Aphelion Issue 263, Volume 25
July 2021
 
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Bleach

by David Brookes


It took a computer the size of a man to disassemble his flesh, bone and blood and feed it into a subspace energy conduit, but it only took a receiver as large as an egg to rebuild him. His consciousness returned last. It had been stored in a micro CPU that was fixed inside his suit and was now filling his neural pathways with specific electrical pulses, which were working hard to set and remould the chemicals of his brain into his individual memories and personality.

With the transferral process complete, Mel Dulton surveyed his new surroundings. His body automatically crouched low; his limbs pulled closed and his pupils widened like a cat's, drawing in light to better observe the new, hostile environment.

Darkness made the outer walls of the compound a solid grey. The automated sentries, a decade old, were on alert but hardly conspicuous: their chromed outer shells reflected the yellow moonlight. Dulton gave them a wide berth as he approached the compound entrance, shaking off the last of the tingling sensation left by the transference. The nanites that crawled within the fibres of his Kevlar combat suit made sure that everything had arrived safely; meanwhile, Dulton was scanning the inner perimeter of the compound.

He burnt himself an entrance in a plasti-plex window and squirted autosealant around the edges. As the sealant repaired the window, he pushed through the darkness of an empty corridor and replayed his mandate in his speaker implant.

They called him 'Bleach', because when the last resort boys made a mess, he was the one who cleaned up. He was thrown into the hotzone, told to retrieve or destroy bodies, lost equipment, a mislaid thumbprint or a sneaky security recording...

According to his seniors in Parliament, the facility should no longer be standing. The strike force that had been sent to infiltrate the enemy compound had reported the activation of a devastating weapon that should have levelled the entire place. Concern regarding misplaced equipment had therefore been redundant; the shit they'd left behind was supposed to have been vaporised along with everything else.

But it hadn't, and the facility was still standing -- though apparently evacuated.

Dulton passed down hallways marked with coloured lines denoting respective departments, moving towards the Residential area. He was built for combat -- and once in the not-too-distant-past had relished it -- and was not the sort to shy away from mopping up enemy forces. There was the fact of national pride, of loyalty to justice. No war was a clean one, and there would always be grey marks. It was these marks that Dulton bleached. It was this dirt that he swept away.

There were a few active viewscreens pinned to walls or rolled up and left on desks. People had left in a hurry; there were alert warnings still flashing on some of the screens, cutting through the silence. Things had been abandoned. A lot of the doors to the residential area had been left unlocked. But there were no people, only one or two bodies left by the original strike force.

Dulton headed for the Command section. More screens were still displaying the feed from security cameras positioned in different places within the structure. From the feed, he could see that the entire edifice seemed to have been completely evacuated. The only evidence of evacuation was a body strewn here and there, leant against splashes of red. Many had cleanly-cauterised holes that denoted plasma fire, but the bodies were still burning in a way that Dulton had never seen before.

Command was desolate. A few computers were still operational, transmitting bursts of data and standard update reports. He plugged in a modem and forwarded the info to a database specifically for that purpose, which would be anonymously accessed by his Parliament contacts at a later date. Idly, Dulton pushed a few buttons and shuffled some half-destroyed documents. Everything that appeared interesting or important he folded up and tucked into a purse in the small of his back.

A flickering display drew his attention. It was a direct video connection to a cavernous room somewhere within the facility. It was near spherical and badly damaged, its floor piled high with a steep mound of rubble. His mandate had described a chamber like this, and estimated it to be the origin of the undisclosed danger that had driven out the squaddies. After picking through the computer interface he found a map of the complex, discovered the location of the large room, and headed towards it.

Doors slid open silently, revealing the rubble. The pile was eight feet high, heaped in the centre of the chamber. The chamber had once been neatly lined with lead and then ceramic plates, but the majority of these had been shaken loose and formed the upper layer of the wreckage. It looked like a bombsite.

Dulton scaled the rubble and saw what he had come for. It wasn't at all what he was expecting.

The woman saw him and sat up. She rubbed her shaven skull with a cut palm, wincing at the pain.

"Evening," she grunted.

Easy in -- passwords to a vehicle storage bay were obtained from a desperate Senior Partner who'd be damned if he was going to let some Austrian vengeance militia repossess his corporate HQ. Dulton, Rigks, Short and Klegg take the covert route. They knock out a panel and slip into a corridor. Two Tangos, pop-pop and they're more silent than the night before Christmas. "Rigks, pull them inside." He pulls them inside, folding their bodies and forcing them into the cramped space behind the panel, inside the storage bay, grinning like a maniac. Two fingers pointing that way tell Rigks and Klegg to head left. Short and Dulton head right, muzzles to the ground, ears and eyes sharp. The second team, Coogan and Wright, burst in on time right on top of the enemy, and the two teams converge, pop-pop-pop, and there's a touch of smoke from the weapons but they're too well filtered for anything serious. Little to say that they were ever there, 'cept nine grateful hostages -- easy out.

"If you're expecting a gunfight, I'll have to disappoint you. I think I dropped my rifle when the roof fell on me."

Dulton recognised her and swore inwardly. She scratched her eyebrow with the back of her thumb in exactly the way he remembered. Rees Short, thirty-four, who had once had a short crop of blonde hair but now had stubble, who had green-brown eyes that were average but not as hard as all that, as hard as everyone else Dulton had ever served with. Between the flecks of hazel there were strands of kindness -- not feminine kindness, not softness, but a just, fair and endearing look that was oh so unusual when a girl had been raised to put bullets in people.

"Not going to shoot me?" Short asked, after Dulton failed to target his weapon. "Then I suppose you're here to rescue me."

She held out her hand and he grasped it in a gloved fist.

"Not quite," he said. "I'm here to tidy up."

"You mean you're the one they send in after we fail?" She laughed, and it was like wood ground against a rock. "Bet you weren't expecting a live one."

"You're right there."

Dulton was infinitely thankful for the mask and the voice temper, a circuit-tape stuck against the inside of his mask that disguised the sound of his speech. He could see the woman searching his build, his body language, for a clue to his identity. She peered at his mask and he wondered if the polarisation had bled from his goggles.

She dusted her combat suit and pressed her hand against a minor leg wound. "Are you considering killing me just so that you have a body to dispose of?"

"I'm not that kind of agent."

"Then you're an odd one. Only know of one or two like you."

"Are you the only one still here?" he asked.

Short nodded. "As far as I'm aware. Once the weapon was activated things turned a little hectic. As you can see from all this shit. Thought the place was coming down on top of me."

"That's why they left you. Parliament told me that they thought you were KIA."

"I'm not surprised. That thing..."

She looked up towards the control booth, a black rectangle high up against the curved wall.

"What was it?" Dulton asked.

"A singularity gun."

Dulton laughed. "No, seriously."

Short pressed her lips together.

"No wonder you're not dead," he told her, sincerely. "Hard to be killed by make-believe."

"It almost worked," she said quietly. "May we fall back now, captain?"

####

The minor-class AI calculated a circumference about the same size as a twelve-planet solar system. Anything the circumference passed through was analysed and turned to datastream, fed back through a subspace conduit that arrived only a few minutes later. There was now a band of completely unoccupied space about a light-month out from Jupiter; no asteroids, no lesser planets or moons, no gases or particles or photons. All was drawn through. Nothing had been missed.

The AI, instead of recreating the matter as it had once been, concentrated all the transferred substance inside a spherical energy field. The plasma window, crackling blue-white with burning ions, contained a mass that should have been spread over thousands of miles of space within an area the size of a golf ball, collapsing it in on itself, pushing molecules into molecules, fusing atoms inside other atoms. Density became immeasurable. The re-emerging matter struggled against the inner wall of the energy field sphere, but it was unbreakable. A singularity, the kind that turns stars inside out, spluttered into existence.

The inside of the energy field grew dark.

"And it should have demolished the entire complex," Short explained. She rubbed her knuckles against her ribs, exerting pressure onto her bruises, compelling them to disappear.

"Why didn't it?"

She brushed the back of her hand against her face, smearing soot towards her hairline. She began to answer, but she needn't have bothered; as she descended a few steps, Dulton caught sight of an object suspended in the air four feet above the tip of the rubble.

He reached over Short's shoulder and put his hand close to it. The outer shell of the floating sphere was iridescent with semi-opaque blue-white light. Inside the shell was darkness, utter and complete. Dulton held his hand next to the object, testing for heat emissions, and felt nothing. He removed his glove, exposing his skin. The air was cold in the complex; the gently glowing sphere was radiating no heat whatsoever. He touched it, plucked it from the air, held it. It felt smooth and hard, like marble.

"Is that a plasma window?" Short asked, peering with one plucked eyebrow raised.

"Looks like it. Isn't this how you described the process of making the singularity?"

The glowing shell was indeed an energy field, only the burning particles that made the plasma window should have evaporated his skin by now. The mixture of ionised gases burned at a couple of hundred degrees. It was essentially a fourth state of matter, thicker than liquid and solid enough to provide effective barriers, as well as various forms of functional energy, including that used for weaponry.

There was the heart of a black hole behind the window, a singularity denser than a white dwarf, with the strength of a star ripped inside out. As far as Dulton knew, plasma windows -- energy fields -- didn't screen gravity. So why weren't he and Short flattened against the crackling field around this light-sucking pinhead?

He tossed and caught it like a tennis ball. "How is the field still operational? A lot of the equipment I found was damaged; looked like EMP disruptor wreckage. What's supplying it with energy?"

"I'm not trained in astrophysics". Short was attempting to straighten out her garments, but it was pretty clear by the nuances of her movements that she was in pain. Dulton resisted the impulse to reach out in comfort. She continued. "It looks as though the singularity inside the sphere is maintaining the field."

"That's incredible." He examined the object before making a quick decision. He put it into a small satchel attached to his gear and gestured to Short.

"Come on. Let's get out of here."

Unusually, the distortion of his voice provided by the voice temper was very obvious to him as they moved out of the cavernous test site and into the claustrophobic corridors. He worried that Short would be able to recognise his voice. How many times had they avoided talking about wetwork over coffees, when outdoor training was hampered by breakdowns in the Weather Service? Conversations about things that didn't relate to themselves. Anything that didn't involve the bloody incidents of the previous mission (there was no such thing as a clean op: there was mess on one side or the other) or the specifics of the most recent mandate. She must know the ups and downs of his voice, the inflection on his own individual lexicon...

It had been six years since he had been a member of Short's squad. They had been given an easily-forgotten name that was unofficial and totally ignored by the squad members, used only by the media in reference to a shadowy outfit that may or may not be a government funded anti-terrorist group. Dulton's memories of the decade spent between SWAT and his current occupation were generally unpleasant. The deep ties between those men and women were strained only by the resentment and guilt that came with political wetwork.

"What do you know about the people who funded this place?" he asked.

Short moved confidently alongside him, hiding her discomfort well. He considered ordering her to reveal her wounds, but he remembered that back then, when combat forced you to become invulnerable to everyone but yourself, he wouldn't have responded to orders from anyone but his immediate superior.

She said, "We're certain that it's some faction within the Higher European confederacy. Probably Austria itself -- the payroll for this place is full of Austrian-registered residents. Connections to one or two terrorist outfits, though only the kind that operate through the media or the NewNet. They're all scientists of some sort, even the janitors. Some pretty big names."

"Like who?"

"Guntschwitz."

"Never heard of him. Sounds German, anyway."

"She is. We were ordered unequivocally that she was not to be harmed, but she wasn't here when we raided. H.E. police say they've located her in her home in Switzerland, apparently, so at least we didn't cap her by accident."

That nostalgic ruthlessness. Dulton had been inundated by that kind of irresponsible talk during his time with Short, Rigks and the others, and it grated then. Now, it scoured. The disregard for human life was a protective barrier against the tough reality -- everyone knew that -- but over time it ran deeper, crystallising the heart, sealing it up.

The thought barely had the time to pass through his skull, before something hard connected with it. He whirled around and glimpsed Short driving her elbow towards him once again, connecting with his jaw as he leant to avoid it. He said something incomprehensible. Her boot drove at his shin and he was propelled two feet sideways, his own boots squealing against the polished floor; he veered and lashed out with his leg, impacting against her shoulder, and then against with his palms, slapping them over her ears.

She cried out as her eardrums split. "You bastard..."

"What are you doing?" he yelled. "I'm here to help you!"

"Like I was trained to believe every masked guy who says that in enemy territory."

"Do you see any enemies around here?"

Superheated ions shuddered over Dulton's shoulder, vaporising his armour and licking through exposed muscle. Heat, like scalding metal, blasted through his upper torso. He heard Short cry get down and felt a hand against his spine, forcing with unbelievable strength, pushing him out of the way; and there she was, returning pulser discharge. St Elmo's fire snaked through the air, evaporating as it went and leaving a heat-shimmer wake. Short expertly dodged further fire, then leapt aside.

Footsteps sped out of earshot. Short steadied her breathing. Silently, she examined Dulton and pulled out a short can of foam. She administered it and it expanded in and over his wound, cooling and sealing. He had almost relaxed before the fabric of his mask caught fire, ignited by his own scorching skin and flesh. Yelping like a child, he ripped the mask away.

The heavy sound of the voice temper hitting the floor filled the silence. Short scrutinised his face in shock. Then she punched him through the coagulating foam.

...Easy out. Reassignment, a pseudo-promotion that is little more than a side-step to something more suited to a man whose hands shook after every kill. He made the mistake of calling it 'murder' and Rigks picked up on it. Rigks and his glass doll's-stare. He was the new captain. Let him have those invisible insignia.

Short comes to see Dulton, late on the night he gets reassigned. She's out of uniform and he's never seen her like this. Later, they're even further out of uniform and they're clumsy like virgins. Afterwards there's blue smoke and questions, few answers, but anaesthesia and memories and defiance and sleep.

"Nice to see you're on top form," she sneered, taking the initiative and leading Dulton further down a corridor. It led towards the western exit, on the opposite side of the building to which Dulton had entered.

"He must have been transported in."

"He was. He told me so on my radio."

Dulton grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. "You're in contact with them?"

"It's just one guy. Captain Rigks -- maybe you remember him. He ordered me to help ambush you."

"And you just did has he asked."

"Of course, just like I used to do exactly as you asked, once upon a time." Her eyes were hard beneath her brows, sea-green and polished. "Rigks never said that he was expecting you to be you."

"So it's okay to kill anyone as long as they're not former squadmates."

"He shot at me, too," she snapped, whirling around and setting off once more.

Dulton caught himself rubbing his neck, a habit he'd picked up as a teenager whenever he felt uncomfortable. He'd kicked all of those physical personality traits back when he was an anonymous squaddie, but over the years they'd snuck back. He followed her.

His shoulder burned. He glanced down as he ran and picked at the edges of the solidified foam. He could see embers smouldering along the white edges of the gunshot wound. The wound perimeter had expanded to his neck and bicep.

"What are you guys using for ammo these days?"

He showed her the burn mark, which she inspected reluctantly.

"No wonder your mask caught fire."

"What's wrong with it?" he murmured.

"The pulse energy normally disintegrates once it's impacted. It looks like it's still burning away."

"I can see that."

They kept moving.

Short only wanted to get back to her superiors so that she could question Rigks's motives for returning to the site where he had failed his mission.

They came across another corpse, with the same radiant charring. The pulse blasts had stayed burning on these bodies too, even after death. Unless Rigks had tampered with the ammunition in the rifles -- which was next to impossible for someone with Rigks's training -- there was something within the complex that was causing this unusual reaction.

"Wait."

Short stopped. "What?"

He took out the energy sphere. Its plasma window lit up the dark hallway like a torch. Inside the sphere, the singularity remained inscrutable, an infinitude of darkness from which not even light could escape.

"What's wrong with the window?"

"The same thing that's wrong with these energy burns," he replied, looking at the swirling distortions around the circumference of the sphere. "I reckon that there must be something here that's affecting the energy this way."

"But I've never seen anything like this before. It's probably not a good idea to carry that thing around in your back pocket."

"If a black hole bursts into existence," he pointed out, "a few yards won't make all that much of a difference. If whatever it is that's affecting the burns is affecting the plasma window in the same way, then it's likely to reinforce the field rather than dissipate it. I wouldn't be surprised if that's what's holding the field together, what stopped the singularity from forming fully. If it can't draw in matter, it can't grow."

"A pocket sized wormhole."

"There must be a marketing opportunity there."

"It doesn't explain why my commander is shooting at me," Short said, ignoring the joke. She looked suddenly downcast. "More likely, he's shooting at you and for some reason I've become Acceptable Losses."

Dulton couldn't help putting a voice to the disquiet that had led to his reluctance for wetwork in the squad. "Collateral damage isn't so easy to swallow when you're part of it."

She looked at him, then nodded. Dulton had never met a non-military female in his life. Compared to those girls, Short was something special. In fact, she was too masculine for most, but Dulton wanted to protect her, shield her from the badness in the world and preserve her.

"Give me your radio," he said.

"I want to keep it. Use yours. The frequency is 129.746."

He tuned in. Short's breathing doubled in his ears.

"Rigks," he said into the radio. There was no response.

He touched his neck with gloved fingers and they came back charred. He'd caught Short looking at him with worry mixed into her expression, but she'd said nothing. It felt like his entire body was disintegrating. The pain in his shoulder was so sharp that he could hardly hold back from wincing; he scraped away at the edges of the sealant foam -- now superfluous -- and found a deep hollow where his arm muscle should be, cauterised and hard. Another centimetre and he'd be able to see bone.

"I've been thinking about the reaction with the plasma," Short said, during radio silence. "It must have been the weapon. It draws in a ring of matter a hundred kilometres thick from a set radius out from Earth. That's a lot of matter."

"You need a lot to create a singularity."

"But we've never been that far out. The 'horizon' of that ring is further out than Pluto; there could be anything out there. Things we've never discovered."

"Aliens!"

"I'm being serious. There could easily be some form of gas, or radiation, or whatever, that interacts this way with ionised gasses. Particles don't just start a chemical chain reaction for no reason, especially plasma particles. It's simply not how it works."

"How does it work?"

Short shrugged. "Maybe it's a kind of anti-ion. The plasma equivalent of dark matter. Whatever it is, if it's been drawn here from way out there, and put into the singularity you've got strapped into that satchel, then it's reacting with everything around it. Including your wound."

"Agent, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

The voice came from the radio, conveying all the confusion, the surprise, the anger of the person speaking from the other channel. Rigks.

"Rees!"

"What is it, captain?"

"You shot me."

"You shot at me. And at Mel Dulton."

"Dulton? Dulton's here? What, he's wiping up the shit we left all over this place? Very nice of him. Guess you feel a little guilty now, setting up an ambush and getting him shot like that."

"You don't have to talk as though I'm not here, Rigks," Dulton said through the mic sewn into his collar. "I can hear you."

"Hi, Mel."

"Hi, Rigks. What are you doing back here? You know the protocol: you fail, you retreat, you stay out of the way."

"And let someone else try? Like you?"

"I'm not here to finish the job, I'm here to clear up what you left behind, which turned out to be Rees. She's not very happy with you at the moment, by the way."

"We thought she was dead. She got sucked into a black hole, for Christ's sake!"

"The weapon never fully activated, Rigks," Short interjected. "But the transport worked, and it's brought something along that they didn't anticipate. It's what's burning away at you right now."

"You nearly hit my balls. Another ten minutes and my leg'll fall off."

"Then let's get you and Mel to a hospital, and we can let some military flyboys flatten this place from the sky."

The radio crackled.

"Rigks?"

There was no reply.

Dulton turned to her and said, "May we fall back now, captain?"

They bolted for the exit, just a few corners away according to Short's wrist-mounted map display. As they ran she tried to figure out, out loud, why Rigks was behaving like this: abandoning her; throwing plasma at her; firing on an ex-commander. The only answer she could come up with made little sense.

Energy bolts rained down on the two of them as they entered a small foyer. Rigks was somewhere, hiding on one of the upper tiers. This was the front of the complex, the visitor's entrance, tile-lined and fluorescently-lit. An android (cheap model, prosthetic looking) was asleep at her desk. Her waist disappeared into a pneumatic piston and a clutch of cables.

"There are cameras," Short said, pointing.

"It's the automated sentries outside that concern me more. I only have standard-issue weapons."

"Where is it?" came Rigks's voice through Dulton's speaker implant.

"Pocket sized wormhole," Short muttered. "He defected for it."

"Coming for you, 'captain'."

"He has no ties to the Higher European confederacy."

"Makes no difference."

Dulton breathed deep, preparing to cross the foyer and run the gauntlet outside. Pain reverberated through his chest as he lifted his arm to fire at the security cameras. "He sounds crazy."

"For your information," said Short, "he's always been like that."

"Let's go. Run."

Enemy fire left crackling chains of energy across the front of the plasti-plex lobby. The fašade melted, and fresh air rolled in with the noises of the night-time. Dulton could hear crickets.

Alerted by the noise and flashes of light, the automated sentries fixed into the concrete outside came to life, unfolding into thickets of limbs and sensors and weaponry. They sent a streaming radio message looping around the intruders' receivers. You are trespassing on private property. Please vacate the premises immediately. Trespassers will be prosecuted... Dulton never expected the sentries to abide by US law: they opened fire immediately. Bastards shouldn't even have guns.

He spun a disruptor puck that flashed brilliantly, leaving sensors in lag and circuitry fried. The closest sentry froze, allowing Dulton and Short to charge past. Immediately the enemy fire followed them, stuttering through the air from behind.

Dulton heard Rigks's voice: "You're making it harder for all of us..."

He stumbled at the chain link fence. His arm was in agony; he could feel sinew being burned through. He reached up to climb, and something popped against his bone; his arm fell limp, and more pain ricocheted up and down his spine.

Short scrabbled around his belt. "Can you disrupt the plasma window around the singularity?"

"That thing? Are you --?"

"Just for a nanosecond!"

"On that weapon!? You're crazier than he is...!"

She yanked the singularity sphere from the satchel on his belt, and held it aloft like a chalice. "We throw it," she said, breathless, her own injuries catching up with her, "disrupt it for a split second --"

"We'll all die."

"-- And then --"

Fire lit them up from inches away. Rigks was dodging buckshot from the sentries and firing on Dulton and Short at the same time, yelling through the radio. He has a lot riding on this, Dulton realised, something I'll never know about...

"Throw it!" he said, and the fingers of his good arm were closing around a second disruptor, yanking it from a tab on his suit, hurling it through the air in tandem with Short as she lobbed her own projectile; they sailed through the decimated foyer windows, scuffed off the hard tile, collided with each other, and then Dulton's thumb was on a button, and the disruptor did its work.

The light was sucked from his eyes.

There was a crater, a perfect half-sphere in the ground where the facility once stood. Pipes and cables, cleanly truncated, sparked or drizzled. About fifty metres down, there was red clay and a couple of sedimentary layers.

"It went," Short said.

Dulton looked around. For the infinitesimal moment that he couldn't see, the immediate landscape had changed. With the facility completely gone, his brain was struggling to accept the fact that his body hadn't moved to somewhere else, somewhere more naked.

"Just a split second," he said, holding up the disruptor's activator stick. His thumb was still on the button. "I don't quite...understand what happened..."

If the energy field had been shut down, they shouldn't have been standing there. But the singularity had been freed, and a fraction of a nanosecond later, it had vanished, taking Rigks, the facility, the sentries, the bodies, the equipment, the data -- and everything else -- with it. Even the shoulder of his dead right arm had stopped smouldering.

"We should have been punched into the size of an atom," he murmured.

Short clapped her hands suddenly, startling him. She released a deep breath, ran her thumbnail over her eyebrow, and gave him an impulsive, unexpected grin.

"Suppose we got lucky," she said. Her expression softened. "There's nothing left. I don't think you could have cleaned the place any better, Dulton."

He smiled back. "No, I don't suppose I could have."

THE END


© 2008 David Brookes

Bio: David Brookes lives in Sheffield, England, where he studies for a Masters degree in Writing. His short stories can be found across the web (including Space Castaway, Aphelion, March 2008) and on his own website, Spinning Lizard. His first novel "Half Discovered Wings", is available from Libros International.

E-mail: David Brookes

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