Cycle 1, The Abandoned City

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. Yet, they also say that the Numen Operation would be a peaceful project and that the Alteration was a flawless process without any symptoms that would be a detriment to the human lifeform.

Recruits were ingrained with these axioms since the first days of training at Caelum Satellite Station. Either analyzing otherworldly samples in the labs or simply surveying the C Colony on Numen from the protection of the Sphere. However, once the first cycle began, a closer look at the surface of Numen revealed a vastly different world than what appeared on the monitors suspended in the void of space.

Stella Fortney sank through the nebulous atmosphere of Numen after having completed the final stage of the Alteration, ensuring her ability to survive on the surface of the otherwise unlivable planet. The serum replicated the Numen gene that allowed human lifeforms to breathe the toxic air below the outer rings and adapt to the increase in pressure encased under the dense nebula. The Alteration minutely transformed the human DNA with this gene so that they too could walk freely on the surface and engage in the process of mining power from one of the chambers in Numen’s core. After fifteen revolutions of tests, Dr. Hexton declared the process perfected.

Fortney activated the screen on her holoband. Only a minute left before the sky lift dropped through the outer ring, the point at which the Alteration would prove itself successful or fatal. If not successful, the subject would immediately be crushed from the inside out, or slowly asphyxiate before the point of final termination.

She took in a deep breath, as if that would help, once her capsule sailed into a haze of violet and electric glimmers. The screen showed all vital signs were clear. The Alteration went without a hitch. It really was the only thing the technician had been worried about. Otherwise, she was eager to see the C Colony for herself. And, of course, to reunite with Commander Sharp. Even with the extenuating circumstances of the mission.

Below the nebula, the surface blasted into existence. Half the planet was covered in a sprawling city of white metal and neon lights that could be seen even from this high in the atmosphere. It expanded from a crowded center that resembled the broad back of a hermit crab with its legs crawling into a dark landscape at the edge of the metropolis. At the ends of the map stood the disconnected radio towers, the reason Caelum had lost contact with Sharp’s crew nearly one whole rotation earlier. Otherwise, there were no other signs of distress. No explosions or detachment of the core harvesters. It remained a mystery why they had suddenly stopped transmitting reports.

A silent alarm started to flash yellow pulses along the line of plummeting tubes. Something had gone wrong. Either an equipment malfunction or a stray piece of space garbage crashing into one of the sky lifts. Whatever the cause, it had started a chain reaction of chaos as the spears of buildings rose to meet the platforms. It ground to an unnatural stop at the bottom of the tube, spewing a skirt of hissing exhaust that exploded from the bottom chamber of the lift.

Fortney crouched, desperate not to be flung through the glass, and noted that the landing functions of the lift failed to open the hatch out into the world. As team technician, she carried an arsenal of tools just for these kinds of scenarios. Such as a small plasma knife that could cut through the metal door. Stooping through the opening the knife created, she took her first breath of Numen air and surveyed the surroundings.

The landing area was positioned in a central location where there were multiple accessible routes through the city. Fortney had expected a large amount of the population to be here, in the heart of their thriving colony, but instead could not see a single soul down any one of the wide avenues. The ubiquitous nebula cast the cityscape in a perpetual night, making the buzzing lanterns illuminate the dark square in radiant golds and purples. A flickering sign hung askew at the gateway that read “Tridawn Circle”. There were no other signs, literal or figurative, of lifeforms present. Neither from Caelum agents or Numen natives.

Worse, the other sky lifts never landed. The other seven squad members, including Captain Ranus, had not made it to the landing area. Instead, all their lifts continued to pulse with that alert light without any indication of what had happened.

Protocol was to transmit back to HQ. But the radio towers were still down and judging by the condition of the sky lift, there would be no return from down below. Plus, Caelum wouldn’t know to bring the platform back up even if it was intact. Since, and this was getting redundant, there was no way of contacting the satellite station until at least one of the towers was fixed.

Another surprise came when the holoband on her forearm beeped. It read, “Alteration Process: Stage 5, complete,” before blinking out of existence and replacing the message with something new. Now it said, “Alt. 13: Shield.” And nothing else.

Dr. Hexton never mentioned this part of the process, never explained what it meant or why it would happen. There were no protocols for this kind of uncertainty, heading into a new territory alone with new, perhaps irregular, information. She felt fine, her mind and body strong. Though her confidence in what was to come was falling much faster than the broken sky lift.

Since her only option was to inspect the perimeter, find a soul that could explain what was happening down here, Fortney activated the beam of her vizor and crept along towards the first building.

The ground floor of the hotel was an utter disaster. Red lights gleamed over the row of lifts, indicating they were all unanimously out of order. The lobby sat vacant of residents or staff, but there were multiple pieces of bolted down furniture that had been ripped out of the floor and flipped over on their sides. Nothing and no one was capable of doing something like that. Nothing human. There were scorch marks all along the walls, hanging lanterns that had been incinerated, leaving shards of glass all over the floor. Yet, no bodies. Not even any injured civilians. Let alone any members of the previous Caelum units.

Fortney moved slowly through the west hallway that connected this hotel to the restaurant next door, hoping to find anyone to help piece this narrative together. But of course, the bar was deserted with tables and chairs shoved against the front wall, blocking the main entrance as if to keep something from getting in. Serene music played from the loud speakers but kept glitching from one station to another. None of which carried any news from the outskirts or anywhere else.

There was one occupant behind the bar, however. A Server AI that could perhaps provide some logistics on the situation. The glistening robot was missing an arm and was riddled with blast marks all over its twitching body. Yet, by some miracle, it swiveled its half-melted head in the technician’s direction when she entered from the hotel.

“Gr-greetings, agent,” the machine sputtered. “Unf-f-fortunately, the Incarna Lounge is closed d-due to the current lockdown procedures.”

“Who authorized lockdown procedures?” she asked briskly. Without contact with Caelum, their units could not have lawfully done this.

The Server’s head bobbed back and forth, sparks flying from its dislocated neck. “I cannot assist you with that function.”

Numen technology was very sophisticated, which meant it rarely bugged out like this. With Caelum funding, their AI could do almost anything. If the machines were not cooperating, it was because someone redirected their programming. Deliberately removing information from the machine’s repertoire.

“How long has the lockdown been in effect?” she pushed.

“S-s-seven Cycles,” it replied. Whoever fixed the system clearly either forgot to remove that bit of knowledge or did not care to do so. “P-please return during op-open hours,” before it recited all of its predetermined sentiments, Fortney toggled the switch behind its neck to temporarily shut the system down. No need to have another unnecessary explosion on her hands. While in sleep mode, she used her drive to upload its recorded memory into her holohband. Though broken in many places, she was able to see just the last Cycle from the AI’s perspective.

Projecting the image into the air, she witnessed several civilians huddled in groups inside the bar, shielded by the barricade of tables and stools. The memory was so shattered that no one’s face was clear, their voices muddled, but she noticed at least two of those present wore orange and gray uniforms that were nearly identical to hers. Caelum agents. The only question was: Where were they all now?

Fortney carefully searched the rest of the building, taking the stairs only to find more vacancy and desolation on the upper levels. Every door along the glass corridor was sealed, prohibiting entrance further into the structure. It left the technician to roam in the outer hallway and across the sky bridge into the other section of Tridawn. Down below, heavy pieces of machinery blocked one end of the street, creating another obstruction from some unknown incursion. Lamposts were bent out of place while some were completely turned over. Vehicles were flipped on their sides and shoved onto the walkways. A bus had been thrust straight through one of the garage doors further down. While another protruded halfway through the wall of the embassy.

She didn’t know what to do next. Usually, Ranus gave out explicit instructions on how to precede when circumstances had shifted from what they had first established. But Ranus and her team had seemed to vanish out of thin air, while Stella was the sole member to hit ground. The one not equipped for combat. Or reconnaissance. Or even public relations. Her job was equivalent to being the team computer, who provided tools and maintenance when prompted. Exploration into unknown, and perhaps dangerous, territory solo was not her prerogative.

A flash of movement and a tremor running through the ground captured her attention. At the end of the street, the doors to the embassy blew open in a ball of red plasma, sending shrapnel flying in every direction. Moments later, a figure scrambled out in a blur of gray and orange, sprinting furiously from the fire that crawled out from the entrance. They tripped after they looked once over their shoulder but caught themselves before striking their head on the side of the impeeding bus. They darted from one end of the street to the other, hurling themselves over obstacles with reckless abandon. They climbed the end of the bus and scuttled over the top of it, pinching themselves between the roof and the busted garage door that led into the building the technician was already heading into.

She ran across the bridge to try and meet them on the ground level in case those doors were sealed off as well but was wrenched back by a horrible screeching sound coming from the street.

The rubble shifted back and forth once a shapeless form approached it. Stunned, she watched as a chunk of vehicle was torn in half and hurled through the air as if it were made of toilet paper. It sailed end over end towards the garage and blew a hole through the wall beside it. There was no motion in the garage. She needed to get down there and make sure the individual had not been crushed by the projectile or wounded by the collateral shards of metal it dislodged.

The sky bridge led into a shopping center, where every machine repeated that their shop was closed due to the lockdown procedures. Most of the exits were barred by laser gates and these lifts were also out of order. Leaping down the stairwell at double pace, she found the ground floor in anticipated disarray. Stations destroyed, counters overturned, and piles of debris from the projectile that had been hurled through the warehouse entrance.

That side was blocked by a laser gate, which Fortney luckily had a solution for as team technician. She had most of the access codes for overriding individual servers locked within her drive, though nothing that would deactivate the lockdown entirely. Through the bands of electrified beams, she could hear groaning from underneath the shifting rubble and hastened her work on inputting the codes into the warehouse’s security console. Once finished, the bars flickered away so that she could access the garage from the inside.

The agent had no visible wounds, but he had endured some painful tumbling through the piles of broken machinery and plaster raining down on him from the cracked ceiling. She pulled him out from the path of a falling tire back into the mall, before using her scanner to inspect for any unseen injuries.

The readings never registered. Once free, the agent sprang like a lizard to his feet, eyes flashing with wild alertness. There were flecks of red and orange flickering in his stare, as if he was being electrocuted from the inside, making him dart all over the room in a state of frantic desperation.

Fortney should have recognized the recruit right away, but his demeanor and appearance had changed so much since she had last seen him in the final phases of training. There was an eerie glow under his pale skin, a streak of red in what used to be a nest of jet black hair. And rampant berserk-ness was highly unusual for someone of his usual state of cool smugness. He was bugging out even more than the server bot.

“Gotta run!” he shouted. It was a member of Sharp’s team. A chemist by the name of Roricksford. Or Rory, as everyone in training called him.

“From what?” she questioned.

He pointed towards the garage. “Oxly!”

“Whose–?” her inquiry was interrupted by a loud crash as the other half of the dismembered vehicle carrened in through the warehouse. Behind the fresh wall of smoke was uttered a deep growl like some feral beast, though the silhouette it came from appeared humanoid in shape. It lumbered forward, a seven foot shadow with pointed ears and meaty claws ready to pounce.

“Run!!!” he shouted again.

This time, she did not question it. The two ran out of the warehouse, hearing the creature bounding after them. Once behind the security gate, Fortney let her fingers fly across the panel to re-seal the door. It was taking some time. She tried not to watch as the creature emerged from the wreckage in full view. A dog, man-like thing covered half in black fur and half in sinewy gray skin. Razor-sharp teeth that glowed perfectly yellow in the dim light. Eyes that were ravenous and bloodred. Ears that were sharp and pointed like a desert jackal’s. It locked eyes with Rory and leapt after him, just in time for the technician to press the final combination to activate the laser gate.

The beams took the creature by surprise, the shock launching it backwards with an agonized roar back into the garage. It roiled and reared as it removed something from its arm that was causing him pain. Perhaps a piece of shrapnel that had lodged itself in the skin. The creature snarled as it wrenched it free of its forearm and chucked it at them with a vengeance before darting out of sight into the street.

Rory collapsed, out of breath, and slumped against the wall. “You wouldn’t happen to have any weapons with you?”

Fortney shook her head, “I’m a technician. I carry tools. Not weapons.”

“And the rest of your team?” he went on. “What about your commander?”

“I don’t know where they are?” she informed him worriedly. “They didn’t make it to the rendezvous point. And they haven't reported in.”

The chemist rolled his eyes, “You're helpful. Have any more good news?”

“Radio towers are all down,” she stated.

He groaned, “That much I knew. Anything else?”

She scrutinized him carefully. Something seemed very off about his behavior. As if his usual qualities had been heightened by the current state of distress. What was more concerning was his change in appearance. Calmly, she inquired, “Er…what’s with…your–”

“What?” he interrupted abruptly. He followed her gaze and clambered over to a reflective wall nearby and studied the odd redness seeping into his features. His eyes widened and he pulled at the streak in his hair. “Oh no.” He checked his holoband. The alt. Number was seven. And below it was the word “Ray” in the same spot on her own arm that said “Shield.” He gritted his teeth, “This is very very bad. Bombs going off. Wolves prowling the streets. I’m slowly turning into beet juice. And Caelum sends the girl scout as reinforcement. Perfect!”

“Hey!” Fortney retorted, remembering all of the reasons she disliked Roricksford. Though his high ranked aptitude was well-earned in Toxicology and Biochemistry, he had not earned the right to be needlessly abrasive. He himself had only been on Numen as long as the last group of units, which had been there just before they went dark. He had been added to Sharp’s team at the last minute because of reasons Fortney was not privy to. Only Sharp knew, which was one of the many reasons Stella wanted to find him. “Could you try explaining what’s going on down here?”

He stretched out his arms, “You're an analyst. What does it look like?”

“Technician,” she corrected. “Do you know who sanctioned the lockdown procedures? Or where all the civilian’s went?”

Rory hesitated, “No and nope.”

“Do you know where Miles–I mean Commander Sharp, is?”

He blinked, “Have no idea.”

She released a frustrated sigh, “Now who is being helpful?”

Using the wall to stabilize himself, he rose slowly up off the floor. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” he began in a mocking tone. “I would gladly have given you an exclusive tour of our facilities if it wasn’t for my furry friend chasing me through Tridawn and trying to eat me.” He stumbled over to the laser gate and peered through the beams where the creature had left the piece of machinery that it had torn from its arm.

“Yeah, what was that thing?” she asked curiously. “One of the Lumen? I thought they were a peaceful species.”

The chemist stared intently at the blinking chunk of metal. The technician could not quell her interest in whatever it was he found important about that bit of debris. She came closer and looked through the gate at the curved shape with the hollow center like it wrapped around something. Where it had been ripped from the creature’s forearm, the binding mechanism was frayed and bent out of frame. Her eyes widened when she saw what the blinking was. It was a screen with a number and a word. Just like Rory’s. Just like her own.

The image showed the sequence “Alt. 10” and the word “Wolf.”

“That wasn’t one of the Numen,” the chemist scoffed. “That was Oxly. He was one of us?”

Sci Fi

About the author

Charlotte Allen

I love adventure, fantasy, mystery, and romance. I love to explore life and ideas through books and stories.

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