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‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’
Clarke’s Third Law
Year of the Tuatara
Lost in his thoughts, Wullum Groth drove across the darkening, Estoonian plain towards the multi-coloured Spoke. He was now alone and on the final stretch of his drive across two continents. Even though it had been a long couple of weeks it was strange how everything you accept can change so radically so quickly. With hindsight, the insurrection was obvious, but at the time, it had been unthinkable. He felt himself falling asleep; he tried to alleviate the boredom of the drive by thinking about the coup. What was its first sign? Perhaps it was the assassination of his friend Pol Lon and the disappearance of Pol Lon’s partner.
He started to cough. He knew his lungs had been damaged in the gas attack and the subsequent fight which he and his four now-deceased friends and colleagues had had on the northern coast of Estoo. He suspected that the gas had done too much damage to his lungs for him to survive much longer.
Nevertheless, if he could outrun his pursuers and hold on for a couple more days, he would have succeeded.
He got his first glimpse of the Spoke that attached the ground to the sky as the inner sphere grew opaque and night fell. He desperately hoped that the insurrectionists had not reached it first
Wullum drove on through the night. His eyes grew heavy and the wound in his left arm ached, there was no point stopping to rest now. The truck drove over a pot hole as he felt his eyes close. Concentrate on the mission.
Then as the sky brightened, revealing the red sun high above him, something made him look back. Under the indistinct horizon, where the ground curved up to meet the cloud-line, he thought he could see one, no two aircraft. “Shit!” he said. They would be looking for him and his prized cargo.
The Spoke was only fifty kilometres away when he heard the aeroplanes. He turned and looked behind him. They were a lot closer and they were zigzagging, obviously searching for him. Wullum willed his vehicle to go faster but it was already jumping over the uneven ground at full speed.
Ten kilometres to go and the aeroplanes raced towards him. The pilots must have spotted him. As they flew past with a roar, Wullum touched the wand in his jacket pocket. “Shield one metre,” he shouted and he felt the familiar sphere of protective power expand to surround him and the truck. He watched as the two planes banked against the backdrop of the Spoke and turned back towards him. Just before they flew past, both planes fired a missile. Wullum reacted by forcing the truck to the left nearly overturning it. One missile hit the scrubland far to his right and exploded. It was too far away to be of any worry. The second exploded much closer, only three metres behind him. Despite the shield, the blast almost made him crash the truck. Pieces of shrapnel and clods of earth bounced off his shield partially draining it.
Wullum gripped the wheel of the truck, he thanked his meagre magical powers, without them, he would have been dead. Then he cursed himself for not learning more powerful spells.
As the planes banked behind him, Wullum tried to get a proper look at them. They were fast but he caught a good enough glimpse to appreciate that they were of an unfamiliar type. Where had these planes come from? They were new, he had never seen planes like them before. They must have been built secretly over several years. How had they managed that? The coup must have been planned for a long time! A very long time! This last thought made him come out in a cold sweat. If it had been planned that well in advance then there were fewer chances that the conspirators would have forgotten something or would make mistakes.
The truck bounced over some small bumps on the uninhabited prairie. Three kilometres to go and the aircraft were manoeuvring round to come in at him again.
He drove on. He was only just over one kilometre away from the Spoke when the planes strafed him again. He tried to swerve but one pilot anticipated his move; a missile scored a direct hit. His shield spell soaked up the explosion, draining a large amount of its remaining power. The truck emerged from the cloud of dust unscathed. Wullum knew he would not survive another attack like that. He looked at the approaching Spoke. Could he reach it before they fired again, he hoped so.
He was nearly at the shaded ramp to the Spoke’s entrance as the two aircraft slowed and flew round to line up further shots. Wullum drove up the ramp aware of the increasing engine noise. Jumping out of the truck near the top, he took the canvas bag containing his precious load. He pressed his hand against the access panel and glanced back to see the two planes speeding towards him.
“I Wullum Groth, sergeant in the Sphere’s security service, request access to the Estoo command centre,” he shouted at the access panel.
“Please state your access code?” a calm automated voice on the other side replied.
What the hell was his access code? The lack of sleep was making him lose concentration. Shit that was it. “AUIP dash 5J thorn,” Wullum yelled back at the panel.
“Access code and voice match concur; please look at the light for a retinal scan.”
He impatiently put his eye against the retinal scanner. Calm, he thought. Too nervous and the scan would not work. He waited while the systems completed their scan, resisting the urge to turn around to see where the aircraft were.
“Second level security required. Internal alert in progress.”
What was this? What alert? Whatever it was, it couldn’t be worse than being outside.
“Security override H4 dash 3YL,” Wullum replied.
“Please enter,” the voice continued unemotionally as the door opened. Wullum jumped through the entrance of the abandoned spoke as the aeroplanes fired two more missiles. He watched as the missiles sped towards him and the door slid shut. The missiles exploded harmlessly on the entrance, Wullum collapsed against the door. He had survived by seconds.
“Security override F5 dash 7 ash G.” Wullum shouted standing back up. “Insurrectionists have taken over the Sphere’s security. Please disallow all further access via any method until further notice. Shield off.”
As Wullum put down the bag, he shook. He could feel all the tension from the last couple of weeks drain from his body now he was safe. He sat in a corner for five minutes getting his breath back. His lungs ached from a combination of the damage and the exertion. His breathing slowed. Could he do anything else to stop the rebellion while he was here? First, he would disallow any access to any who could be involved. He would reprogram the access codes to allow only members of the one group of security agents who had remained loyal, access to the Spoke.
His mind wandered and he wondered if he could make any further changes. Programming had been one of his strengths. He started to consider the possibilities. Perhaps the medical facilities of the Spoke could keep him alive for a while longer while he could make the changes. He looked at the bag at his feet and its orange contents. At least the souls were safe.