Alkaline Dawn by Piers Furney
As MegaCity ML gasps for energy, Matthias Blue and his android partner, Cromwell, race against time to unravel a web of corruption and conspiracy, while a desperate plan for a new power source threatens millions.
MegaCity ML has almost starved itself of energy. Elite agent Matthias Blue has run out of purpose. Keeping the streets and skyLanes safe was all that mattered until the death of his best friend knocked him into bottomless booze and low-stim capsules.
But when Blue is hit by lightning, and his mentor is murdered in an attack no one thought possible, his rage reignites.
Hunting those responsible, Blue and his sophisticated android partner, Cromwell, discover that the very institutions designed to protect and serve the MegaCity are caught in the middle of a desperate plan for a new power source – one that might actually fix everything.
Complicating things are Blue’s sudden failing health and visions of someone else’s childhood in captivity. Increasingly reliant on Cromwell, he begins to think he was one of the very first test subjects, while something deeper whispers Blue may be the key to the enemy’s designs.
Torn between cold vengeance and the future of millions of people, Blue must hold himself together and put on the duster coat one last time. If he can’t, then he’ll die, knowing every citizen with a pulse is there for the taking.Amazon
Excerpt from Alkaline Dawn © Copyright 2023 Piers Furney
1 THE LAST CASE
Lightning stretched, pencil-thin, across the dark afternoon sky like white vines in an inky black garden. The sound of low, persistent thunder syncopated the air with a force that to chase the rain toward the ground. Two figures stepped out of their whining slate grey cruiser into a growing pool of water and stared at the towering complex of the Ven-Bryson Palladium Works. Hundreds of office lights winked out of glinting metal and glass fa- cades, each outshined by the rampant flashes outside. While insignifi- cant compared to the condensed skyline of the distant MegaCity, a central spire erupted from the barren landscape of the Wastes and supporting buildings. It lorded over its clutch of precious mineral deposits and imposed Ven-Bryson’s artificial control through communications relays and high-gain antennae on the fleet of technology built to serve.
Below and to the sides of the spire, refinery towers poked through the gaps of its adjoining office buildings, marking the sharp transition from corporate to industrial into the distance and far below as it became the Works proper. This late in the afternoon, the central corporate parking zone was mostly empty, save for the odd management staff loping to their reserved spaces under cover.
The taller of the two figures drew the collar of his brown duster coat around the edges of the transparent tactical breather that covered his tired face.
“He’s not going to let us question them,” he complained with perfect clarity.
“He might,” the woman replied. “Would you, in his shoes?”
“It is in his best interest to comply.”
“Let’s hope self-preservation kicks in then.”
“Perhaps you could take note.”
Before he could answer, the pair were accosted by a green and black customer service drone that had appeared seemingly out of the very deluge itself. It bobbed in place with a simple emotive face plate that displayed a rudimentary look of concern.
“You do not have an appointment, marshals. Please state the rea- son for your visit,” it said to them in a thin voice.
The female marshal shot a look at her partner before producing a slender cigarette from the inside of her long duster coat. In one smooth motion, she lit the end with a spark from one of her finger- tips and drew in smoke, closing her bright yellow eyes.
“Correct,” she said. “We are here because the Federation would like a word with your Medical Director, Dr Nicholas Hazell.”
The ovoid drone gave a low beep, “The Director is unavailable, marshals. You will have to make an appointment…”
The other marshal jerked his left arm and aimed it squarely at the drone’s small face panel. Two large-calibre barrels extended from the man’s wrist-mounted assembly and began rotating slowly. “You seem to be under the impression that that was a question,” he said, the rain peeling off his hydrophobic coat.
The drone gave another beep, its pixelated eyebrows raised in alarm. “There is no need for threats, Marshal Blue. If you would both follow me.”
Blue let his hand Cannon fall back to his side. That wasn’t true — a good threat was always useful. He turned and said, “C’mon Cromwell, it looks like the Director just freed up his calendar.”
Marshal Cromwell extinguished her cigarette with a twist and a sigh. The drone darted towards the entrance without waiting to see if either marshal was following.
“Was that necessary?” she asked, falling in beside Blue as they moved after the drone.
“I was joking.”
“Were you? Because the last joke you told was seven months ago and by accident.”
Blue ignored his partner and scowled, preferring to cast his gaze across the neat, ordered walkways leading up to the entrance. Glowing Ven-Bryson holoScreens leapt out at the registering of movement.
The blunt trapezoidal shape of a remote auto Hauler slid across one line of screens; this new model promised 30% enhanced dump cycle times through tri-action sub-feeder augmentation and boasted a more efficient hydrogen power plant. Blue could only assume that it was of value to those in the market for gigantic ore-moving machinery. What he wanted was a drink.
Passing into the main building, the sweeping reception area looked like every other corporate office that Blue had been in before, except for the colourful rare metal sculptures and statement furniture pieces. Just one of those whimsical metal forms could pay for five Federation aerial cruisers and his imminent retirement package.
“May I inform Director Hazell as to the nature of your inquiry?” the drone asked Cromwell.
“We are here regarding a group of labourers that have recently transferred to this facility,” she replied. “We have reason to believe that they are involved with a cell of biomedical terrorists.”
“Oh my,” the drone remarked. “Indeed,” Cromwell said. “This way.”
As a polished elevator opened for them to the side, Blue doubted if the Medical Director would share the same response. Moral char- acter wasn’t high on the list of most manual labour programs used by corporations like Ven-Bryson. A warm, indentured body that could hack and shovel was cheap — if they happened to be a vicious criminal, then workplace accidents were usually considered happy coincidences. Still, Ven-Bryson would unlikely tolerate any sort of risk to their operations out here. A spot of terrorism wouldn’t stop the palladium from flowing.
The doors opened to a prim executive floor. Most lights were still on, with blurry figures moving behind frosted glass and elaborate job titles on holographic door plaques. The largest office at the far end of the floor was dark and closed. The drone led the marshals to the door marked Nicholas Hazell, Medical Director, and paused to transmit an access query.
“Whose office is that down there?” Blue asked.
“Our Chief Executive Officer, Mr Peter Olsen,” said the drone happily. “His role requires a great deal; as such, he is rarely present here at our Palladium Works site.”
“Not just because of the hermit thing?”
The drone displayed a frown but then beeped suddenly. “You may go in now, marshals.”
Blue and Cromwell nodded and stepped into Hazell’s office. The heavy use of white made it seem closer to a small hospital than a corporate office. Dr Nicholas Hazell was standing in a white lab coat, faced away with his hands clasped behind his back, intent on simultaneously consuming information from all of his holoSuite screens. On the far side of the office were long windows framing the front half of the Palladium Works site. Blue could just see the tiny rows of di- shevelled workers in bright hazmat suits hacking, shovelling, and transmuting away at the sodden earth like ants racing against their autonomous counterparts. The marshals stood for a moment before Cromwell made a polite cough.
“One moment,” murmured Hazell.
Blue tilted his head at Cromwell, who gave him a sharp shake of her head in reply. “Dr Hazell, we are marshals Blue and Cromwell, First Division…” he began.
“A moment, ” Hazell repeated, drawn to a flashing red segment on one of the screens.
“We need to ask you questions regard —”
“A moment if you please, Matthias!” interrupted Hazell.
Matthias? Blue wanted to hit him. The man threw a hand out and pinched down at one of the controls, grunting in contentment as he did so. Hazell then slowly turned to face them. The Director’s eyes looked like human eyes, but if made by someone that was going off a slightly incorrect description of what eyes should look like.
“No,” the man said simply. “Pardon?” asked Cromwell.
“No, you may not see or speak to our four new workers. They are now in Ven-Bryson’s custody.”
“Custody is an odd word to use, Nicholas,” said Blue.
Hazell smiled thinly and said, “I thought custody would be more familiar. Our employees are all protected from past and present criminal investigations while engaged in their labour terms. But you both know that. I assume you have something more substantial than a general line of inquiry?”
“We have a mandate from the Ministry of Justice to pursue all suspected parties involved in biomedical terrorism, Director,” answered Cromwell. “We require access to the four men for questioning.”
Hazell’s cheek twitched. “Well, I’m afraid that will require approval from our CEO, Mr. Olsen. He is not here,” he said.
“It’s a good thing Ven-Bryson makes comm units. Get him on the line, and we can leave sooner,” Blue suggested.
“Not an option,” Hazell said. “Mr Olsen has been ill and has set times for contact. A conference comm might have been possible if you had come here with an appointment. Your sloppiness does not outweigh our Ministry-approved law enforcement engagement policy.”
“Solid coaching,” whistled Blue. “We’ve identified four men associated with biomedical terrorist activity, which included the theft of nine portable proton beam therapy machines and enough palladium to make your palms sweaty. Intelligence suggests they’re planning an- other imminent operation in this sector. I thought Venn-Bryson would want to nip that in the bud.”
“We will return with an appointment,” said Cromwell, beginning to turn.
“Palladium, you say?” Hazell asked slowly. “Palladium,” repeated Blue.
Hazell rubbed his bizarre eyes with hands that faintly trembled. Now that he thought about it, Blue had no idea of the man’s age; he could have been anywhere between 40 and 70. Depending on the quality of the clinic.
“An exception could be made, marshals. Not because I think this site is in danger of industrial espionage, but rather to show you that Ven-Bryson has nothing to hide and that we do value our established business contracts,” Hazell finally said with a deliberate look over Cromwell.
“Okay,” said Blue. “Where are they?”
Hazell picked up a holoTab from the desk and pawed through a couple of screens. “It’s 17:45, so still in the diagnostic stations of Sector Two’s living quarters.
“I assume you will want to accompany us, director?” asked Cromwell.
“You assume correctly.” “Sector Two then,” said Blue.
Two tall outlines moving outside Hazell’s office caught Blue’s attention. He pivoted for a better angle as two nondescript protection drones walked inside and halted, blaster arms swinging, to wait for further instructions. The green and black Ven-Bryson branding covered their entire metal bodies with a simple dome where a person’s head would be.
“Are these necessary?” asked Cromwell.
“Company policy,” Hazell dismissed, walking around his desk and towards the door. “We’ll take a…ah…skiff down to Sector Two from the rail terminal.”
Blue narrowed his eyes at the drones; these models were twitchy at the best of times. Cheap processing units. The marshals waited for them to follow after Hazell before trailing behind. Cromwell was frowning. A short descent in the cramped elevator brought the group onto the rail terminal’s wide platform.
Everything was loud again. The feeble afternoon light had faded to darkness and sheets of rain that toyed with visibility. Under the lines of floodlights, dual tracks snaked away from the main control building and out of the Works. Several mammoth skyTrains rocked in the squall, held in place until autoloaders could transfer their allotted materials. Blue distracted himself from dump cycles by needling Hazell for more information.
“What are we going to find in your diagnostic stations?” he asked as the group queued for a propulsion skiff to free up. “Examples of ‘lose an arm and get a new one for a few more years added to the bill’ types of deals?”
“You’re a flippant man, marshal,” Hazell remarked as a skiff re- turned from the Works below. “How disappointing.”
“Disappointing? What’s disappointing is companies like Ven- Bryson creating a market for the scum we put away or the poor bas- tards that are preyed upon by lecherous lending schemes until they obliterate themselves with debt,” said Blue.
“Blue…” warned Cromwell.
“Be a good boy and listen to your minder,” Hazell dismissed, awkwardly stepping onto the boat-like propulsion skiff.
“What did you just say?” Blue asked, his already shortened temper igniting. “I’d caution against pressing any perceived advantage here, Hazell.”
“You’d caution me, would you?” laughed Hazell over the rain. “I’ve heard that not too long ago, the great Matthias Blue could intimidate people by walking into a room. But that’s not who’s standing in front of me today. I shall ‘press’ whatever I like.”
Seething, Blue opened his mouth, but no words came out. One more day.
“You don’t approve of Ven-Bryson’s work, but you need us — society needs us,” Hazell said. “We’re locked in a war of attrition with a planet that could not give the slightest damn whether we are here or not. The dwindling palladium we rip from the petulant earth is for the technologies we are forced to build just to survive.”
Suddenly, the lights in the rail terminal flickered and went out. Thunder and lightning struck several ancillary buildings nearby, split- ting the sky with white light. Blue’s hackles went up. He could see Hazell’s figure outlined by what was still functioning in the Works. The background autoloaders continued their tasks on mobile power. Still, the rails themselves deactivated and caused the long, hovering carriages to thump their massive weight in a violent clang of metal. Some began to tilt perilously to one side as tender drones beelined to assist. Blue kept a firm eye on Hazell’s guards in the chaos.
“Case and point!” said Hazell. “We must move out of this storm to see the marshals in time.”
Blue and Cromwell joined the director and his drones before pausing. “You mean the labourers?” Blue asked.
“Of course, of course,” added Hazell, running his hand through his short hair. “We guzzle it down to power our technology, and in turn, that technology barely keeps us alive. A pathetic loop…”
“Are you well, director?” Cromwell asked. “If we can have some- one else take us down, you can head home. It appears to have been a long day for you.”
“A long day,” Hazell repeated.
Cromwell moved to escort Hazell back off the skiff in the poor light. The man brushed her outstretched hand away with his flailing arm. The drones snapped to attention and raised their blasters. Blue had an idea of what would happen next. Either the man was having some kind of episode or stalling for time.
“Alright, Hazell. Cut the shit,” Blue called out, joining Cromwell’s effort to reach the man. “Tell these two to calm down.”
Blue thought he saw the man’s eyes glint red momentarily. Then, he saw the blaster barrels glow with the beginnings of laser fire. Raw
power and speed coursed through his body. He was already out of the way before the shots went off, and a moment later, the two drones were scrapped on the floor of the skiff. Servo fluid coated the backs of Blue’s hands. He looked up at Cromwell; she’d seized Hazell and dragged him past the mess of robotic parts.
“Fuck,” said Blue, kicking himself for the paperwork he’d just created. He turned to follow Cromwell under the emergency lighting. “Cromwell, bring him back. I wasn’t going to shoot h —”
Out of the black sky came a branch of lightning that struck Blue squarely in the chest. He was thrown into a nearby metal pillar, dent- ing it with a dull thud that drove the breath from his lungs. A wave of pain, the likes of which he’d never experienced, sliced across him and made him scream. The distant sound of someone cheering and rushed footsteps echoed across the terminal. Then he passed out.
It was cold. Bone-chilling cold. The kind of cold that you forget how bad it is until you’re right back there again. It wasn’t his hands he saw when he raised them in front of his eyes; they were a child’s. He was shorter, too. He could see snow making little piles on the ground and hear the crunch crunch crunch of the men in white coats walking back and forwards around him. Beside him was an- other boy, and he somehow knew their name was Andras. The two of them had just finished a test, but he’d lost it for them this time, and the men in white coats were angry. A gloved hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.
Blue woke to the sound of his holoWrist’s radiation metre beeping and Cromwell’s two luminous eyes looking directly in front of him. The intense cold he’d just imagined was quickly fading away. He was still sprawled on the firm metal platform, with water hitting his face. Another figure lay off to the side. The rail terminal alarms were blar- ing, and he had no idea what had happened.
“Ow,” he managed, fumbling with the tiny computer on his arm to shut it off.
“Blue,” said Cromwell. She was looking at him with concern. “I’m fine.”
Cromwell flicked her eyes to a white deep-scan over him. “Well, nothing is broken. We will have you examined back at Bastion.”
“You just said nothing was broken.”
“I am not a medical android,” said Cromwell. “You could be haemorrhaging internally.”
“Fine.” “Hazell’s dead.”
Blue patted over his power vest and handCannon connection in frustration. “This gear’s fried. I thought the Federation included EMP-grade shielding,” he complained. “Help me up.”
Cromwell hauled him to an unsteady standing position and said, “It does have shielding, although I’ll admit I do not know the tolerances of the systems. You may be temporarily overloaded.”
“Yeah, maybe. Hang on,” said Blue as what Cromwell had said finally clicked. “What do you mean Hazell’s dead? What the hell happened?”
Cromwell knelt by the body of Director Hazell and scanned over him with her holoWrist. Blue could make out the small handle shape of something glinting in the reflective water. He reached down and picked the item up.
“You’ll want to be careful with that,” said Cromwell with a nod. “He tried to stick me with it. While titanium alloys such as mine are durable, they are not so tough as to resist —”
“Plasma weapons,” finished Blue as he ignited the dagger. The short blade was approximately 20 cm and crackled orange. “Why would he have this, and why try and assault a marshal? He knows what we can do…”
Cromwell finished her scan and moved out of the way so he could see Hazell. The man was missing half of his head — the outcome of Cromwell’s handCannon. It wasn’t blood that congealed around the wound.
“He’s an android?”
“I believe Director Hazell may not have been in his right mind,” she said.
Blue pocketed the dagger inside his duster coat and looked at the waiting skiff. That little toy was worth a lot to certain people. His in- sides felt like they were melting, and he felt hot, even in the rain. With great effort, Blue refocused. They needed the four suspects, and there wasn’t much time before the entire place was locked down.
Cromwell seemed to have read his mind and pre-empted him. “Absolutely not. We need to return home.”
“No time. I’m fine, and they’re down there,” pointed Blue.
Before Blue could continue arguing, a call came through on both of their HoloWrists. He tried to signal Cromwell to ignore it, but to his chagrin, she swiped across, and a tiny projection of Ariana Temple appeared.
“Did you find them?” Temple’s head asked. “Why are there sirens?”
“Not exactly, Commander,” replied Cromwell. “Storm warning.” “That’s too bad. You’re both being recalled to Bastion. You’re also a bad liar.”
Blue looked across at Cromwell, confused. “Commander, we’re right in the middle of this thing.”
The floating head was silent momentarily before answering, “This is a directive from the Prime Justice. Be here within the next hour. Temple out.”
The marshals stood in the rain for a second, not quite believing what had happened. It was a blatant breach of First Division independence — unprecedented for the Ministry of Justice and the Marshal Federation’s leader to personally involve themselves in an active case. Publicly, at least. And most certainly not to prematurely recall anyone. Blue was fuming.
“Now what?” he asked, pacing around Hazell’s body.
“Do you want to gamble your pension just to talk about stolen biotech?”
“Shit. No. But we should —”
A ragged chemical fire enveloped Hazell's frame without warning, forcing the marshals to retreat from the intense heat. The rain had little effect on the magenta flames. That was new. “I think that settles it,” she said.
With a thousand questions, Blue followed Cromwell back towards the main control tower in a singed coat and dead tech. Whatever he’d expected his last day to be, it wasn’t this.
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