It was just past noon when Carthage awoke. He and Siobhan had swapped their sack time five hours earlier, and she roused him with a gentle kick to his thigh. He pulled his poncho liner from his face and blinked at the bright sunlight streaming through the open windows.
“What did I miss?” he asked, sitting up.
“This place is deader than heaven on a Saturday night,” she replied, returning to her chair. “If there’s anyone else alive in there, they haven’t ventured outside.”
He stood up, and looked out of the north side window. “That’s good. What have you been doing, other than keeping watch?”
“I had some breakfast, then took the liberty of cleaning the NMP, which was in desperate need of attention. Other than that I’ve been keeping an eye on the complex and playing Solitaire.”
“You have a deck of cards?”
“No, there are a few games on your PDA.”
He shrugged. “Never noticed.”
She opened her rucksack and rooted around. “Why doesn’t that surprise me? Anyway, I’m ready for lunch, can I assume you need a meal as well?”
“Yup. Do you want to split that tin of corned beef?”
“Sure. I tried the hard tack, as you called it. It has the consistency of a neutron star, but it’s edible.”
Carthage pulled the tab on the can of beef, and the pair passed it between them, taking one spoonful of gelatinous meat each until it was gone. It wasn’t something either of them would have eaten willingly, but they were fairly certain it wouldn’t kill them. That done, they began to pack up their gear.
“Beef goo and stale water, this is the life,” said Siobhan, hoisting her rucksack. “If there are soldiers inside the plant, maybe we can coax them out with the promise of a hot meal and pastries.”
“The cake is a lie,” he replied, slinging his rifle. “So, since neither of us spotted anyone pulling watch on the tower after last night, I think it’s safe to assume any resistance is going to be light. Still, I’m not taking any chances. We’ll start with the shotguns for entry, but I want you to reload only if there’s a lull in the fight. If you run dry, transition to your rifle or pistol, whichever you think you can get into action faster. Make sense?”
“Good, follow me. Once we get outside, it’ll be hand and arm signals only until we make contact.”
The next thirty minutes went by without incident. The pair cleared five smaller buildings that they thought were connected to the central building, but turned out to be individual areas for processing aggregate down the line. As such, they were also abandoned, containing only conveyors and other disused equipment. It wasn’t until they entered the central building that things got more interesting.
The main area inside was huge, with the most obvious feature being several large storage hoppers, each at least thirty feet tall. The formerly gleaming steel cylinders once contained various types of finished product, and at their bases sat the equipment used to place it into bags, barrels, or crates. At one end were the loading docks, leading the way to the main access road, and at the other end was the entrance to the employee locker rooms.
The lockers, bathrooms, and showers were still in use, at least until the previous night. While not pausing to search each locker, it was easy for Carthage and Siobhan to find personal effects that very likely belonged to the squad they had encountered. Moving on from there, they found a break room, and beyond that were the administrative offices. As they swept inside, they found what looked like a squad briefing area, with maps of the complex and surrounding terrain, and after so many rooms of nothing they were genuinely surprised to find someone there.
The man was sitting with his back to the door, and quickly swiveled around in his chair. He was a man of middle age, with long brown hair tied into a ponytail, and wore jeans and a blue hooded sweatshirt. His expression of relief quickly faded into disappointment, and he shook his head and laughed to himself. Carthage motioned for Siobhan to cover the man, and he checked the area and executive offices.
“I’m not armed,” the man said, “and I’m all alone, since I have to assume you killed all my mates.”
“We’re all clear in here,” Carthage said to Siobhan. “Keep an eye on the way back out.”
“You got it,” she replied.
Siobhan stood by the exit. Carthage motioned at the man with the business end of his shotgun.
“Get up and take off your jacket, slowly. Then turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
The man complied, smirking. “The soldiers left the nerd behind, guys, I’m no threat to you.”
Carthage patted him down, then backed off. “Identify yourself.”
“Joseph Saive, technical consultant for the Knights.”
“Have a seat, Mister Saive. No, not that chair, this one.”
Joseph sat in the office chair that Carthage indicated. “Can I presume you killed the rest of my squad?”
“When you have the shotgun, you can ask the questions. What is your mission?”
He leaned back and crossed his legs. “Six years ago, I would have offered you a bunch of bullshit and tried to stall for time. We haven’t had any meaningful direction from Perth since then, so I’ll spare you the theatrics. I also haven’t been able to properly secure the lab since the security system died, so you’ll find out the truth of this place soon enough whether I tell you or not. Of course, if you haven’t heard of the Lagrange Project, it won’t make much sense.”
“We have. Pray tell.”
“You don’t happen to have any cigarettes on you, do you? My squaddies were stingy as shit with those things.”
“If they’ll help you get to the point, then yes.”
Carthage kept his weapon trained on Joseph as he grabbed a pack from his jacket. Siobhan was mildly surprised that he had any, until she noticed they were a local brand. He tossed the pack to the other man, followed by a lighter a moment later. Joseph grinned, lit one, and settled back into his chair.
“If you’re familiar with the Lagrange Project, then you know the main research facility was at Dun Ringill. In order for the Lagrange device to function properly, five satellite stations containing stabilization matrices had to be constructed. Known as cursi, they were placed around the globe at precise distances, and interacted with the main device on a quantum level. This would have ensured that a successful wormhole wouldn’t open up somewhere useless, like in the middle of the planet.”
Joseph took a long drag. “Isn’t it? Anyway, this cement plant happened to be right where they wanted to put a stabilization device. After the Wave hit, and the ensuing period of social chaos, the Knights decided that everything related to the Lagrange Project needed to be safeguarded. Out here in East Bumfuck, that meant placing a squad here at Cleaven Dyke Aggregates. The actual cement plant shut down shortly after the Wave, just like most of Skye’s industry. The squads were relieved every six months, up until six years ago, when Perth decided to go independent. Cut off from our logistical support, our squad did their best to live up to their original orders.”
Siobhan said, “Did that include highway robbery of civilian refugees?”
“I didn’t participate in that raid, but supplies have always been short out here. With the population of Perth overtly hostile to the Knights, and who the fuck knows what’s going on in Abernathy, my squaddies were often reduced to sneaking into Perth to steal food, and hunting around here has always been a mixed bag. The bigger the game, the higher the chance of unsafe radiation, you know.”
“You said you’re a technician,” began Carthage. “What’s your role here?”
“I was supposed to maintain the cursus until we received orders to reactivate it. Obviously that never happened. It doesn’t matter, though; once we lost the power grid from Perth that became impossible. Our diesel generators can’t produce enough power. And we’re out of diesel anyway.”
“What do you know about the Wave, the anomalies, and the monsters that attacked Abernathy?”
“The Wave? Something went very wrong at Dun Ringill. The monsters? Play around with the fabric of time and space and who knows what you’ll piss off. The anomalies? Don’t walk into one.”
Carthage frowned. “Now I feel like you’re just being coy with us, Mister Saive. But I’m not going to make you sit there all day while I interrogate you. Suffice it to say, your squad is dead. They didn’t want to talk and they left us no choice but to defend ourselves. If we can verify your story, then you’ll earn a modicum of our trust, but you’re on your own.”
Joseph swirled smoke around his head. “Trust is a two-way street, man. You haven’t told me anything about yourselves yet. I can tell you’re a member of the Space Expeditionary Force, it’s practically a neon sign hanging over your head. That’s got my curiosity pegged out for sure.”
“First things first. I want to see a copy of your orders and any other supporting documentation you may have. Then I want to see this circus thing.”
“Okay, the sooner you stop pointing that shotgun at me, the better. Will you at least tell me your names? It might help break the ice.”
“I’m Carthage, this is NicKennon.”
Siobhan smiled wanly. “Hi.”
Joseph stood up slowly, and stamped out what was left of his cigarette. “So one local, and one very much non-local. Got it. Follow me, then, and I’ll show you all the cool shit in the basement.”
The cursus device was in a sub-basement below the complex’s main building, a space that had apparently been dug out specifically for that purpose. After passing through a heavy vault door, Joseph led Siobhan and Carthage down at least five stories worth of stairs. With only their flashlights to illuminate their way, it was not a hospitable sort of place.
Joseph had quickly produced a copy of his orders from a desk drawer before they departed for the lab, which verified enough of his story to temporarily satisfy Carthage. He had allowed his demeanor to relax considerably, though Siobhan noticed he was taking care not to turn his back on Joseph. The technician didn’t seem at all bothered by the deaths of his squad mates, and he was genuinely excited to hear that Carthage was indeed with the SEF, so Siobhan had to guess that he was well past the point of being disgruntled about his situation.
At the bottom of the stairwell, a smaller vault door had been placed, and a sign next to it warned that deadly force was authorized against trespassers in the lab. Carthage brought his shotgun up to the low ready, so she did the same, but it was a precaution that proved to be unnecessary. Once inside the lab, Joseph threw a switch on the wall, activating several overhead lights.
“I’m not surprised these batteries still work,” he said. “I rarely use them. I mean, I can only do so much actual maintenance on a device that hasn’t been needed in decades.”
Carthage immediately noticed that the lab had once been set up as a clean room environment, though Joseph showed no interest in donning any of the protective suits that hung on the wall. Instead, he gestured at the large cylindrical device in the center of the room, and grabbed some papers from a desk by the door. The cursus was about seven feet tall, and bristled with power conduits and cooling ducts. There was a console at one end, as well as additional computer equipment nearby. Everything looked brand new except for some of the plastic components, which had begun to yellow with age. Joseph apparently took his job seriously.
“Neat,” said Carthage.
“How does it work?” asked Siobhan.
Joseph handed her most of the stack of papers. “Here’s the manual, if you can make any sense of it. Basically, it’s a virtual cyclotron that generates quantum-entangled neutrino pairs. One set was transmitted to Dun Ringill, and the other set was maintained here to remotely calibrate the stabilization field. With all five stations working in tandem, it would have been possible to manifest a wormhole wherever we wanted one. At least, that was the theory. And check this out, it’s a roster from the day of the Wave. Normally only two technicians were stationed here, and on that day, there were six.”
“So the rumors are true,” murmured Siobhan.
“Was there ever any doubt that the Wave was caused by the Lagrange Project?”
“Out here in East Bumfuck, as you called it, nobody knew for sure.”
Joseph turned to Carthage. “Yeah, but that’s why you’re here, right? To figure out what went wrong?”
Carthage stared at the cursus. “I’m here to find out what caused Skye to go dark. They didn’t tell me shit.”
Siobhan said, “Since you have us at such a disadvantage, Saive, why don’t you fill us in on what went down that day?”
“I really don’t know that much. Heck, I was trained on how to operate the cursus after the Wave hit, and the people that I worked with had good reasons to keep things on a need-to-know basis. The Knights know as well as anybody that to stay in power, you have to control information. I bet the real intel on what went down is reserved for their highest echelons.”
“This doesn’t change anything,” began Carthage. “I still have to get to Edinburgh. You said that Perth declared independence from the Knights, correct?”
“Yes, they thought their taxes were too high, and that they were far enough on the edge of the Knights’ territory to get away with kicking them out. Since I’ve been stuck here for six years, it seems they were right.”
“Then we’ll resume our journey north. Mister Saive, it sounds like you never had much loyalty to the Knights, how do you feel about them now?”
Joseph lit another cigarette. “Fuck ‘em.”
“Okay. Wait here for a minute, I need to talk to Miss NicKennon.”
Carthage motioned for Siobhan to join him in the stairwell. When they were out of earshot, he sighed.
“What do you want to do with him?” she asked.
“I don’t think he’s a threat to us. If we leave for Perth now, we can easily be there before nightfall. If we offer to take him with us, we won’t have to babysit him for very long. And the more willing he is to go with us, the more likely it is that he’s telling the truth. Unless he’s hiding something from us, there’s nothing left for him here.”
“That makes sense. It seems he never made friends with the soldiers that were stationed here. It must have been a lonely existence for him these past few years.”
“Perhaps, but I wonder…”
“It’s nothing, never mind. Let’s make him the offer and see how he reacts. If he’s going to join us, I want to use him as a pack mule for weapons and supplies we may be able to trade in Perth. We’ll load up and leave within the hour, if he’s ready.”
Siobhan raised her eyebrows. “He might not like that idea very much.”
“Like I said, let’s see how desperate he is to get out of this place. Carrying a few rifles and whatnot is a fair trade for an otherwise free escort to Perth.”
“You’re the boss, Carthage. We’ll see what he says. But can we get the hell out of this basement? It’s creepy as fuck down here.”
Carthage nodded. “Yeah. There’s something off about this place. Let’s go.”