The Relic Experiment
By Shantella Benson
Rivulets of sweat ran down my back like an ancient stream flowing toward a reservoir. If the heat didn’t fry a person’s brain, then the threat of something dining on their flesh was enough to keep most people underground instead of topside.
I flinched as concrete walls fell from a nearby building. The sun’s radiation sucked the moisture out of everything, turning bricks to dust, evaporating plants, buckling and cracking the asphalt, and zapping my strength. I approached the abandoned apartment building with extreme caution. It was the last structure left to search on the street.
Staying in an air-conditioned compartment wasn’t an option most days. I was part of the team dispatched to rescue those who ventured topside on official, or unofficial, business. Last night a group of researchers, led by Dr. Jonah Mathers, conducted a mission without protection. We found the bodies ravaged by RELICs—Resistant Entities Living inside Corpses. All but one. The body of Jonah, my brother.
I’d been on plenty of ‘search and recover’ missions. Too many, to be honest about it. Finding bodies was the job, but it took on a different meaning when it became personal. Going inside the building was the last thing I wanted to do, but staying outside was tantamount to committing professional suicide. If I didn’t die or be killed, I’d be removed from duty.
Sweat pooled at the collar around my neck. I pulled at my containment suit, hoping for a little relief, and nudged the splintered door open with the muzzle of my high-powered weapon. The stench of rotting flesh and sulfur leaked past the plastic barrier making me gag. I choked back the bile and stepped carefully inside.
Jonah was a prominent scientist sent back to Earth to study the effects of radiation on the surface. The lone survivor of his team reported Jonah volunteered to distract the RELICs while he escaped. It was reported that my brother put up a good fight before he was overcome, and his flesh stripped away. I didn’t believe Jonah acted as bait for anyone. The so-called eyewitness lied. Jonah didn’t have a death wish nor a hero complex.
I pressed my back against a crumbling concrete wall, taking short cleansing breaths. Beads of sweat gathered on my forehead. Jonah was in this building for a reason. My Intel, however, didn’t indicate whether he was searching for something. Lack of knowledge never deterred me before, but the quaking in my limbs might. I gripped my weapon tighter and pushed off the wall.
“Lieutenant Mathers? Alecia? Can you hear me?” It was Preston Gage, a member of Control. I’d been in the field for over an hour, thirty minutes longer than what was safe.
“Yes, I’m here,” my voice wavered. “I need a few more minutes.” My foot caught the edge of some rubble in the hallway. Damn. I regained my balance and pushed the pile around with my boot. Human remains. Another RELICs victim. I hated my job.
“Unacceptable,” Preston yelled in my ear. “Get back to base now.” I was defying orders, yet again, and it pissed him off. He knew that when my empathic abilities overwhelmed me, I took unnecessary risks. Sometimes being risky got the job done, and this one wasn’t finished yet.
“Gage, my brother lost his life over something in here. I have to find it.” I silenced the com, not waiting for the argument that was coming. A possibly fatal decision. There’d be hell to pay, but I’d deal with it later.
Which way did Jonah go? I stopped at the foot of a staircase. The blazing sun shone through a hole onto the steps littered with more bones, odd remnants of clothing, and shell casings. Large clumps of crumbling concrete and rebar left a treacherous path for me to avoid. The flooring bounced on the first step. On the second one, my foot crashed through the wood planks. My shoulder hit the wall pulverizing it on impact. I struggled to stay upright.
“What the—” I yanked my foot out. Thank God my military-issue boot didn’t come off. Got to be more careful, or I will end up as RELICs bait.
Radiation had destroyed the wallpaper and the stairs in this structure. Jonah wouldn’t have risked going upstairs. I turned and walked down the hall sidestepping the remains.
The air was stifling in this part of the building. My containment suit provided a thin barrier against the UV radiation. It was as helpful as wearing a rubberized suit into a furnace.
The stench from the end of the hall, like fresh road kill, grew stronger the closer I got to the graffiti riddled door. A bitter, sour taste crept up my throat. The sensors on my suit flashed. A life form remained in the room. Jonah. My heart thumped like a runaway jackhammer filling me with hope.
My body grew heavier as I continued down the hall. Was it the depleted oxygen that sapped all my energy? Or, was it the hopelessness I felt every time I came to the surface? Neither. I wanted Jonah to be alive, but finding my brother alive was as likely as a rainstorm.
I cocked my weapon, said a prayer, and entered the room. Jonah’s half-eaten body, still in his suit without his helmet, lay near the door with flies swarming around it. I sank to my knees, rubbing my hand against my chest. The pain cut through me. His pale blue eyes staring blankly at me begging for help, or release, hurt. I swallowed a sob, reached over, and closed them. He didn’t deserve to die like that.
I pushed his ash blonde hair off his forehead. Now, it was up to me to…
My spine tingled—my internal warning system.
Ba-doom shum, ba-doom shum.
Something dragged itself down the hall.
Ba-doom shum, ba-doom shum.
The noise grew louder. I whirled around. The shadow approached me.
I blinked hoping the sweat trickling into my eyes hampered my vision. No such luck.
My heart raced. The black, soulless eyes of the RELIC stared in my direction. He couldn’t see me. He’d lost that part of his humanity a long time ago. Jonah discovered humans left behind a vapor trail, akin to an aura, which was only detected by RELICs. Most likely he was coming to finish his meal. I pushed the thought from my mind. Jonah was not food.
The creature still resembled a man, but its skin was gray and oozed the blood from whoever was his last meal. I prayed it wasn’t Jonah. His hair was matted and dirty. Maggots fell from his clothing, squirming on the dust covered floor. A partially severed leg trailed behind him. The corpse stopped just short of the doorway and opened its mouth. The foul stench from its guts assaulted my nose followed by an ear-splitting shriek filling the room.
I jumped up. Raised my weapon. Fired. The RELIC blew apart, leaving behind a fetid trail of black dust.
I inhaled, sucking up all my remaining oxygen. I needed to get out of there before my reserve pack ran out. RELICs always traveled in groups. More might be waiting for me.
I inputted my coordinates into the GPS device on my chest plate.
My body went numb. I’d give anything to escape the misery and despair. Protocol ran through my mind—collection team picking up Jonah’s body and depositing it for cremation, the interplanetary digiprint delivered to my folks, his ashes returned to New Terra. The thought alone made my heart ache. I sniffed. No time for crying in the field. My subordinates would think I was weak. Only the strong survived in my line of work.
I swallowed my grief and started to leave. A green light glowing in the corner caught my eye. It was a Paradigm, a programmable digital recording machine. I bent, picked up the black box, and pushed the button. I turned on my com.
My CO screamed obscenities in the background. “What do you mean she cut off communications?”
If creeks still existed, I’d be up one without a paddle.
“The Paradigm is activated,” Preston’s low voice crackled in my ear. “You did well, Mathers.”
Not well enough, I thought. I came back to Earth to protect those left behind, but I failed to keep Jonah safe.
“Gage, did you get my coordinates?”
“Yeah. Team’s in front of the building. Took out a group of RELICs.”
I fingered Jonah’s containment suit and discovered a one-inch clean cut. If he snagged the suit, the hole would have been jagged. Was the suit destroyed before or after he came topside?
Preston met me outside the Decontamination Chamber and pulled me into an embrace. I ran my hand over his tight black shirt, hugged his muscular frame, and placed my head on his shoulder. We were breaking protocol, but at that moment I didn’t care. I just needed to be comforted.
“I’m sorry about Jonah,” he whispered.
“Thank you.” I didn’t want to let him go, but there’d be time for consoling later. I wiped my face and looked into Preston’s brown eyes. Dark circles told me he worked another back-to-back shift without a break. The man insisted on pushing himself beyond reasonable limits. He should take better care of himself.
“I would take better care of myself if I didn’t worry about you all the time,” he said.
I sighed. Once again, I forgot to shield my thoughts from the telepath who loved rummaging through my mind.
“We need to talk.”
I crossed my arms. “Shoot.”
“Not here.” He grasped my elbow and pulled me out of the bright white lights surrounding the area. We stopped in a dark corridor away from surveillance. Preston gazed into my eyes.
I sensed his concern. He didn’t like keeping our relationship secret. If it were up to him, he’d tell everyone he was in love with me. Back on New Terra it wasn’t an issue, but as a member of the away team fraternization would get us dismissed.
He lowered his forehead to mine. “You’re in trouble. Again.”
My stomach rolled. Being called into our CO’s office was a regular occurrence for me. I whispered, “How bad this time?”
Preston took a step back. “You shouldn’t have turned off your com. Schaffer went ballistic.”
I rolled my eyes. “I got the Paradigm, so it was worth it.”
“So not the point. Schaffer wants you in her office ASAP.”
“Tell me something new.”
Preston leaned against the rock wall. “Jonah was set up.”
My pulse quickened. “You looked at the Paradigm?”
He nodded. “I downloaded the stream. Meet me back at my place at 0600. I’ll show you the footage. Right now, you need to get your ass in Shaffer’s office.”
I traced Preston’s sculpted chest with my finger. “I thought you liked having my ass all to yourself.”
“Woman, you’re gonna be the death of me.” He kissed my forehead. “Go. I’ll see you later.”
I started to walk away.
“Oh, and Mathers?”
“At least act as if you’re sorry. She might go easier on you.”
I smiled and saluted. “Aye, Sir.”
Waves of anger and frustration slammed into me before I entered Commanding Officer Becca Shaffer’s office. My stomach tightened as I prepared for the onslaught.
The tall, athletically built redhead paced the floor grinding her teeth. When the door closed, she barreled towards me. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
My spine tingled. I picked up the energy, a signature, of someone else in the room. My eyes quickly scanned the area for the unseen presence but found no one. Whoever it was, their signature kept shifting.
“You are the most infuriating, impertinent member of this team.” Her emerald eyes glared at me. “Under no circumstances are you to ever again turn off your com in the field.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I clasped my hands behind my back and stood at attention before Shaffer. Frankly, I didn’t care what she had to say. My mind kept wandering back to Jonah’s ransacked body. “With all due respect, ma’am, I secured the Paradigm.”
Shaffer slammed her fist on the desk. “A completely worthless Paradigm. We can’t decipher a thing on it.”
I studied Shaffer. The woman was pissed. She believed the Paradigm was worthless. Preston lied to the CO. What on earth did he find?
“If you cannot follow orders, you’ll find yourself off this team,” Shaffer spat out, “and, on the first transport back to New Terra.”
“Yes, ma’am.” My throat went dry. I wouldn’t leave Earth until I found the person responsible for Jonah’s death.
Shaffer leaned back in her chair, at ease and in control. “A written reprimand will go in your records.” She glanced down at a stack of papers on her desk. “One more thing, Mathers.”
“Sorry about Jonah.” She sounded genuine. “If you’d like to take time off…”
That would allow me time to investigate things. “Yes. I-I need time to get his ashes back to my parents.”
“Very well. You’re off for a week. You’re dismissed.”
“Thank you.” Every fiber in my body told me Shaffer held something back, but what was it? I shrugged and headed to the door. The shifting signature grew stronger. I glanced over my shoulder. My CO still sat at her desk. Alone.
I left Control and headed for Preston’s compartment on Subserra’s seedier side. The streets were terrorized by gangs pillaging the abandoned shops. They were petty, harmless crimes. It was unusual for the streets to be empty, though. Maybe it was out of respect for last night’s massacre. My spine tingled. The faint trail of a signature was behind me.
One more street to cross and I’d be there. The signature got stronger. I ducked into an alley, raised my firearm, and waited.
The com buzzed in my ear. Not now. “Hello?”
“Alecia, where are you?” Preston’s voice was full of concern.
“About a kilometer from your front door, in the alley.”
Heavy footsteps echoed down the street. I lowered my voice, “Someone’s following me.”
“Stay put.” Static crackled over the com. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Okay.” I left the com open and held my breath. The signature, dark and determined, neared the alley.
I leaned against the rough wall. My heart raced. Maybe I imagined things. What was the worst thing I might encounter underground? Control had eyes and ears all over Subserra.
I’m being ridiculous. I stuck my head around the corner and ran into Preston.
“Preston, you scared the crap out of me!” I exhaled and returned my weapon to the holster inside my leather jacket. Odd. Focusing so hard on the signature blocked my connection to Preston. That had never happened before.
He smiled, slow and sexy. “Going somewhere, gorgeous?”
I disconnected my com. “See anyone?”
“Nope. If someone was following, they’re long gone. What happened with Shaffer?”
“Written reprimand.” Preston wrapped an arm around me as we walked to his place. I couldn’t help looking behind us. Neither the signature nor a presence was there.
Preston entered the code for his compartment and the lock clicked. He held the door open for me. I shrugged off my jacket and collapsed on the sofa. I was too tired and more than happy to see dinner on the table. A fire in the brazier knocked the chill out of the air. Preston ran his hand over his cropped dark hair, sat next to me, and kissed my cheek.
He rubbed my aching back. “Do you want to eat before I show you the footage?”
“I can do both.” I said matter-of-factly and reached for the plate.
“Figured you say that.” He picked up a remote and pointed it to the wall over the brazier.
The Paradigm displayed the room in the abandoned building. Two people walked in. One voice belonged to an unfamiliar female, and the other was Jonah. They talked briefly about the building being a hotspot for RELICs. They both turned as a third person entered the room. No words were exchanged. The third person stumbled into Jonah. A flash of metal touched his back. I gasped. He dropped to his knees as the heat invaded his suit. The other two people walked out, leaving him alone.
“Pause it and rewind ten seconds… Stop,” I said with a mouth full of Sim-Beef burger. The image of the metal touching Jonah’s suit was frozen on the wall. “Did you catch that?”
“The blade? Yeah.” Preston dropped the remote on the sofa.
I wiped my mouth. “When I found Jonah’s body, I also found a clean one-inch cut on his suit. It looked like someone made it. Anybody else see this?”
“No. I confiscated it. Said the footage was scrambled, unusable.”
“That’s why Shaffer said the Paradigm was worthless.” I took another bite of the tasteless burger and pushed it aside. “Pres, how long had the Paradigm been in the room?”
He turned off the footage. “No idea. We didn’t have record of one on the premises. Did Jonah keep work at home?”
“He used a microtec in his room.”
Preston stood. “Let’s clean this up and go back to your place.”
The full effect of Jonah’s death hit me when I opened the door to our shared compartment. I picked up his coffee mug from the counter and the tears rolled down my face. It would be the last stained mug to clean of his. Jonah’s ravaged body flashed in my mind. I slid to the floor. His death was senseless. He was one of the good guys willing to do anything for anyone without a question.
Preston dropped to the floor beside me. He put an arm around my waist and pulled me to his side rubbing my arm. “Babe, I’m so sorry. I know how much he meant to you. Hell, I miss him too. He was my best friend.”
My throat hurt too bad to speak. Instead, I buried my face in Preston’s chest and bawled like a baby. Jonah was my whole reason for coming back to Earth. Our parents warned us about the dangers, but we had jobs to do. Besides, Jonah was always so careful going topside.
“Babe, you don’t have to stay here.” Preston kissed my forehead. “We’d been talking about moving in together. To hell with protocol. Let me take care of you for a change.”
I peered into his shining dark eyes and nodded. Thank God for Preston. I couldn’t survive this without him. “Let’s find whatever Jonah had here,” I said, drying my eyes. “Then we leave.”
Preston helped me to my feet. “I’ll go search Jonah’s room. Pack whatever you need for a few days.”
He tapped my forehead. “You got a week off. We’re spending it together.”
The telepath struck again.
Preston raised his eyebrows. “Remember, you can’t keep anything from me.”
So true. We met through the New Terra Global Bureau of Investigation (GBI) who paired us up because of our abilities. Years ago the GBI discovered creating teams based on attributes made crime analysis and crime solving easier. We worked well together. In the office, and outside of it.
Preston walked into my room carrying a metal dispatch case.
“Did you find Jonah’s microtec?”
“Got it plus some data—”
Footsteps rushed into the outer room. Preston and I exchanged a look.
He put a finger to his lips and removed his firearm from its holster. I reached underneath my bed and pulled out two titanium daggers. I tossed one to Preston. He caught the hilt and edged his way down the hall.
I pushed the dispatch case under the bed and followed Preston. I perceived the same signature from earlier—on the street and in Shaffer’s office.
Ripping noises came from Jonah’s room.
Preston hit a light switch. He held his weapon out ready to shoot. “Show yourself. Control Squad on premises.”
Two masked people wearing all black appeared. One of them had a weapon and aimed it at me. I ducked and ran.
Preston screamed my name before the gun discharged.
The bullet embedded itself in a nearby wall.
The figures ran out the door.
“Pres, I’m fine.” I stepped out of my room and dropped the dispatch case and my overnight bag on the floor.
Preston slumped against the wall. He reached for me, pulling me to him. “Babe, you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Whoever that was I think they came for Jonah’s things.”
“I said we’d leave, but we’re safer here. They won’t come back tonight. I’m calling into Control.”
“Why?” We needed to keep our investigation secret for now.
“You’re not staying alone. If you’re out, I’m out. We’re sorting this out together. Especially with someone following you.” Preston’s lips brushed mine. “Set up the feed. Give me a minute to call Control.”
I lit the brazier, opened the dispatch case, and clicked on Jonah’s microtec. Preston disconnected his call from Control and sat beside me.
“What did Shaffer say?” I asked.
“She told me to take as much time as I needed.” Preston glanced at me. “I’m more concerned with what she didn’t say.”
“She suspects this is about Jonah’s death.”
“Pres, that’s not a news flash.”
“Not what I meant. She’s suspicious of what we’re doing.”
I squinted at Preston. “Shaffer’s a telepath?”
“I don’t think so, but if she isn’t…” He shook his head. “No. Someone overheard our conversation and informed her.”
Maybe the matching signatures I picked up had something to do with it. I shivered. “Someone was in her office when I went in earlier.”
“Who?” He placed his elbows on his knees and leaned forward.
“I never saw the person, but I sensed their signature. The same signature was following me earlier. Those people who broke in? Same signature. Do you think Shaffer knew about them?”
“Unsure. I need a face-to-face conversation with her to confirm anything, but that would tip her off. Let’s find out if Jonah left a message.”
I picked up a remote and scanned the numerous files on the microtec. I stopped on the one labeled ‘In Case of Death’. Upon opening, a beam of blue light shone on the wall. An image of Jonah appeared.
“Lee, if you accessed this, it means I’m no longer with you.” Only Jonah called me Lee. The tears started. Preston tugged me to his side.
“I’m so sorry to put you through this, Lee. If there is an afterlife, I’m sure my spirit’s feeling the pain seeing you cry. I know you’re hurting, but I need you not to be so focused on my death. I’m certain Preston’s with you. Get our girl through this, man.”
Jonah exhaled deeply. “There’s something you have to do for me. Think about the reason I’m dead. I didn’t die from natural causes. I found out what the New Terra government is hiding. The RELICs are part of a horrible experiment. It’s up to the two of you to expose this information. If you don’t, the people of New Terra will meet the same fate.
“All the info is on the data cards. People will search for them. You need to get the cards to Aunjanue Wallace. She’s a journalist with Global News Network on New Terra. She’ll make sure the news gets out. I’ve already contacted her. She’s waiting for the cards. One more thing. Shaffer’s bad news, and she has a partner in crime.”
The image distorted before fading to black. Preston rubbed the dark stubble covering his jaw.
“Alecia, I can’t let you risk your life for this. You need to go home.”
I shook my head. “You don’t get to decide for me. Jonah was my brother. I owe him.”
He clasped my shoulders. “He was like a brother to me. I get it, Alecia. But, we can get ourselves killed doing what he wants.”
“And he got killed for it. We have a mission, Pres.”
Preston dropped his hands and stared at the floor. “How do we go about it?”
I reached for his hand. “We do what Jonah said. I’ll collect his ashes in the morning. We’ll catch the first transport back to New Terra.”
“Getting past customs?”
“We put the data cards in the container. They don’t screen remains.”
He bobbed his head up and down. “And the microtec?”
“Destroy it. We have the message.”
Preston squeezed my hand. “What about Shaffer?”
“We transfer the data cards first. Once the exchange is done, we find who she’s working with and take them down.”
We woke up early the next day. Preston raided Jonah’s closet and found a change of clothing while I made breakfast.
“Babe, I need to swing by my place and pack a bag.”
I set my coffee cup down on the counter. “I checked the schedule. Next transport leaves in an hour. Do you want to meet me at the station?”
“No.” He takes a sip from my cup. “Come by my place. We’ll hide the cards and then leave.”
My senses tingled. I wanted to believe it was just fatigue, but I couldn’t shake the signature. It haunted me all night long. Even now I felt it.
There was no problem claiming Jonah’s remains. The heavy metal box waited for me at the front desk of Control. I signed for the container and saw Shaffer staring at me from across the room. My senses were on high alert. The signature was somewhere nearby. A quick scan of the area revealed nothing unusual.
I shifted the box under my arm and walked out Control’s front door. I made my way through the back streets of Subserra. As I passed an abandoned shop window, I noticed a shadow across the street. It was the signature. I checked for my weapon, adjusted the box, and continued walking.
Preston met me outside his compartment. “Any problem?”
“No.” I turned and scanned the area. The signature was close. “Let’s go inside.”
He closed the door behind him. “What’s wrong?”
“The signature’s following me, again. Let’s hurry and get to the station. I’ll feel better once we get to New Terra.”
Thanks to advances in Turbo Boost Energy transports between Earth and New Terra took six hours. I placed the container in the overhead bin, sat beside Preston, and closed my eyes. Just before I drifted off, I sensed the signature somewhere on the transport vessel.
I leaned over and whispered in Preston’s ear. “The signature is here.”
He glanced around us. “Don’t worry. Nothing will happen on board.”
Maybe he was right. My senses said something else. Reluctantly, I closed my eyes.
Hours later, we were elbowing our way through the crammed transporter station. We caught an Ubercraft and I called Aunjanue Wallace, the investigative reporter at GNN. She was expecting us.
My foot tapped out a steady rhythm on the highly polished white floor. I couldn’t believe we were here finishing what Jonah started. I hadn’t picked up on the signature since we entered the building.
Preston squeezed my hand. “Calm down. Here she comes.”
A tall African woman walked over to us. “Are you Alecia Mathers?”
I shook the woman’s hand. “Yes. This is my partner Preston Gage.”
“Nice to meet you. Please follow me.”
She locked the door behind us before sitting down at a conference table. She turned on a microtec. “Your brother contacted me a few days ago. I’m so sorry to hear of his demise.”
“His investigation was impressive. You have his data cards?”
“Yes.” I unlocked the metal container and removed the aluminum cylinder. We placed the data cards up under the lid. I unscrewed the top and flipped it over. Nothing. “What?”
Preston looked over my shoulder. He looked into the cylinder. “Where are they?”
Ms. Wallace eyed us suspiciously. “The data cards?”
“Ms. Wallace, I don’t know what happened. I didn’t take my eye…” The only time the box left my sight was on board the transport. The bin was sealed with a code. How in the hell did someone get inside it?
Ms. Wallace shook her head and stood. “I am sorry for your misfortune, but without the data cards I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
Preston and I walked out of the GNN building. A cool, welcoming breeze hit me. Where extreme heat bombarded Earth, New Terra had mostly cloudy days. I walked away from the building.
“Alecia, where are you going?” Preston grabbed my hand.
“We need to go back to the station. Check surveillance footage. Somebody on board the vessel took the cards.”
“It was the only time the box left my sight. We both went to sleep. Anyone could have gotten to it. I shouldn’t—”
He pulled me close and embraced me. “Don’t blame yourself. There was no way anyone expected you to hold a heavy container for six hours.”
“I still have a friend with the GBI. Let me contact him. He can issue official docs and get the discs. We’ll get a passenger log too. See if we recognize any of the names.”
“I’ll contact him now. Don’t worry, Alecia. We’ll get them back.”
My spine tingled. The signature was nearby. Its energy was menacing.
Why was it following us? We didn’t have the cards. Probably would never see them again. Did Jonah know more than what was on the data cards? Did the signature think he shared that info with me?
I thought we were ending what Jonah started. We’d only just begun.