Thursday, July 20, 2017

Citadel World: The URANUS Code

by Kir Lukovkin

release - September 17, 2017


The runner to the right fell down and Rick barely managed to move out of the way. The thick tip of a cracking whip flashed before his eyes, scratching his cheek. Rick did not stop. The man that fell was sure to die and had to be forgotten like last night’s dreams. An ivy would drag him into its lair and calmly digest him, as if he was a huge, sleeping fly.
Rick and the five other young men continued the Spring Run. Ten had been there at the start. Ten challengers, but only the strongest and most experienced would win in the end. The others would be lucky to complete the Circle alive.

They had entered the Blind Zone only a minute ago—a part of the corridor which was not illuminated with daylight lamps or emergency lighting. A zone of total darkness. Rick put on his ultraviolet filter goggles. He did it in the nick of time—an ancient and desiccated skeleton covered in rags appeared right under his feet. Its teeth shone in a baleful rictus grin. A huge centipede was writhing in one of its eye sockets. Rick easily vaulted over the obstacle.
The Run continued. Its name was an ancestral tradition, from the times when it really was race through the corridors, trying to get the best time. It was an old form of entertainment, born when people could walk around any of the corridors free from danger. However, those times were long gone.
The challengers moved at a brisk pace. Everyone had the right to complete the route in any way they wanted, at any speed. The Run had but one primary rule—stopping was forbidden. The challengers kept close to each other for now, as the danger all around them was too great. However, the real competition was about to start when the Blind Zone would end and when they would manage to overcome the Gallery.
Rick deliberately let his opponents overtake him to save his breath. Going at a medium pace, he greedily took in the Expanse around him. He would never have got to see what was hidden by the thick protective barriers of the sector in his everyday life. The Commune only took up about a quarter of the habitable world.
The tall, thin runner on the left crashed into some sort of springy substance with full force. It was as if the air itself had turned into a transparent jelly that stretched out and pushed the man back. The youth let out a piercing scream—his hands and feet got entangled in dully glittering silver strands. Rick said a mental farewell to his former compatriot. He did not feel sorry for the man at all, but understood the full extent of the terror that he was feeling now. When the sound of steps recedes, he will be left to hang in that trap all alone, many-legged monsters descending from the depths of the ventilation shafts, looking so vile they would make even the bravest faint.
Only five runners remained.
The first had fallen into a gaping chasm while trying to avoid the carrion eaters at the very start.
Another decided to take a shortcut through one of the disused tunnels. A fool.
The third could not take it and turned back. A coward. The Commune will make him pay for this.
The fourth was dragged off by a poison ivy right in front of Rick.
And now the fifth was gone...
Rick could have been any one of them.
They continued the Spring Run. It was almost the end of the Blind Zone. Bone-chilling wind blew at them from somewhere above, carrying the cloying smell of decomposition to their nostrils. No one wanted to imagine the source of this thick and vile odor. Rick was starting to find it hard to breathe, his heartbeat heavy in his chest, his legs feeling as heavy as if he was wearing lead-lined boots... Ah, of course! Another unfortunate fell down to the floor behind him.
Shaky from the effects of the sleep gas, Rick held his breath and ran as fast as he could to pass the dangerous zone.
And then, there was light.
The four runners sprung out of the Blind Zone into the pale light of ceiling lamps. Rick could not control himself and stumbled. For an instant, his mind lost its mastery over his body. Rick prayed to all the gods of the Expanse to protect him from some beast grabbing him from above or below. He fell to one knee and watched the three leading runners disappear around a corner, the sound of their steps echoing off the grilled flooring.
Every second counted. This was not just because the distance between the runners was becoming greater. Well, that was not the only reason. The things which surrounded a man from the Commune beyond the walls of the sector were far more terrifying. The denizens of the hostile Expanse outside. Rick heard a noise right by his ear, which sounded like the fluttering of a moth’s wings and then a quiet hissing redolent of a distant sigh. It was as if the sound was stealing towards him, crawling up to gently touch the skin of his neck, to caress him and then...
The elders said that this was the way that awareness was put to sleep.
'Machine God, preserve me!' Rick muttered and launched himself into action.
Rick's heart hammered in his chest. He was overcome by primordial terror, the feeling a mouse has when it is pierced by the sting of a she-spider that lives in the ventilation shafts beyond the habitable sector. Not daring to look back, he ran with the last of his strength, hoping to get away, to hide and escape from the mortal danger. The corridor gradually turned to the right, following the Great Circle of Life. The back of the last of the three runners appeared ahead. Rick caught a second wind. But it was too early to celebrate yet.
The Gallery would begin soon.
That is what the denizens of the Commune called the part of Expanse where what was visible was not limited by the walls and ceilings that people were used to. The corridor suddenly came to an end, with the path seeming to continue into an empty void. Of course, this was a false impression—the runners had actually arrived in a vast enclosure which did have walls and a ceiling, but they were at such an unbelievable height and distance that they could be barely seen far off in the distance. It seemed like some incomprehensible and merciless force was about to grab the runners from the narrow path and drag you into the eternal primordial darkness.
As soon as Rick jumped out of the corridor into the Gallery, some ancient instinct forced him to fall to his knee and grab the edge of the walkway stretching out ahead.  Rick looked at the shape of the Gallery surrounding him with a mixture of fear and awe. A gust of wind blew into his face and all went dark before his eyes because it seemed that he was falling downwards. But no, he was still holding on to the edge, trying to get used to this new position.
Now Rick understood what the greatest challenge of the Spring Run was.
He had heard of it many times, but no words could compare to that which was before him now. The world turned upside down—it was as if Rick entered a gigantic hall, with an endless expanse of floor and the ceiling for a sky, climbing up a stalk like a cockroach. But this impression was deceptive. The two endless flat surfaces were only walls that extended upwards and downwards. Rick tried to make himself understand this, but the image constantly shifted into something opposite in his head. He stared at the view before him for a long while, unable to tear himself away from the geometric perfection of the sheer and smooth walls.
The three opponents ahead of him also slowed down. One of them fell to his knees just like Rick, unable to handle his vertigo and fear of heights, another managed to keep to his feet but could not move and the third stubbornly pushed on, his head bowed as if he was walking into a strong headwind.
Rick seemed to hear the ghostly breathing and whispering again, so close that it raised the hair at the back of his neck. Overcoming his fear, he crawled forward on his hands and knees. He did not care about finishing first. All he wanted was to go through the Great Circle of Expanse, complete the Spring Run and advance to the next level of his life.
The walkway stretched out over the bottomless chasm that seemed to go down to the netherworld itself. They said that if a man was to fall off, they would fall without end until they would be driven insane. The definition of hell.
Rick closed his eyes, feeling nauseous.
It was best not to look down. He made himself look ahead, confidently closing the in on his opponent. The other two had already reached the end of the Gallery. When Rick reached the runner who was still stuck on the beam, the man exclaimed,
Rick kept going. He knew what the result of talking to the man would be. Last year, one of the runners decided help another and they both went on a date with eternity. A hand grabbed Rick by the ankle. He tried to pull away but the grip was firm.
“Let me go!”
“No! Get me out of here! Please! We won’t tell anyone!”
Rick became angry. He kicked out and hit something soft. He heard a scream of pain and surprise, but his foot was still trapped.
Even though the walkway through the Gallery had handrails, the other runner lost his footing and stumbled to teeter close to the edge. If this went on for longer, he would drag Rick down with him. The eyes of the runner were full of terror. Rick gathered his strength, straightened himself out and punched his opponent in the jaw with full force. He fell as if struck by lightning, crying and muttering profanities. Rick hurried on ahead, followed by the man's plaintive curses. Because of the encounter or perhaps as a result of his own staying power Rick no longer felt the same fear of the void surrounding him and managed to get up off his knees, stooping and moving forward in a crouch. He never let go of the handrails even for a second, even though he had the feeling that nothing would happen to him if he did. Once he had almost reached the entrance to the corridor on the opposite side, Rick stopped for a moment to look back and remember the Gallery and the Expanse surrounding it.
It was absolutely stunning!
Rick dove into the mouth of the corridor.
Next came the final stretch of the route, which was called the Pipe. The Pipe had to be run through at top speed without ever looking around. Those who did otherwise would die. This was the talk of those who loved to spread rumors. Rick was clever enough not to take such talk too seriously, but also sensible enough not to ignore the rumors entirely. Following a quick break before the final push, he started to run. Rick heard the distant sound of voices ahead—the Commune was welcoming the winner.
The surface of the Pipe was springy under his feet. A strong wind blew in Rick’s face, instantly drying the sweat upon his brow. The Pipe was divided by rings into sections over the whole segment of the track that was leading home. Rick ran, watching the steel rings approach and disappear behind him. Someone said that you could not look to the sides. So he would look up. Nothing special. Normal lights. And what happens if you look under your feet? A grilled floor, with a cavity full of a network of complicated wires, emergency boxes and lights, a pale face and the partitions between the segments underneath.
A face?
Rick came to a complete halt. The cold dagger of terror pierced his heart. He had to keep running! Home was close, but the Expanse was treacherous and full of traps! Rick glanced over his shoulder. The Pipe was silent, with no sound coming from ahead or from behind. He would not have hesitated to keep running, even if would be the face of a dead man or the maw of a monstrous beast like a night crawler. But he saw a living person down below.
Rick slowly returned to the previous section of the Pipe and looked down again. A young woman was lying under the grilled floor in an unnatural pose. When she saw him, she opened her mouth as if to scream, but kept silent. She desperately jerked around but she could not escape. Her arm was stuck between the power distribution boxes. Without quite understanding why he was doing it, Rick jumped off the walkways, crawled under the supports and came face to face with the girl.
There was no Commune sigil on her neck.
An outsider!
The Warden had spoken about the barbaric tribes living outside the sector. However, she looked too smart for a barbarian—a gray, body-hugging suit, white skin, copper colored hair, a well-proportioned face without any abnormalities and thoughtful eyes which were full of pain. Rick stretched out towards her hand, which was stuck in a clamp up to the elbow. The girl recoiled, covering her face with her free hand. Something glinted in her ear, but there was no time to see what it was.
Rick felt her delicate wrist and found that the bone was intact. Only the spring of a single clamp had to be forced apart to free the barbarian girl. He braced his leg against the wall and pulled the clamp towards himself, to release it a little. The barbarian immediately pulled her hand out and darted behind a supporting strut, backing away towards the wall. There were doors all along the walls of the Pipe.
“Thank you.”
The mystery girl disappeared behind a door before he could reply. Rick looked at the closed door, cursing himself for his indecisiveness. He snapped out of his reverie, feeling a pair of eyes upon him. He turned around and saw the runner that almost fell off the walkway in the Gallery. His name was Yeshua, or something like that. Before the start of the Run he boasted louder than all that he would complete the route. The runner glanced at Rick down below and then ran along the Pipe towards home. Rick climbed back onto the walkway and followed him.
Rick finished the Spring Run last.
Four runners had finished this time.

release - September 17, 2017

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