Chapter 2 (Full)

Fala gazed at the black sky above. In Kuro, the one constant factor was the sky. No matter what the hour, through rain or snow, it remained pitch black, an eternal presence.  Ever since the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu-ōmikami, disappeared under mysterious circumstances a thousand years ago, or so the story went, there had been no Day.

It was comforting in a way, to have such an unchanging sky to count on. People went about their business in Kuro, keeping track of time in 24 hours. For people in Kuro, “Day” was myth.  No one had seen “Day” in over ten centuries.

Fala was outside at this very moment, sitting atop a hill in Taiyou-Shi, City of the Sun and capital of the nation of Taiyou. From her vantage point, the sprawling city went on and on. Light spires shone brightly throughout, providing citizens with synthetic light. Giant screens dotted the landscape, a jumbled morass of shifting images and disjointed messages, casting moving shadows against the backdrop of tall buildings and twisting highways, where light mobiles sped along their pre-determined mag-rails, encroaching upon each other in the darkness.

All this made possible with the discovery that the Goddess Essence, residual energy left behind when Amaterasu disappeared, could be harnessed and used for the good of mankind.

In the distance, the beautiful SunFlare building stood out amidst other brightly lit monoliths, headquarters of the behemoth Diskarma Corporation, the most successful company on Kuro. Artificial sunlight glinted off its glass windows, reflected not from the outside, but from the inside. It gave the building an odd, almost comical appearance against the dark sky. On its roof, tiny black globes the size of fists, Kurokyuu Orbs, were evenly distributed, gathering up the Goddess Essence and distributing power to the building. Diskarma had successfully privatized the process of mining the Goddess Essence with the Kurokyuu technology.

Fala took out her communicator and put it on her lap. The light screen popped out, a shimmering, rectangular holographic image nine inches long, seven inches wide. It hung suspended in the air. Fala made a few hasty swipes with her hand as the screens followed along. An article on the news today interested her. Information regarding the mining expedition Diskarma was conducting far to the North, in the Desert Empire of Yin. Increased demand for the Goddess Essence from other nations had prompted mining expeditions in an effort to locate additional sources. The Goddess Essence was becoming increasingly difficult to find outside of Taiyou. Diskarma had been hemorrhaging funds in the last two years, trying to find more Troves to tap into.

Solar energy had been peaking.  Was the Goddess Essence running out? The nations of Kuro were advancing at a rapid rate.With Diskarma’s tech at the forefront, the nations of Kuro had industrialized and brought many improvements to its constituents.  Quality of life was at an all-time high.

All this changed if the Goddess Essence dried up. The article cited growing pressure from special interest groups.  Academes, members of Taiyou-Shi’s elite along with dignitaries from other nations lending their voices to the growing clamor. Mathematical calculations and theses were put forward purporting the Goddess Essence had to be finite, but even then, common sense told them only the way for energy to be renewed was for the source to be alive. And they were well aware the Goddess was no longer in Kuro.

A chill wind blew.  It was early Spring, and the breeze was fresh with the dew of the still-young year. The people of Kuro were thankful that despite the absence of the Sun, the seasons continued to occur, a phenomenon that was yet to be fully understood. Fala turned off her communicator’s light screen and lay down on the grassy hill.  One of the things that amazed her as a child was how grass grew on this hill. It was as if their will to survive was greater than nature’s laws. Evolution at work. In the all-pervasive darkness, nature had found ways to adapt, and grass was one of the things that had absolutely no problem growing without the aid of sunlight.

Fala glanced at her watch.  It was almost time.  She was meeting one of the Sun Watchers here.  Over the last few months, the shortages had led to allegations that Diskarma had been less than forthcoming regarding its output for the year.  Demand had increased significantly for GEUs, especially the desert empire of Yin and the mountain federation of Shin-Shi.  Of Kuro’s nations, only the island kingdom of Mystika had no need of the Goddess Essence. However, Mystika’s secrets remained an enigmatic riddle, for the island nation had closed its doors centuries ago, disavowing contact with the outside world. There was talk of an impending invasion. Some of the greedier nations, Yin in particular might be taking more than a passing interest in finding alternative forms of energy to the Goddess Essence.

Fala was anxious to begin this recon. They had been searching city records for anything that might lead to a clue: import documents, data on the northern expedition, troop movements, and trade agreements. There had been a recent increase in Taiyou-Shi’s importation of goods from Yin, and Yin had been benefiting greatly. Still, it was hardly proof of wrongdoing on the part of Diskarma Corp.

Something moved behind Fala.  She whirled around in surprise. She found her partner Gustav, standing behind her, a wide grin on his face.  She scowled.  “You’re late.”

Gustav shrugged. “By a few minutes.”

Tall with an athletic build, Gustav had a preppy look to him with a narrow face, and strong, suave features. He sported a crew cut. Gustav was the kind of guy that didn’t like going for haircuts, so the crew cut was a nice easy one he could do in minutes at home.  He was dressed in a jacket, with a short black shirt and pants.

“Gustav, I can’t believe you and I are part of the same organization. I thought the Sun Watchers valued time.” Fala smiled, teasing Gustav.

“Maybe so, but our organization’s been around a long time. We can afford to be late every now and then.”

Gustav smiled at Fala.  A striking beauty, with the raven-black hair that was common to all people in Kuro, cut short like a boy’s, framing a small face with gray eyes and a fair complexion. Those eyes drove him mad. Even dressed casually for the recon, sporting a combination of dark sweatpants and sweater, she took Gustav’s breath away.

“Look what I got for you by way of apology.” He brought out a bouquet of flowers with flair.

“Ugh…” Fala rolled her eyes.

“Fala, you don’t understand, these are Chrysanthemums… Chrysanthemums Fala! They’re full-sun perennials. I went through my entire quota of F-points for the year to get these for you!”

“That’s exactly why they disgust me Gustav. You’re such an elitist. Can you imagine how many GEUs it would take to buy that much in F-points? That would feed four families for a month in the Utter Darkness, or buy much-needed supplies of  Vitamin-D for the sun-deprived. Even maintaining those flowers requires a private greenhouse, or rented space in a public one. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t born an Upper Plater.”

Gustav looked downcast. “Don’t say that Fala… I was merely trying to impress you.”

Fala smiled good naturedly at Gustav. “I know, Gustav. But the next time you want to impress me, send a donation to Sector 6. Those living on the bottom plates need it so much more than I do.” Fala lay a hand on Gustav’s shoulder. “Now, let’s begin this shall we?”

Gustav sighed. “It’s not like we’re going to find anything this time around.  Come on Fala, we’ve spent months trying to track this. I think this theory is quickly disintegrating.  It’s got no legs.”

“Gustav, what is  the Sun Watcher’s Mission Statement?”

It was Gustav’s turn to roll his eyes. “Truth in everything. Tireless dedication to the truth behind the Goddess’ disappearance.”

She smiled coyly at Gustav.  “Just because you haven’t found anything doesn’t mean I haven’t!”  She slowly produced a set of paper documents and waved them at him.

“Fala, what the hell are these?”

“Documents detailing a trade agreement between Taiyou-Shi and Yin.  According to this, Taiyou-Shi contracted with Diskarma to transfer 35 Billion GEUs to Yin in the last 3 months.”  She smiled even more.  “How do you think Diskarma came up with that many GEUs in such a short amount of time?”

Gustav thought about it carefully.  GEUs took time to accumulate.  Despite the Kurokyuu Orbs greatly shortening the time and lessening the effort required for acquisition, the time it took to mine a single Goddess Essence Unit was 60 seconds.  That meant it required massive amounts of Kurokyuu orbs to mine the amount of energy required in a day.

“They’re lying about the shortage”.  He responded back to Fala.

“Bingo.  You’re smarter than you look.”

Gustav looked hurt.  “Fala…” he began.  “Gustav, you know I’m kidding…”.  Gustav smiled again.  “Fala you know how much you mean to me.  Stop hurting me with words.”

Fala moved around animatedly.  She knew that she was on a roll.  “There is only one way to find out for sure.”  She ran from the hill, down toward the east side of it.  Gustav ran after her in earnest.  “Fala, quit the games will you?  It’s hard for me to try and follow your train of thought here…”  Gustav stopped abruptly.

They were now staring at the sealed entrance to Reactor Core #3.  Solid metal doors looked back impassively at them, grim, foreboding guardians that prevented would-be trespassers.

“Fala this isn’t funny…” Gustav began.  Fala smiled even more.  “Gustav, there is only one way to find out how accurate this document is…”

“Where did you find this document, Fala?”

“I hacked it off of the Central Reserve’s classified files.”

“Fala, that is a Class-A violation.  We could go to prison for years, I can’t  believe you called me out to the hill for the sole purpose of looking at Reactor #3.  I could have sworn you had something else in mind.”

Fala looked at Gustav with a puzzled expression on her face.  “And what might that be Gustav?”.

Gustav sighed.  “Nevermind.  What’s your plan?”.

Fala giggled.  “I think you can figure that one out yourself Mr. Smarty Pants.”

Gustav sighed again.  “I was afraid of that.  You want proof Diskarma lied right?  What better way than to check the output of the most productive reactor in Taiyou-Shi for five straight years.

“Gustav, you are a man after my own heart.”  Fala beamed.

“Well I am…” Gustav muttered under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Nevermind, Fala.”

Gustav walked right up to the entrance and looked around. The reactor entrance was nondescript, just a tiny black dome with heavy metal doors. The reactor itself was underground, far below the city’s three plates, lower even than the Utter Darkness. One would think that security would be tighter, but then again, no one in their right mind would think of entering a reactor core without authorization.

Tabloids were rife with stories of people disappearing in the shadows.  Curiosity killed the cat, it is often said.  Curiosity about the reactor meant more than death.  It meant a total disappearance.  Individuals that were far too curious, found themselves completely wiped from history, entire records of their lives obliterated.  Acquaintances went about as though those persons never existed.

“Do we even have a game plan?”  Gustav muttered out loud.

“Shhh!”  Fala indicated.  “This way.”  She smiled, a strange gleam in her eyes.

Gustav knew better than to argue or even try to talk Fala out of this.  Once she had made up her mind, there was no turning back.  It was one of the qualities that attracted him to her.  When they had first met at school,  Gustav disliked Fala initially.  He found her arrogant and pig-headed.  He knew she was smart, but he didn’t like the way she went about things.  Headstrong, and seemingly impulsive, he found Fala’s direct manner off-putting at first.

In time, Gustav had come to respect the the strong-willed Fala.  She seemed to have a good head on her shoulders, and though she appeared impetuous, she always had a plan, and it always worked out.  He never could figure out why someone like Fala would join the Sun Watchers.  To him, the Sun Watchers were a group of misfits, square pegs in a round hole that didn’t fit in with the crowd.

Fala was different.  She was likable and made friends easily.  Good at sports and academics, she made a name for herself at the University rather quickly.  She distinguished herself  and soon had a small fan following of sorts.  But beneath the cheerful exterior, there was something else at work.  There had been a melancholy, dismal side to Fala.  She talked at great lengths about the Lost Period, about how humanity had lost its link with Divinity, how the Deities had forsaken man.  She was a deeply troubled young woman.

“Gustav! Help me with this will you?”  His reverie interrupted, Gustav found himself staring once again at Fala.  I need you to hoist me up.  The keypad to this is too high.  She was attempting to break into the security lock of the #3 Reactor.  Gustav wasn’t surprised in the least.

“I suppose you haven’t thought through this in the least?”   He hoisted Fala up above his shoulders.

“Far from it my friend…” She smiled back at Gustav.  She keyed in a nine-digit code sequence, cancelled out, keyed in yet another nine-digit code sequence, cancelled yet again and then entered in a 14-key sequence.  The keypad lit up, the light screen activating with a distinct puzzle being presented. Fala took a series of zig-zagging swipes on the light screen.

“Access confirmed.” A voice spoke.

“The key sequence won’t be enough, we need a biometric clearance card…” Gustav began.

Fala walked right in and the doorway opened.

“…which you obviously have and acquired via methods that I don’t really want to know about.”

“Believe me, Gustav, you really don’t…” Fala laughed out loud.  Before Gustav could even come up with a witty retort, he realized that Fala was about 20 steps in.

Gustav looked for a good hiding place around him and put the Chrysanthemums down. “Stay right there. I’m coming back for you.”

He turned toward the door and Fala’s who was rapidly disappearing into the distance. “I could have chosen to fall in love with a cheerleader.  Maybe a dancer or something like that.  The guys give me endless grief about my choice in the ladies, and what do I do?  I follow this crazy lady to the ends of Kuro.”

Once the door opened, there was no turning back.  They quickened their pace, afraid of being discovered.  Gustav was surprised how easy it was to make it into a Reactor Core.  The Cores were maximum security.  The key codes required sequence that randomly changed in addition to the codes on the keypads.  Only employees of the Diskarma corporation or government employees were allowed access into the Cores.

It took a full ten minutes for the elevator to take them down below the city, past its three plates to the underground level. The elevator didn’t provide much of a view. A tiny viewport showed their progress as they descended but there wasn’t much to see, just layers upon layers of metal walls as the elevator moved slowly down. A light screen projected out, marking their position on a three-dimensional holographic representation of the city and its three plates. Once the elevator doors opened they were greeted by security sentry.

Gustav turned pale and was about to pass out from the fear when Fala spoke up.

“I’m here with my boyfriend. We’re here to see my dad. He’s on the North block. We both have permission to see him and its a scheduled visit. You’ll be able to check your records and confirm this appointment.” Fala presented showed her id from her communicator.

The sentries nodded wordlessly and let them pass.

“Fala, I thought I was going to die back there!” Gustav spoke, waiting until they were out of earshot.

Fala smiled. “Relax! I told you I’ve got this under control.”

“Although I must admit, I liked the boyfriend part…” Gustav muttered under his breath.”

“Did you say something?”

“Nope. Not a word. Okay, we’ve made it this far, I doubt we’re going to make much progress without a map…”  Gustav started again.

Fala took out a folded piece of paper from inside her sweater.  Gustav threw his hands up in the air.  “The printed paper was a nice touch Fala.  Untrackable, and it leaves nothing for the hackers to get at.  Well done.”

She grinned and continued on her way.

The reactor was labyrinthine on the inside, an endless maze of dimly lit hallways and passages, looking more and more alike as time went by. There were several security checkpoints built into each area, reactor workers knew them by heart.

Fala and Gustav made their way through the reactor’s long hallways. They reached an area that was better illuminated.  Light spires lined the heavy metal walls of the reactor at regular intervals.  The process of converting the Goddess Essence to other forms of energy involved triggering a chain reaction.  Diskarma held the patent behind the science that created the chain reaction allowing the Goddess Essence to be utilized for various purposes.  Because of the transformation of energy from one form to another, there was the possibility of a violent reaction occurring.  The reactor cores managed the transformation of the Goddess Essence on a daily basis, and safety was a primary concern of the residents of Taiyou-Shi.

Fala guided them through the facility with ease. They reached an area with rows upon rows of black, rubber-like suits, Dark Suits.  Exposure to the raw Goddess Essence was not fatal to man, though over-exposure it did bring a certain level of intoxication.The Dark Suits, made of special material that prevented solar energy from penetrating through it were worn by all employees at the reactor.  Metallic helmets protected the head from possible intoxication or physical shock.  Once the outfits were donned, employees were unrecognizable and could only be identified via the biometric keycard they carried on their persons at all times.

The pair suited up, discarding their clothes.

“You better not be looking Gustav!”

“Believe me, I want to, but I’m not that stupid!” Gustav retorted. “I would never brave the wrath of Fala…” he whispered.

“Did you say something?”

“No…” Gustav sighed. “Maybe one look…”

“What?!”

“Just kidding…”

Once properly suited, the pair stepped out and continued.

Fala had taken the time to memorize the entire map’s layout, she effortlessly navigated through the maze of rooms and hallways.

According to the map, they were getting nearing their goal.  The measurement rooms were physically situated near the containment units that housed the Kurokyuu Orbs.

“We’re here. What now boss?” Gustav winked.

“I’m disappointed in you Gustav.”

“What now?” He sighed. The lady was hard to please.

“Think back to what we know about the measurement units. They send regular updates to the main data store in 20 minute intervals. This is done so often because an error in the measurements would require a rebalancing of the financials. Remember that the Goddess Essence is tied to the GEUs.”

Gustav shrugged. “Ok, I know that much at least. Why don’t we just hack into the data store like we did to get the rest of the information?”

“Alas, the main data store uses high level encryption. It would take far too long to compromise with the current tools I have at my disposal.”

“Ah. But then how do we do this?”

“A breach of the data store is practically impossible, but a breach of the measurement units wouldn’t be out of the question. The procedure includes a human audit of the measurement. That’s where we come in, that’s why we’re here.”

“Fala, if we ever do this again next time, I would appreciate being briefed in advance as to the nature of our activities…” Gustav muttered as they walked hurriedly along.

“Don’t you like surprises?” Fala smiled back at him.

“Not this kind…” Gustav retorted.  “This is like a swan-dive into a bed of flowers, then realizing the flowers were barbed wire.”

“Oh come on Gustav, it’s not that bad.  Admit it, you’re enjoying yourself in all this.”

“Thrilled, Fala. I’m having the time of my life.”

Fala beamed. “Of course you are!”

“This is sooo not worth it…” Gustav muttered under his breath.

The measurement room was cold and clinical, the hum of electronic devices filled the dimly lit room. Even the Dark Suits did not provide enough insulation from the cold that permeated the area. The operation was massive, such widespread technology. Fala wondered how many lives they were jeopardizing in their search for the truth.

“We can’t just waltz in there.”

He had barely finished his sentence when Fala walked in, biometric card held up to the scanner, as the door opened.  She looked back at him.  “Are you coming or not?”

“So whoever’s ID it is we compromised is someone from the Measurement Division huh?  Should have known you had this all planned to the end Fala…”

“Shhh!!!”  Fala suddenly touched Gustav on the arm shortly after they entered.  She was looking at one of the observation cameras in the Measurement Room.  A tall man dressed in black was speaking to one of the employees.

“That’s Zentar, he’s part of the Council of Nine.”  She looked closer at the screen.  “What could he be doing here at the #3 Reactor?”

Gustav furrowed his brow. “That is odd…no one ever sees members of the Executive branch. Doesn’t the Executive branch approve laws enacted by the Legislative branch? Something’s bothering me here.”

“Keep going Gustav, you’re going to hit it just now.”

“Wait…since they’re the ones approving the laws, I thought there was a counter-balance that forbade them from participating in everyday affairs…”

Fala smiled. “Exactly right Gustav. Zentar’s presence here isn’t only uncalled for, it’s a complete violation of Taiyou-Shi law.”

She strained to look, trying to read his lips.  “What’s he saying?” His mouth formed the words. Did he say “Project Maiden”?  She looked around at the other screens.  “It looks like that camera is placed in one of the sections we passed earlier.”  Fala grabbed Gustav by the hand.  “The measurements can wait, let’s go see what they’re talking about.”

The pair exited the room and retraced their steps hurriedly, Fala leading the way, almost dragging Gustav all the way through.  “Fala…let’s be careful!”, was the best Gustav could mouth off in the meantime.  Their hearts were racing with adrenaline and excitement.  They found the section just past two rows of Dark Suit containment units. They hugged the wall and stayed hidden in the relative darkness.

“Output from Project Maiden proceeds well, Lord Zentar.  We can continue to meet demand in this way, but continued experiments with the output may have long-lasting effects on the source.  Treaty 7745 allows for this procedure…”

Gustav heard a sudden gasp from Fala.  When he turned around, he was surprised to see her reaction.  Fala was aghast.  Blood drained from her face, her gray eyes wide open in terror.

“Fala…what happened?”  Fala was pulling his arm again, this time in the opposite direction.  “Gustav, we need to get out of here as quickly as we can.”

“What about the measurements?”  He whispered back.

“We don’t need them anymore.”

“What?!”

Fala was moving quickly now, she began to break out into a sprint.  “Gustav!  This is very bad, we really need to get out of here right now!”.

“Fala, what is Treaty 7745?!”

“It is sad that the young man does not appear to to know history as well as the young lady obviously does.”  A voice appeared from nowhere.  Rough hands grabbed them both suddenly. Their masks were taken off.

“I don’t think these two are authorized to be here. See to it that the sentries that let them through are punished accordingly.”

Zentar emerged from the darkness. A bald man with piercing eyes that gave him a stern look, his worn face covered in a full beard. He cut an imposing figure, at almost seven feet tall, a tower of a human. His heavy-set physique bulged out from his cloak that did a poor job concealing it.  “Not very many know about Treaty 7745, and even less know about it to be so fearful.”

Fala glared at him.

Zentar smiled, a menacing smile, as he slowly approached the defiant girl.

“You understand the full implications of this, don’t you young lady?  How is it that you happen to know so much?”

Fala continued to glare at him, but remained silent.

Zentar’s eyes widened.  “She’s typing a message on her communicator you fools!”

Before she could finish typing her message, Fala felt a sharp cutting sting on her chest, then another on her belly. The stabs came in rapid succession. She barely had time to feel pain. Warm liquid seeped from her body as she felt her strength ebb away.  She realized what had happened and what she had done to earn it.

For a brief moment, a strong sense of sadness filled her. She knew her life had ended and that there was nothing she could do to stop it. It was true that when the pain came finally, white, searing, hot, both physical and emotional, it had been excruciating. But it was strangely momentary.  She was surprised at how quickly it subsided.  Part of her, the strong part, realized something.  She had done something today.  Her actions had furthered a cause. She figured out the riddle that troubled them all this time. She successfully solved the ages-old riddle to the disappearance of the Goddess, and, though it was too late for either of them to do anything about it, she brought hope for the future.  She hit send on her communicator at that moment, sending her message out into the world.  It was now up to him, she thought.  “Drake, it’s your turn to to save Kuro.  You MUST understand the significance of what I sent you.  I leave it in your hands”

Gustav felt himself fall to the ground, his body hitting the ground with a sudden finality. He knew he wasn’t going to get back up. His body felt numb. Perhaps it was the cold, but he doubted that. The pain left him quickly to his surprise. But there was the cold, empty pain of regret.  There were many things he wanted to do, so many things left unsaid.

“Fala, I love you.”  He heard himself say it.

He saw Fala turn her head to him and with a smile, her lips moving softly. “I know Gustav, I’ve always known.  I am sorry to have dragged you into this.  If I had been a normal girl, we could have done so much more. Thank you, Gustav, and sorry.” The life drained from the beautiful gray eyes, and Gustav realized there were far worse things than dying while staring into such a beautiful thing.

Gustav smiled and shook his head.  Curiosity killed the cat after all.

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