The battle had been long and bloody; the worst one anyone could remember. The Predators migrating from the Southern territories were stronger than any they'd encountered before and seemed to have developed an ability to hone in on their intended prey before they could even be seen.
Seven men had been lost before the soldiers finally managed to divide the swarm and immobilise them with the sonic weapons. Now the remaining team were trying to pull themselves together, needing to search for any remaining civilians and ensure all of the Predators were dead.
Sam Hemmings had seen it all. He'd been fighting these things since he was old enough to enlist in the army, like most of the men. It was all they'd known; a lifetime of moving from one base to the next to either escape the swarms of Predators or because the water supply had become contaminated by the toxic storms that raged on the surface of the baron earth. He'd given up on the idea that there was something better than this and simply did his duty; protecting the lives of those that still remained and seeking out revenge on the creatures that had taken everything from him that mattered.
“Do you think the colonists moved on in time?” Sam called out to his partner, Gideon Anderson.
Gideon sniffed and surveyed the surrounding landscape before answering. “They had some warning this time. Dakin had them evacuated as soon as we realised the swarm was heading in this direction to get to the fresh water.”
“Just us idiots left then,” Sam rolled his eyes. “Come on, one more circular check and we should be heading back. My lungs are starting to burn.” Sam decided he was getting too old for this now; his body was struggling to cope. He should leave this sort of thing to the younger men like Gideon who still had the strength to fight and the optimism that one day things would be better for all of them.
Sam and Gideon moved forward, their eyes scanning every inch of the terrain for any sign of life – whether it be human or creature. Suddenly, Gideon stopped and motioned for Sam to be silent. “Can you hear it?”
Sam shook his head. “All I can hear is the wind.”
“Down below,” Gideon whispered. “It sounds like... like someone crying.”
Sam frowned, then knelt down and strained to hear what Gideon thought he was hearing. He was right, there was someone crying below them. “There has to be an entrance to a bunker close by,” he said, his eyes searching for the tell-tale signs of the trapdoors that sealed the underground bunkers to protect them from the toxic air.
It took just a few minutes to find it, and Gideon pulled it open. They both removed the cumbersome breathing equipment they wore to enable them to climb down the narrow vent that led to the maze of underground tunnels and makeshift residential areas. Before they'd even got halfway down the ladder, both men knew that what they were about to see would not be pretty. The smell was unmistakable – death. It seemed not all of the civilians had managed to escape before the Predators attacked. The crying echoed out, and Gideon realised it was a baby – afraid, hungry, alone... they had to find it. Saving one life amongst all of the devastation that had occurred over the last few hours would make this task seem less futile.
Sam switched on the torch fastened to his head and tried to direct the beam where the crying seemed to be coming from. It was obvious that the Predators had been through here, ripping apart anything that stood in their way. Electricity cables hung dangerously exposed from the ceiling above, making it impossible for the soldiers to turn on lights even if they could get to the generator. They would have to rely on Sam's torch and their own senses to guide them.
Gideon retched and clutched his stomach, determined not to throw up. He should be used to this by now, but the victims of Predator attacks always suffered a painful, violent death, and the two bodies in front of them were no exception. The bile rose into his throat and he grimaced as he tried, without success, to swallow it down. Sam patted him on the back sympathetically and left him to it whilst he went on ahead.
The baby's cries grew louder and more distressed; Sam moved quicker. He prepared his weapon, and his mind, for what he might encounter. There could still be a Predator here, ready to attack the baby. He couldn't let that happen; children were few and far between these days since no-one really wanted to bring children into this nightmare world, so protecting those that were born was so very important for the continuation of the human race.
Just as Gideon caught up with him, he saw the baby and what he could only assume was his mother. She was barely alive and no more than a child herself from the look of her. She'd been attacked and was bleeding heavily from several large, gaping wounds. Her entire body was shaking and her skin clammy and pale. She did not have long left in this world, yet she seemed to be trying to cling onto her life for the sake of the baby in her trembling arms.
“Hey,” Sam said softly. She looked up, her eyes wide with fear. “It's OK, we're here to help you.”
She nodded and held out the baby. “Please,” she sobbed. “Look after him. His name is Matthew.”
Gideon stepped forward and took the terrified baby into his arms, cradling him and holding him close to his chest making soft, soothing sounds. Sam exchanged a glance with Gideon and he nodded. “I'll make sure he's taken care of,” Gideon said, walking away. He knew what had to be done; some people were beyond medical help and the best thing to do was to put them out of their misery quickly. The hospitals were too full already, dealing with those who had a slim chance of surviving, they couldn't cope with those who would die anyway.
The single gunshot rang in Gideon's ears as he held the baby tight in his arms. He'd almost stopped crying now, comforted in the embrace of the young soldier. A single tear fell down Gideon's cheek as he thought about the tiny human in his arms, now orphaned because of those monsters; life was so very unfair.
“Don't get too attached,” Gideon said, stroking his wife's back and gazing down over her shoulder at the sleeping baby in her arms. “Once the medics have checked him over tomorrow, he'll be taken to the orphanage in the Northern territory. In fact, he should be in the hospital wing right now.”
“He doesn't need medicine,” Siobhan responded softly. “He needs the safety and comfort of loving arms and a full belly.”
Gideon sighed and knew it would be pointless arguing with her. She longed for a child of her own, but her work was too important to be slowed down by a pregnancy and both she and Gideon knew only too well what sort of life they'd be bringing a child into. “Well, he certainly has those tonight. He looks at peace; hard to believe that there was so much death and destruction around him only hours ago.”
“No child should have to go through any of this,” Siobhan spat angrily. “The sooner we find out where and when this all started, the sooner we can find the right anomaly and go and put it right.”
Gideon kissed the top of her head. Siobhan's passion for her work was one of the things he'd admired about her when he met her. If anyone was going to solve this mystery, it would be her and her team. He'd met her just over two years ago when he had been assigned to escort the team of scientists from the former Irish colonies as they travelled to the Capital to share their knowledge with the team already working on the project. It was her flowing red hair that attracted his attention first, and then she flashed her green eyes at him and he was a goner.
“You'll do it. The final piece of the jigsaw is out there somewhere, and we'll find it.”
“We have to – for the sake of babies like little Matthew.” Right on cue, Matthew stirred in his sleep. “I should go and put him down on our bed,” Siobhan said, and disappeared into the bedroom. When she emerged a few minutes later, Gideon was sat at the table turning some kind of bracelet over in his hands. Siobhan settled next to him and placed her hand on his to get a better look. “Haven't seen one of those in a long time, where'd you get it?”
“The baby's mother was wearing it. Sam hoped to find some kind of identification on her, but she wasn't carrying anything, just this bracelet.” Gideon passed it to Siobhan. “I think the last one of those I saw was the one my grandmother wore.”
“They gave up issuing ID over 40 years ago, why would she be wearing it?”
“Maybe it was given to her by her mother; a piece of family history. That's why Sam took it. Matthew should have it if it holds clues to his own past and who he is. It's important for anyone to know where they came from.” Gideon turned the bracelet over and noticed for the first time that there was what appeared to be some kind of computer chip attached. A small twist was all it took to remove it and he held it up. “What do you suppose this is? This isn't standard issue.”
Siobhan moved closer to examine it. The design was crude, a technology several generations old in computer terms, but she could probably do something with it to access whatever was stored on it. She agreed with her husband that Matthew should know something of his past to help shape the person he would become, and if that chip held that information then she would get it for him. “I'll have one of the tech guys look at it tomorrow.” She yawned, and stroked Gideon's arm. “It's been a long day, we should get some sleep.”
Gideon nodded. “You go ahead, I'll be through in a minute.” He watched Siobhan go into the bedroom and close the door, then picked up the bracelet again. He couldn't get the image of the baby's mother out of his mind; she seemed very young and it made him wonder what sort of situation she had got herself into to be left alone with a baby. They would never know now; the rest of the colony would be scattered and hopefully have found somewhere safe, so finding anyone who would know Matthew and the circumstances of his birth would be impossible.
He sighed. He was one of the lucky ones. Soldiers were automatically given accommodation within the underground Government facilities around the country, and when he married Siobhan he was allowed to move into private quarters with her. Their two roomed apartment was palatial compared to what most had. They didn't have to worry about finding somewhere safe to set up home, or whether the air would be breathable since the Government buildings all had electronically filtered air.
By the time he'd gathered his thoughts and made his way into the bedroom, Siobhan was asleep. She'd curled herself around the baby protectively, and for a moment Gideon allowed himself to believe that Matthew was their son and that the world outside was green and fertile. Then he returned to the reality of the situation. Tomorrow, Matthew would be handed over to the correct authorities who would place him in the orphanage where he'd be well looked after and prepared for his existence in this inhospitable world. He climbed into the bed, taking care not to wake either his wife or the sleeping baby, and tried to shut his mind off so that he could get the rest he needed.
The alarm woke all three of them, and it was several minutes before Siobhan could calm Matthew. She tried to push her own fears to the back of her head and be strong; she had to. An alarm at this time of night meant only one thing and she hated it every time it went off.
Gideon was dressed within moments and was communicating with his commanding officer, Captain Dakin. With Matthew finally quietened and nestling against her breast, Siobhan came out into the living area just in time to see Gideon head for the door. He was strapping himself into full breathing apparatus. “Where are they this time?”
“They were sighted about 20 clicks to the South; same place the last wave came from. Dakin's intelligence suggests they're heading this way, although they could get distracted by the colony that's just barely established in the vaults of St. Paul's.”
She watched him leave and stood staring at the closed door for a moment. Gideon was a good soldier and this is what he trained to do. Protecting human life from the Predators was all he'd ever known since his teens and it was second nature to him. It didn't make it any easier for her though. She would still worry herself sick until he returned. Then there would be several more hours of worry; whilst the breathing equipment filtered out most of the toxins in the air, some of the soldiers still fell ill after being on the surface for an extended period.
Deciding it would be impossible to go back to sleep, Siobhan got dressed and prepared a couple of bottles of baby milk. From the smell of him, it seemed Matthew also needed his nappy changed. She should be taking him to the medics so they could check him over and they'd clean him up and feed him, but it didn't feel right. He deserved to know who he was, and that information was on the computer chip. Before she handed him over, she wanted to extract the details from the ancient chip and have it transferred to a modern data device that would enable him to call it up whenever he wanted. It would be her present to him.
Ryder was already in the lab when Siobhan arrived; he'd probably not actually left since she'd last seen him. What he didn't know about anomalies wasn't worth knowing. He had devoted most of his life to keeping tabs on each one that opened and logging it onto the database so that patterns could be established by Scientists like Siobhan. He'd once jokingly suggested that everyone went through the next anomaly that appeared because it would have to be a better place than this, but got shot down in flames. That wasn't how it worked; what was the point in simply uprooting everyone? The problem would still exist, the world would still end.
He looked up and scratched his greying beard as Siobhan carefully placed Matthew into a storage box. It would have to do for the moment in the absence of any kind of cot for him. “Bit sudden isn't it? Didn't even know you were expecting!”
“Gideon found him yesterday. His mother was killed by the Predators.”
“Poor little nipper! Still, they'll look after him up North. Another soldier to add to the depleting ranks. How come you still have him?”
“Gideon got called out before we could take him over. Besides, there's something I need to do before he goes, could take a couple of days. How'd you fancy a challenge?” Siobhan knew if anyone could extract the information from the computer chip it would be Ryder. She handed it to him and he inspected it with a grimace on his face. “The baby's mother had it on an ID bracelet. We're guessing it contains his family details, so he should have them before he goes to the orphanage. Do you think you can get the data from it”
“Possibly. Haven't seen anything like this 'cept on them old training videos I watched as a kid.”
“Do what you can, I'd be really grateful – and so will Matthew when he's old enough to appreciate it.”
Ryder turned and began rummaging through his drawers, pulling out various gadgets. Siobhan decided it was probably best not to ask how he'd got them or what they were for and switched on her own computer. She was no closer to finding the point where all this had started and sometimes it felt like this was a pointless exercise; but today she needed the distraction whilst Gideon was on the surface fighting Predators. She was trying to make a visual representation of the anomalies, a sort of three dimensional map that would link them together. About two months ago, she'd stumbled upon a point where all the others seemed to link back to – could it be significant? She had no idea if it was or not, and decided she needed more data.
It was some hours later when Ryder let out a triumphant 'whoop' and called Siobhan over. “I've copied over everything on the chip onto one of ours, although some of the files are corrupted, and those that aren't seem to be encrypted. Well, most of them. There's a couple that aren't.”
“Well, let's have a look then!” Siobhan said. Secretly she'd been hoping it would take Ryder longer than this so that she could have an excuse to keep Matthew for a few more days. Ryder placed the new chip onto the desk in front of them and activated it, opening up a holographic screen. Moments later, a blue circular logo appeared, with the words “Anomaly Research Centre” written around the edge.
“What the...?” Siobhan's mouth dropped open. She'd never heard of this organisation despite having spent her whole life studying anomalies.
“We should tell Captain Dakin,” Ryder said.
“I think he's a little busy right now.”
“I know... I mean when we can we should tell him. This could be the rebel gang he was talking about before.”
Siobhan closed her eyes and felt her stomach lurch. She vaguely remembered talk of a group of rebels plotting to storm the government complex and take matters into their own hands. They were unhappy at the lack of progress being made towards a solution. Dakin had imprisoned most of them, but there were breakaway groups formed who went into hiding. What if that girl from yesterday was one of them and the bracelet was some kind of tracking device to lead a new group of rebels to them? Maybe baby Matthew was deliberately planted there for the soldiers to find, knowing he'd be taken into the government buildings?
“Is there anything else?” she asked shakily.
Ryder moved a few objects around the screen and clicked his tongue. “Like I said, most of the files are encrypted. It could take weeks, months even, to encode them. There's this one though... says it's incomplete but it might work. Looks like video.”
The screen crackled and a grainy image appeared. It seemed to be some kind of lab, much like the one they were in now, and fiddling with the camera was a young, dark haired male. The picture and sound kept faltering and only part of it was audible, but it became very clear that they'd stumbled upon something important.
“My name is Connor Temple of the Anomaly Research centre and I'm the last person to leave.....we didn't know this would happen...couldn't stop it.... too late for us but I've... my daughter... try to find somewhere safe... sorry.”
Ryder and Siobhan blinked at the screen for a moment before turning to each other. “What do you think he was talking about?” Siobhan finally asked.
“I don't know, but he said something about his daughter – that girl Gideon found yesterday, the baby's mother?”
“Possibly. Is there a date on the file?”
Ryder shifted a few things around on the screen and frowned. “They're all dated March 2062, but that could be when they were copied onto that chip from an even older device.”
“That's over 50 years ago. She wasn't this man's daughter – his grand-daughter maybe. What's so important on that chip that it's been passed down the family all of this time?”
Ryder was scratching his beard and replaying the video. “I wish we could hear everything he's saying! I might be able to clean up the audio a bit more, but it'll take a few days. In the mean time, Dakin needs to know about this.”
“What are the numbers at the bottom?” Siobhan pointed to the digits in the bottom left. She'd only seen a sequence like that once before, and when the realisation hit her she felt both excited and scared. “It's a date.”
“Mm. If I'm right, then this video was recorded in the year 2021... Ninety years ago. Get it cleaned up as best you can, we need to know what he's talking about. I'll leave a message for Dakin to come and see us as soon as he gets back.”
Ryder closed the screen down and took the chip over to his own computer. Siobhan knew he would not move or speak until he'd got the audio on the video complete and turned her attention to Matthew who had woken and was beginning to whimper.
After several hours, Ryder had managed to clean up some of the audio. Dakin closed the door to the lab and settled himself down to watch with Siobhan. The grainy image appeared again and the speech started.
“We didn't know this would happen, and by the time we realised that the machine had created an anomaly that would destroy everything we couldn't stop it. Believe me, we've been trying for years! It's too late for us, but I've made a copy of all the research that led to the building of the machine and I'll give it to my daughter. She's under instructions to find somewhere safe and then pass this to someone who can help, someone who can maybe find the right anomaly to go back and stop this. I'm sorry … I never intended this to happen.”
Dakin swallowed hard and looked at Ryder and Siobhan. “This is from 2021?” They both nodded. “Then it looks like this Anomaly Research Centre is responsible for creating this nightmare we're all in. We keep this quiet for the moment – this information does not leave these four walls. You are not to discuss this with anyone; including your husband, Professor Anderson. We've had false alarms and deliberate misinformation before, it wouldn't do to raise anyone's hopes just yet. We encode those other files and see if they're genuine, and if they are, try to work out exactly what these idiots did and do what this guy suggests. Find an anomaly that will take someone back to a few years before 2021 so they can find this Anomaly Research Centre and stop them!”
Siobhan nodded, her heart in her mouth. Matthew chose that moment to let out a happy screech, blissfully unaware of how important he had become. The man on the video, Connor Temple, had sent his own daughter out to try and get the information to someone who could help. It had taken her ninety years, passing the precious chip from family member to family member until it had finally arrived in the hands of someone who could save the world from destruction.