Into the Heart of Darkness

Piper Jordan

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Jordan scrubbed the last bolt for the day. Her hands were sore and her greasy fingers showed through her worn synth-leather gloves. At least today, she had been set to do something else than cleaning slag from vents and tubes, like the other pipers in the area. Hanging from a suspensor-harness on the outside of a manufactorum-spire, polishing rusty bolts, was preferred over risking sudden death inside a tight and claustrophobic pipe. Though, as orphan rugrats go, piping was a passable trade and way to stay alive on Lexx. Anyhow, a beggar-child couldn´t choose.

She retracted the goggles from her soot-speckled face and caught a glimpse at the endless row of bolts on the exterior of the pipe she had worked on during the day. Tubes and conductors intertwined with the pipe and stretched all the way down to the grim smog at street-level, about 200 stories below her. It followed a path up above her head. She could not see the end of it, due to the thick clouds of smoke and toxic vapour, but the pipe probably led up through the cover of clouds and ended somewhere near the plasma-chimney´s peak. Although pipers at this level couldn´t see the plasma-ejections that spewed into the air, they could often hear them. Monstrous gouts, like a giant throat exhaling spent air.

The street-level and sky were both covered in a layer of industrialized smog and smoke, generations in the making, but at this altitude one had a terrific view of the city. It spanned from one horizon to the other, with spires, macro-domes and mono-blocks rising from the smog-filled ground in all directions. To the south one could glimpse the fantastical sight that was the inner-circle of the city. It was far away and only as faint as the light at the end of the tunnel, but none the less, it was there. One could see the rising inner spires reaching for the sky and amongst them the gothic ziggurath of Pyronox, the heart of the inner-circle and the golden crown jewel of Technopolis. Sometimes one could see sudden flashes of light emanating from the tall walls and, if the rumours where true, this was due to foreign invaders trying to get access to the Pyronox.

Who knew out here.. These events, if they were even true, unfolded worlds away and were only based on stories told from piper to piper. Ships would regularly take off and land in and around the inner-circle, not like out here, where everything was abandoned. In the outer-circle, only the occasional scavenger-ship would land. These were often huge vessels, filled with hundreds of men and huge walkers. They came to scour the abandoned surface or break into sealed manufactorums searching for abandoned treasures. Pipers that had been too curious to such events, and who had ventured near the scavangers´ landing-points, had vanished, never to be seen again.

Jordan skimmed the horizon then looked up at the thick layer of clouds. Without the sky, it was hard to tell the pale light of day from the murky grey of night. She had to rely on other ways of knowing when and where she was at any given time. She took a peak at the data-pad on her wrist. She had to wipe dust off the screen with her worn and scrawny fingers to read the information it showed. The gyro-clock that kept the track of time, and the check-point scanner to log her movement and progress, had been ticking all day and most of the early evening, without to many glitches. Ten cycles of scrubbing on the industrial chimney-tubes was accounted for. Embedded in one of the wrist-pad´s ports was the Master´s key. It contained all the saved information and was worth at least a day´s ration, if not more. Cleaning the inside of pipes resulted in double the pay, but some days, even a lonely piper could afford to feel the wind touch her pale skin. It was dusty and semi-sulfuric wind, but wind none the less.

Jordan scanned the area with her poorly crafted bionic eye and saved the information and pict-recordings on the Master´s key. As she turned around, Jordan´s left boot slid on a dripping exhaust-vent. She took a couple of swings, hanging in the safety-harness with nothing below her but an endless drop down to the smog-covered streets. She hit the side of the chimney and, a second too late, noticed that she had failed to secure the Master´s key in the data-port. When she hit the hard metal wall with her right arm, the Master´s key slid effortlessly out of its port and plummeted down through the air, with nothing to stop it but the ground, so many stories below. She reached for it, but to no avail. Her augmented lens homed in on the falling key, but she lost sight of it as it neared the smog. Despair came over Jordan when she fully grasped what she had so clumsily dropped. The loss of a Master´s key would automatically result in annulled ration and end the contract she was bound to. A piper without a Master´s key, out here in the abandoned and dilapidated outer circle of Technopolis, would be nothing more than a left for dead rugrat with no purpose. Like the smogs living scattered along the borders of sub-level. At least up here, amongst the pipes, one didn´t risk running into them.

The thought of Lexx´s surface made her stomach turn.. The open streets and semi-collapsed alleys stretched for miles in maze-like twists and turns between the blocks and sealed manufactorums. Ever since the followers of the Omnisiah left off-world or retracted into the inner circle of the factory-metropolis, no one of importance were left to keep track of what or who roamed those streets. The best solution was to stay out of them, and when the buildings were locked tight and inaccessible, ventilation-systems, abandoned pipe-lines or just plain altitude, was the best solution for staying away. It was a long time since Jordan had left the surface, years ago, in fact. The thought of setting foot on those ghastly streets filled her young spirit with a terrible sense of hopelessness and dread. The loss of the Master´s key outweighed her despair. She turned a switch on her utility belt, the small reel started buzzing and she descended towards the streets of Outer-Technopolis.

The wrist-pad showed early evening by the time Jordan had reached the uppermost staircases that led down into the obscuring smog. Down here it looked like the buildings were submerged in yet another layer of clouds. Had she not been able to tell the floors beneath her actually were street-level, she might as well have thought that another 200 stories awaited her beneath the smog. But not according to her measuring-instruments. Just a couple of floors down in the smog she would find the intersecting roads and rails that made up street-level.

She unhooked her suspensor-cable and reeled it in. She kept the harness on, just in case she needed to ascend in a hurry. It wasn’t that cumbersome to move around in. She climbed down the railings of the stair-case and submerged herself in the smog. She activated her primitive re-breather and tried to find solid footing.

Mega-crete.. After a couple of minutes she could feel the solid pavement beneath her rubber boots. She crouched behind some abandoned crates, put on her goggles and reached for the las-welder strapped to her hip. She plugged it to a hard-wire connected to the power-pack on her back. The las-welder was a relatively clumsy piece of equipment to swing around, but when ignited, the las-edge could function pretty well as a super-hot cutting blade. She held the las-welder tightly in both hands and started scuttling about on the edges of the street. The Master´s key should be somewhere close to this block, and she knew that it would be fairly easy to locate with a short-range scan. Although she felt the stunning grip of fear of the hostile environment, nothing was worse than not finding the Master´s key. What if it didn´t survive the drop? She tried to put her frightful mind at ease and passed between rock-crete, destroyed pipelines, heaps of fuel-cans and the odd dysfunctional servo-skull. The grinning perversions were a grim reminder of what fate could eventually await her if she did not look after herself.

She crossed several mag-rails to reach the first inter-section. Her she peeked around the corner to check if the coast was clear. She could see little in the smog, but risked a scan with her echo-dotter. She scanned the area and found nothing. The key had to have fallen on the far end of the block. She advanced carefully along the massive rock-crete walls, avoiding cut cables and pulps of acidic liquid.

Suddenly she heard a sound. It came from deep within the smog, a clanking sound, like heavy metal rods hitting the mega-crete floor. After a couple of seconds she realized that it was something moving, at great pace, by the sound of it something bipedal and possibly quite big. She took a couple of steps back where she came from and her heart started racing. There were terrible stories told by the older pipers about predators in the smog, master-less automatons stalking the barren streets. Countless in number and shape, the big ones hunted the smaller ones, and so on. There was also a reason the scavengers brought their great walkers when they came here. The rumours told of great hunts and epic fights at street-level, between the wild automatons and the visitors.

The clanking accelerated towards her, but still she could see nothing due to the smog. She kept her back to the wall and looked around. Behind her was a mesh blocking a semi-collapsed tube. That would do. Jordan ignited the las-welder and swung it across the mesh. The intense heat cut the mesh into two glowing halves that fell to the ground, leaving the tube open so that she could fit inside. Well inside, she turned off the las-welder and held her breath.

Out of the smog she could see two ostrich-like legs advancing past her hiding-place. They belonged to something big. Through the haze she could see the rusty, hunch-back automaton, with its pair of arms hanging like talons beneath its metallic belly and with a gun-like device on its back. It had huge, convex lenses on each side of a small animal-like head. It made clunky sounds, and the odd spark lit from cables and pistons along its body. It looked like a nightmare. It stopped, made some analogue sounds, like growls, and then seemed to scan the area.

Whatever it did, it worked. The giant beast bent down, turned its nasty head and looked straight into the tube where Jordan lay. Before she could fill her lounges with enough air to let out a shriek, the predatory automaton was upon the tube and reached inside with an arm that ended in a sleek scythe-like blade. She screamed in her re-breather as the bladed arm passed right above her chest, and by a mere reflex, she lit the las-welder and cut at the arm of the creature that tried to snatch her. A spark lit up the tube, and while she jerked to stay away from the lashing scythe, she realized that her legs were in a vertical position. The tube was only horizontal in its mouth, and suddenly broke into a ninety degree angle straight down. Jordan panicked as she realized that she was starting to slide, and with no hope of hanging on, she lashed out at the monstrous scythe and cut the tip straight off before she plummeted down the hellish tube. Sparks lit the inner walls as the welder´s edge continued to burn anything it touched.

Panic in an enclosed environment would only grip a piper for an instant. In general, she was used to this. Jordan managed to activate her harness and started to decelerate. She stopped, caught her breath and reeled in the las-welder. She couldn´t see anything at either end of the tube, and knowing the inner workings of Lexx like she did, she was not interested in staying in here too long. When she caught the handle of her tool, she immediately went to work on the inner wall of the tube. She managed to cut a hole big enough for her to crawl through. It took some work, and the power-pack showed signs of running low, but she freed herself from the claustrophobic grasp of the pipe.

She crawled out on the other side, into a huge room that stretched for hundreds of yards in all directions. To her despair she saw what looked like foundation work, sewer-canals and waste disposal conductors. That could only mean she had entered sub-level. Though she hadn´t fallen too far, this was far enough. She had never been this low, and the terrain was foreign and hostile. Clouds of vapour shot from mishandled joints in the mega-tubes that covered the ceiling and geysers of sewer and offal occasionally ejected from the pipes along the floor. Kilometre long cords hung from huge pillars that supported the foundation-work and she was sure that there was movement in some of the dark corners. She needed to get back to the surface. She navigated her surroundings and tried to find vertical surfaces she could climb using her harness.

If time was difficult to keep track on up on the surface, it was most certainly difficult to keep track on down-under. She spent a lot of time just finding her footing and the architectural twists and turns she navigated were not meant to be crossed on foot. After a long time she came over a section that was reminiscent of a scrap-heap. As a ramshackle piper, scant in resources and being used to scavenge most of what she needed on a daily basis, she felt the urge to have a closer look. There had been no encounters down here, and she could risk it before moving on. She leapt from one railing to another and found secure footing in the heap.

There were all sorts of materials and parts scattered about in the heap. For the most part it was empty canisters, worn-out bolts or pieces of mesh. Heaps of cables lay scattered about, and broken pieces of large objects she could not identify, were in abundance. She pulled away some random plates of tin, revealing more garbage and the occasional broken luminous-orb. It was not until she stumbled in something that resembled two giant robotic fingers, that she took a closer look. She cleared the different pieces of rubble and waste around it and uncovered an arm. It was about two yards in length, and the finger-pieces resembled clamps one could find on industrial servo-arms. This was not a servo-arm though, as the machinery was much sleeker and the cords running from the hand to the shoulder looked more like muscle tissue than anything else. The more she uncovered, the more interested she became. After some time, she could see that this most certainly was an automaton that resembled the giant silhouette of a man. It was quite different in appearance to the predatory beast she had fled from on street-level, and at least twice as big. She took some steps back and beheld the semi-excavated body, like an expressionless statue in the desert revealed after a sudden storm has blown by. It was amazing, and at the same time terrifying, to behold.

She advanced carefully towards what seemed to look like a chest-plate. She tapped it a couple of times with her finger, and it resulted in a hollow sound. It was dusty, so she ran her palm across it and revealed a pad-screen, a couple of connection-ports and a production-code that spelled ED-209. Her curiosity got the best of her and she wanted to know if it was possible to establish a link between her own wrist-pad and the one on the giant´s chest. She pulled a connection-cord from the wrist-pad and inserted it in the first available port. She then programmed her own pad to scan the foreign system she had plugged it into.

The amount of information was staggering. A binary code the size of fifty-seven cubic-frames was uploading on her wrist. She could only read a fraction of it, mostly maintenance-updates. She could see that it had been stripped of most of its exterior plating and had none of its primary or secondary armaments left. As it seemed, it used to be some kind of battle-robot, armed with weapons of great destructive capability. Much of the information was in a code that far exceeded her own understanding of binaries and the last cubic-order on the rail simply read malifica over and over.

She suddenly noticed that her screen showed that her power-pack was all but spent. She didn`t understand why that could suddenly happen. Though she had used a lot of power on the las-welder, there was still supposed to be plenty left. She ran a diagnostic and the programme told her that the power-pack was being siphoned by an external source. Cold chills ran down her spine.In the same instant, the little screen on the automaton´s chest switched on and ran its own diagnostic. Jordan froze as she recognized the blue and green code from her own data-pad. She pulled the wire from the automaton´s port, cutting the connection. She jumped down from where she was standing and ran across the scrap-heap. Her mind was racing and she cursed herself for being such a fool. She caught a glimpse over her shoulder as she escaped and saw the tall silhouette sluggishly rising from the heap. It was silent as death and only the sound of meatal and glass breaking echoed through the room as it stood up in the distance. The last she saw of it was when she started climbing up a nearby-shaft. The giant automaton stood perfectly still upon the heap looking in her direction. The sense of being watched by something like that was panic-inducing. There was still some juice left in her power-pack. She activated her harness and started to ascend.

For a piper, nothing was better than ascension by harness. Neatly connected to that sensation was the ever-present threat of equipment failure, either due to poor maintenance or dysfunctional power-pack. As Jordan rose towards the dripping, mist-covered roof of sub-level, her wrist-pad alerted her of low power. The harness jerked a bit and, for each yard she ascended, the reel spun slower. At the top she activated the mag-pads in her palms and knee-caps then started to crawl along the support-beams to find a maintenance-shaft. Mag-pads worked despite power-loss, but were considerably more arduous to use. She felt her strength failing, fatigued by the hardships of the day. After some failed attempts to open an exhaust-shaft, one of the quickest ways to move around in Technopolis, she located a hatch with a retractable ladder that led to street-level. She had to connect to the data-pad on the door and run several strains of code to open the hatch, but after a while she gained access. She climbed through the shaft and slowly opened the hatch above her.

She had forgotten about thick smog at street-level, and activated her goggles and re-breather. She peaked in all directions before she risked climbing out. She had surfaced somewhere near the same block she had descended from earlier, but at a different place further up the street. Lantern-globes lit up all along the street in both directions, but shun only as far as the smog allowed. She could hear pistons and gauss-vents hissing in the distance, but nothing in her immediate vicinity. She climbed up, locked the hatch, saved the location on her pad, and ran for cover behind huge containers outside a sealed supply-elevator.

Power was scant and she had to find the Master´s key and start her ascension before she ran completely out. Twenty stories above street-level was a minimum safe distance, and with the amount showing on her screen, she was uncertain if she would get that far. Anyhow, she had to try a second scan for the key. The screen flickered as the echo-dotter made a local scan, and, no more than 200 hundred yards away, there was a blip. Her spirit rose. She advanced along the walls as before, keeping to the shadows. About half way there, she halted and hid. She heard the clanking noise from before a couple of blocks away, only this time it sounded like ha whole flock of automatons running together. She felt relatively safe that the sounds were moving away from her.

Driven by equal parts desperation and dread, Jordan ran the last hundred yards as fast as she could. She could hear the blip on her wrist-pad better and better and knew for certain that the key had to be up ahead. She ran around some huge barrels and into a semi-open area that looked like a collapsed mono-rail entrance tube. As she came out of the fog, her heart sank. A group of young kids, about ten of them, were standing around a taller one, looking at something.

Smogs..

She stopped, but it was too late. Some of them had noticed her. She could hear their data-speak, just blips with interchanging static that was impossible to understand. They all turned around and simultaneously crooked their heads, as if surprised to see her. Their faces were covered in low-tech bionics and had no visible eyes or mouths. Many had replaced their limbs with different tools and scrap-parts, probably from maintenance servitors or servo-skulls. Mecha-tendrils protruded from different parts of their shabby bodies. The tallest one, a slim boy with goggles and a breath-mask covering his face, moved over towards Jordan, holding the Master´s key in a prosthetic limb and a curved knife in the other.

Jordan pulled out her las-welder and demanded the key from him. She stretched out her hand, but the boy just spoke some data-speak gibberish, maybe as some sort of threat or challenge, and came at her with the knife. She dodged the blow, screamed an answer to the challenge, and lit the welder. The light illuminated her, and the boy took a step back, startled by the red-hot edge of her tool. They stood there and looked at each other and Jordan wondered what to do next. Suddenly her wrist-pad started beeping, and the flame on her power-tool flickered and died out. A hollow laughter could be heard behind the boy´s breath-mask and Jordan realized that her power-pack was spent. The group started beeping and pointing their needle-like finger tips at Jordan in unison, like a crowd at a game. The boy got energized by the cheer and started to advance on Jordan.

The cheering was abruptly broken by screams and panic, as the group of smogs suddenly scuttled in all directions. From the fog charged the ostritch-like beast, with its blades swinging and rotor-cannons spinning. As the beast probably had ran out of ammunition a long time ago, the blades were the most efficient. It scythed down several of the helpless smogs trying to find their hiding-places. It was a macabre scene with blood and guts spraying in all directions. Jordan used the distraction to her benefit, snatched the Master´s key from the slim boy´s bionic grip and ran for cover in the fog. The robot-beast then turned around and advanced for the slim boy. He tried to evade, but got sliced in two by a long and sleek blade that was missing its tip.

As Jordan ran down the street, towards the walls of the nearest block, she could hear the advancing steps from behind her. With an empty power-pack she could not gain altitude with her harness. She had to find another way to escape. She was fast, but could not outrun her pursuer. The pounding steps came closer and closer, and when she reached the corner of the block, she stumbled and got her boot entangled in a nest of wires. She fell to the ground.

The ferocious beast came charging out of the smog and she crawled backwards as fast as she could. She hit something behind her, turned around and saw a big mechanical foot. It belonged to something that had just turned the corner. As the beast came close enough, the newcomer simply grabbed one of its legs and flailed it high in the air. The beast was crashed into the ground several times and smashed into the side of the wall. The hulking silhouette then grabbed the beast´s other leg and effortlessly tore the body apart. Oily liquids and sparks showered from the trashed automaton, and Jordan could do nothing more than cover herself as she lay between the huge battle-robot´s legs. The two parts were dropped to the ground and the hulking silhouette came to a halt, standing there in silence.

Jordan sat on the street, grasping her key, thinking that the end had come. But none came. She finally looked up at her saviour and realized that there was no finishing blow on the way. The giant just stood there, expressionless, and with no indication that it was going anywhere. Some pistons hissed, and there was a faint rumble from its chest, but other than that, nothing. She stood up, and, when she got the chance, ran all she could towards the place where she had descended. She didn´t look back. The only thought in her mind now was to get out of the street and up beyond the smog. She ran back and forth, and finally she found the staircase form before. She ran two steps at a time until she was completely out of breath. After a long run, she started to see through the smog, and then she reached the upper most floor that actually had a railed walkway on the outside. From here on she either had to climb or go back down. She sat down and despaired. She had no power to get back to the 105´th floor were the Master´s office was located, and the mag-climb would be risky at best. It could take days, and she was already fatigued.

As she sat there, she heard the faint clanks of gentle foot-steps near the bottom of the stair-case. She could see nothing due to the smog, but she had a gut-feeling that was the sound of the automaton from sub-level. It followed her. She did not know why, and was unsure if she really wanted to know, but she knew that she would be dead already, had the giant wanted her to be. She checked her echo-dotter, and it located a huge blip standing still at the foot of the stair-case.

Then the sky rumbled. A gargantuan ship descended from the clouds. It was that of the scavengers, with the black flames of the Pyronox in the centre of a purple and yellow checkerboard pattern. It had been a long time since the last time she had seen them. The vessel flew to the open space on the far side of the mega-block where she sat and turned on its landing lights. Beams of light cut through the smog and the thrusters cleared a lot of smoke and debris from the street. It disappeared behind the block, but was still visible due to the mega-block´s silhouette. She could hear it land.

Jordan weighed her options. She could start the climb right now, but not get very far, or she could descend into the smog again. There waited the battle-robot. If it had found her all the way from sub-level, it most certainly could follow her around in the smog. Without her wrist-pad, which probably was what it homed in on, she would be lost. It was not an option to lose the wrist-pad, which now was sucking very hard on its auxiliary power-source. The third option was to go back to her saviour, if it even was that. If it stayed where it was, it most certainly would be located by the scavengers. Why didn´t it move?

She got an idea. At first she thought it was stupid and wanted to begin the climb, but then, when she heard the landing ramps of the ship opening, and loud, thumping steps echo through the streets, she decided to give it a try. She went along the railings, up and down the stairs, until her pad showed that she was directly above the battle-robot. It was only seven yards or so, but that would do. She then extended her pad´s hard-wire down through the smog, like a fishing line, until it was at a couple of yards above the ground. She ejected her small wrist-knife, ready to cut the wire at any sign of trouble. She waited a moment, then she felt a gentle jerk in the cable.

A moment later she was streaming information from the automaton. She searched the streaming for a code that would allow communication. She decided to try the manual override system. It was made to go both ways. She started typing commands.
The first was “sender-Jordan-receiver-unknown-identify”.
The response was almost instantaneously “receiver-ED209-sender-Jordan”. She then hurried on and the following stream of code was interchanged between them:

“ED209-pursuer-explanation”
“Jordan-reviver-protective protocols-Jordan”
“ED209-run-danger”
“Jordan-priority-ED209-secondary priority-stationary”
“External power source-location”
“External power source-located”
“ED209-danger-Jordan”
“Negative-ED209-protective protocols-Jordan”
“Jordan-friend-ED209”
“ED209-friend-Jordan”

She could not believe her eyes. In all her time she had never known that the rumoured, and greatly feared, automatons of Technopolis could be reached. She decided to take a chance on ED-209 as her wrist-pad flickered due to imminent power-shortage. If the automaton could locate a power-source, then maybe she could ascend again. She spent her last drop of power lowering herself down to ED. She stood in front of the great machine, and in the same instant, cones of light could be seen penetrating the smog. Huge bipedal thuds could be heard amongst hundreds of marching boots. They were here, and there was no time to loose. She spelled the final code on her pad:

“ED209-Safety-Run”
“Run-Jordan-Run…”

Her wrist-pad died, the automaton stretched out its large servo-hand and she mounted it. The arm hoisted her to its shoulder where she found something to hold on to. It turned around and, slowly, started to walk away. It then accelerated, before it broke into a run. Behind them, Jordan could see ranks of what looked like soldiers coming around the corner. They started shooting beams of blue, electric light into the smog on the opposite side. Thunder and lightning broke out at street-level. She was sure she saw a huge flock of those beasts from earlier coming through the smog, charging for the soldiers. Before ED turned into an alley, she saw a titanic yellow and purple walker, with bright cones of light emanating from its head and armaments, stepping into the battle. A floating platform, with wires like tendrils hanging from underneath it and mounting a small, corpulent man clad in orange robes on top, soared past the walker, towards the advancing beasts. He was talking into a device of some kind that elevated his voice so that it echoed all the way down to the two escapees.

The last Jordan could hear was the man´s disturbing, yet jolly, voice, saying something that sounded like “Come to me, my pretties… I have come back for you..”

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