The atmosphere processor is a short distance from the colony base. Achilles and Crixus arrive with ease. The processor is an imposing piece of equipment. It stands almost a mile high and is shaped like an open arena with a large flume that sucks in the existing air and turns it into water vapor, spitting it out into the clouds. The area near the giant facility is filled with moisture and the men are soaked as they approach.
The plant is open to the air with only small service crawl ways for entrances. The core is deep underneath, accessible only by a tunnel just below the main shaft. The machine was built to be automated and self-sustaining. Once the reactor went online, no one was to need to reenter, but like all things Roman, a contingency plan was put in place.
Entering is risky. The radiation levels in the chamber may spike depending on what the machine needs to keep going. Chugging along at a normal pace, everything was fine, but if needed the machine could generate more power, sending out dangerous waves of gamma rays and radioactive isotopes.
As they approach the machine, a thought occurs to Achilles.
“Could a spike in radiation emissions be affecting the Martian machine?” he says. “Could that’s what’s causing the shifts in reality?”
Achilles does not expect an answer and tries to explain to Crixus.
“The problem could be from tampering by the ill-equipped early colonists. They could have connected the systems incorrectly. Garelle was only using them because he was unfamiliar with the system. The colonists weren’t trained, so something might have been overlooked.”
“Agreed, but we’re no engineers ourselves. If we go fiddling around down there, couldn’t we do more damage and cause a meltdown?”
“A fine point, but I do have some training in this area. One of my responsibilities on the moon was maintaining the processor. Shutting down the plant may relieve both situations and prevent an imminent core breach. That would halt the interdimensional shifts.”
“Perhaps, but what of Garelle?”
“Garelle won’t interfere. It’s in his best interest to leave us be. Perhaps coming here was part of his plan.”
“Or part of an elaborate scheme to repair the reactor and get us out of the way?”
Achilles’s mind reels at the possibilities. “Let’s press on, Crixus.”
The sound of the processor sucking in air and spitting it out ius deafening underneath the shaft. The two men communicate by hand signals as they move through the fine mist approaching the access portal, a small hatch on the floor with a flashing red warning sign overhead that reads DANGER.
Crixus looks nervous as Achilles kneels down and punches in a code. The light switches to green and the door swings upwards, revealing a ladder that leads into the belly of the machine. Achilles is climbs down and Crixus follows, closing the panel cover behind them. It seals itself shut with a pressure relief valve, shutting out all the noise from outside. Only the low, distant hum of a normal reactor below them is audible. Proceeding downward, they reach the second sublevel, which opens to a monitoring station. A work locker with tools to diagnose whatever was going wrong is inset into the wall next to a display monitor.
To his dismay, when Achilles opens the door he finds a ransacked mess. Nothing is where it should be and it would take more time than they have to sort it out. He picks up a portable Geiger counter.
“At least we’ll be able to detect the radiation spikes.”
“Where’s the protective gear?” Crixus asks. “Our suits won’t offer the insulation needed if we descend. We can’t repair the reactor without protection, e’d be dead in minutes!”
“The fate of earth is in the balance. If the core breaches, everything will play out just as Sarelle said. The Martian isn’t behaving logically.”
“Garelle is insane, and that means the machine is, too. The Martian has been isolated for so long, driven by a single goal, that it is blinded to all other possibilities. We’re seeing a plan play out that he’s had a billion years to concoct.”
“Sir, I simply don’t understand.”
“Everything that’s happened was to get you and I here. Everyone had a separate part in making this thing work. Garelle’s plans included the processor malfunctions. He was limited in what he could, do so he used us. When the first colonists arrived, they set off a chain of events that was irreversible. Sarelle tried to intervene, and when she did it left Garelle with few options, one of which was the time displacement caused by the spikes in radiation. It allowed him to view the past through those he had infected with the Crystal Blue. In a way, it allowed him to pick who he needed and when. Darius, Trajan, Claudia and I. The only people he couldn’t see were the children. They hadn’t been born yet.”
“But that means you and I are here to repair the reactor, not shut it down.”
A klaxon sounds and the automated voice of the computer monitoring system speaks.
“Warning! The core temperature is rising. The automatic shutdown systems are offline. Manual override is imperative.”
Achilles and Crixus look at a nearby wall monitor. On it is a digital schematic of the entire plant. Below the outline of the giant flume is a large red light that shows the reactor. It is blinking and growing hotter. Achilles points to the screen.
“The problem is in the coolant intake. When the processor takes in oxygen, it turns it into CO2 vapor. Most goes to keeping the generator cool and the rest is used to make the air breathable. When the earlier colonists fitted the pipes, they must have done so with inferior welds. Over time the constant vibration has loosened them and the water is being vented elsewhere and not into the nuclear pile. All we need is for Trajan to blow up the ice caps and melt them so some of that floods this way. It might be enough to cool the reactor without us venturing into the core. But that much water will obliterate to the colony.”
Seeing this as his only option, Achilles radios Claudia. He is about to speak when Crixus grabs his arm, tight as a vice grip. Achilles winces in pain as he’s hurled to the floor.
“What are you doing?” he says.
“You must finish what you have started,” says Crixus. All humanity seems to drain from his face and an evil presence fills him. Achilles stands and faces this strange being, unafraid.
“Who are you?”
“One who, in another world, was a subordinate that was passed over. In my empire, officers advanced in rank through attrition. If a superior was not performing his duty, it was the obligation of his second to relieve him. You died long ago, but I found myself here and with different directions. This Garelle has offered me a command and riches beyond imagination. The only reason you’re still here is to repair the reactor,” says Crixus.
“You’re being used. If he gets his wish, your empire and mine will cease to exist. It will be like we never lived at all. He’s shifting time to reverse events that happened billions of years ago. The Martian civilization belongs in the past. He wants to bring it back through us and his machine. You must understand me!”
The desperate plea falls on deaf ears. Crixus reaches behind the monitor and pulls out a syringe gun, its vial filled with Crystal Blue. Before Achilles can react Crixus plunges the needle deep into his chest. Achilles collapses and his head swims. As Crixus speaks, it sounds like he is in a tunnel. Achilles fights to keep his own identity but falters as Garelle presses him on. Getting to his feet, he steadies himself on a nearby computer station.
Unable to control his own actions, he takes the tools necessary to fix the broken intact valves. In his fist he still holds his receiver. Its indicator light is active. “Claudia,” he thinks, “I must warn her.” He types their personal emergency code that only she can understand. Keeping the receiver hidden, he walks ahead of Crixus to the reactor chamber door. Above it reads DANGER: Radiation. If he plays it right, he might trick Crixus into opening the hatch for him.
Pocketing his radio, he picks up the heavy welding equipment, struggling to drape it over his shoulder. He looks through the portal. On the other side is a small ledge that has a ladder adjoined to it which drops to the bottom. If he’s not careful he may tumble straight down. Once the doorway is opened, it only allows a second or two to slide in since there is the only shielding is to prevent toxic particles leaking out. Putting on a good show, Achilles hobbles to the entrance, pretending he cannot lift his finger to press the access button. Crixus marches over.
“Now you must die as before.”
“Please, open the door for me. I only wish to complete my task for Emperor Marcus,” says Achilles. He feels himself submitting to the Crystal Blue. It is very strong, but so is he. He has to hold it together for just a few more minutes. Crixus raises his hand to the button and presses it. Achilles readies himself. The door slides up and he rushes Crixus, pushing him through the opening. Crixus tumbles off the ledge but catches himself before he falls. He pulls himself up, almost in time to reach the hatch before it slams shut. Achilles hits the locking mechanism and seals Crixus in. Crixus pounds on the door. “Bastard! You bastard! Release me at once.” Radiation permeates his body. He grows weaker as life ebbs. Getting sick he throws up on the glass as he falls to the ground. Achilles looks through the glass at the dead man, and feels a pang in his chest.
The klaxon blares. Checking the time on the monitor, Achilles realizes he has only twenty minutes to core breach. He can accomplish what he has set out to do, but he has to get Claudia and the children clear. Garelle enters his mind, asserting a powerful influence through Crystal Blue. Achilles takes the transceiver from his pocket and a stabbing pains hit him. The enormous pressure drives him to his knees. An image of a bug appears before him. Is it the Martian? Marcus? His vision is fuzzy and he cannot tell for sure. Its black orbular eyes stare at him. It speaks to him telepathically.
“Arise. You must do as I say,” it says. Achilles drops the receiver. When the unit hits the floor, the line to Claudia opens. She is standing across the room from Marcus and the guards when she feels the receiver vibrate. Looking down, she sees it is Achilles. She turns away from Marcus and the Praetorian guards and brings the mic up to her mouth.
“Achilles, are you there?” she whispers. He does not hear her as he gets to his feet. He walks back to the reactor door where the discarded welding equipment lays.
“Yes, you must do it,” says the alien voice.
Bending down, he hesitates. “I mustn’t,” he says. The bug’s control is overwhelming. “Achilles please answer!” calls Claudia. It sounds far away, but he hears it and so does Garelle.
“Tell her you’re all right, that everything will be fine.”
Achilles hoists the equipment on his back to do Garelle’s bidding, then picks up the receiver. His thumb hovers over the button but he is prevented from pressing it. Garelle punishes him with a searing thought probe. Achilles screams. Sweat wets his arms and face and he has to catch his breath.
“Tell her!” the voice presses him. He clicks the button, but the creature punishes him for his hesitation, sending the pain through his temple. “Claudia!” Achilles screams as another agonizing burst sends him to his knees.
Claudia is frantic on the other end.
Clenching his teeth, he falls onto his back and writhes in agony, pain wrenching every part of his body. He musters the strength to speak over the communicator.
“Take the children... Trajan must destroy ice... need water to stop reactor... get to the shuttle.”
“Achilles, what’s happened? Are you injured?”
Marcus hears her panicked voice and hovers over to her.
“Who is that? Trajan? What are you doing?”
He stares at her, attempting to reach into her mind. She pushes him away with her mind.
“How are you able to resist?” Marcus says.
Achilles rolls on the floor inside the processor. A piercing noise sounds in his skull, racking every joint in his body. It is like an electric jolt, thousands of watts coursing through his nervous system. With grim determination, he gets to his feet and takes the welding tank off and disconnects the hose, then blocks his thoughts with the pleasant memories of his children, of happy times with them and Claudia playing in the sun. Tears of happiness swell in his eyes. It frustrates the Martian, who cannot see what he is doing.
“Stop resisting,” says Garelle.
Achilles focuses, knowing what he has to do. He loosens the valve on the acetylene tank, releasing some of the pressurized gas. It spews a fine powdery cloud which reacts to the moisture in the room, making the escaping mist visible in the dark enclosure. One spark is all it will take to ignite. He is prepared to die, but pulls on his helmet. It is fireproofed, with only slits for the eyes. The jumpsuit covers the rest of his body. He should only have to worry about the blast knocking him out. His hopes to disable the control monitor of the reactor so it cannot be repaired. The problem is that if he succeeds, the only thing that will stop the meltdown is the water. It is imperative to do this and not lose consciousness.
Shaking his head, trying to get the cobwebs out, he readies himself. Aiming the tank best as he can, he takes deep breaths, one, two, three, then heaves it towards the monitor. Like a dancer he pirouettes jumping to the floor. Everything moves in slow motion as the acetylene canister arcs through the air. The metal canister clinks. Boom! The shock wave hits him, knocking him across the room.
Lying flat on his back, the fireball skirts just over the top of him, missing him by inches before it dissipates. The computer control station is a complete wreck. Garelle screams and attacks Achilles’s mind. Achilles’s high adrenaline nullifies the Crystal Blue and Garelle’s attack has no effect.
The warning systems go into overdrive and the whole plant sounds alarms. Achilles, now able to flee, makes his way up and outside as a louder, droning raid siren goes off. He climbs into his rover and speeds off. En route to Trajan’s position, Achilles gets on the comm system and radios the colony base. His voice comes over the loudspeaker inside the command center. This time, everyone hears him. A red strobe emergency light blinks on over the control panel. The computer starts the countdown to imminent meltdown.
“Twenty minutes to core breach.”
“Claudia, did you hear that? You and the children must evacuate now. We’re going to blow the ice caps and flood the whole area to stop it, but the base will be destroyed,” he says.
Marcus clicks on the receiver.
“What have you done, you worm!?” he demands.
Garelle’s voice fills the air. Marcus looks around, confused.
“Who are you?” Marcus says.
“Search your feelings, it is me. I have filled your dreams and guided you all this way. I am the buzzing you heard in your head when you ascended to power. I have helped you. My name is Garelle. Together we can finish what we have started.”
Marcus surrenders to the force of his Martian master. Garrelle instructs him. “You must stop Achilles now. It’s not too late. I need your DNA to complete our mission. We will restore the Martian empire!”
Under Garelle’s spell, Marcus hovers away. Claudia tries to reason with him.
“You are being manipulated, Brother. Don’t do as he asks. What you’re doing can only end in disaster.”
He is unfazed by her pleas and continues on to the lab table. The portable DNA scanner still sits where Crixus performed the blood tests. Marcus places his claw-like hand on top of the scanner.
Lucilla seizes the time to strike. She does not know why, but Marcus must be prevented from scanning his DNA sample. She grabs a gun from a Praetorian, and levels it at Marcus.
“Stop, Marcus! Don’t think for a second I won’t!”
He jerks his hand away, but a Praetorian sees the threat and fires, blasting a charred hole in her chest. Marcus cries out in agony. Claudia runs to her side and kneels down, checking for a pulse.
“Do not worry,” Garelle says. “I will return her to you. Place your hand on the scanner and I’ll show you the power of creation.”
“Don’t do it,” Claudia screams. In his grief, Marcus can do only one thing.
“I must have her returned to me, Sister,” he says.
Claudia directs a psychic attack at Marcus, but Garelle intervenes, helping her to block her. She presses, but Garelle’s strength prevails. Agrippa, possessed by Sarelle, emerges from the adjoining room carrying the children. Darius, who has been cowed by all this, sees them and realizes he has to fight.
“Yes, my son, you can do it,” says Sarelle.
Claudia and Darius combine their forces to stop Marcus, but Garelle, with the help of the machine, is winning.