Bill Taggart walked the tunnels of District Three alone. It had been a while—about six months—since either he or Laura had been in Stephen’s home. Stephen usually travelled to see them in their house just west of New Sydney.
Twenty-six cities now occupied Exilon 5; twenty more than in 2163 when he had last been on the planet working as an investigator for the World Government. The final passenger ship had arrived from Earth in 2165, six years ago. In his role as Director of the International Task Force, a role he had earned by helping the board members to avoid war with the Indigenes, Bill had ordered the transfers from Earth to stop. The alteration programme was over. The board members were safe on Exilon 5 and they had transferred with them whoever they deemed important and skilled enough. But not all of the skilled workers had made it to the last ships destined for Exilon 5. Bill had made sure of that.
He thought about Earth, his home for forty-plus years. Now a distant planet in another part of space. But it would always be a part of him and Laura; they weren’t ready to give up on it just yet. Everything had deteriorated there in the last six years. After the departure of the last passenger ship, criminal factions had come out of hiding, and anyone left on Earth had been put under their control. Bill and Laura were working with the underground movement on Earth to change that.
For now, he needed to see the interrogations, the tests. Anton was putting one of the newly devolved—a female—through the process right now. It was important she pass his tests before she returned to Earth. She could not be told of Earth’s conditions. She needed to see it for herself, to understand what they were asking her to do. They had tried with others, but with disastrous consequences.
Bill had arranged to meet Stephen in the central core, a communal space at the heart of District Three. He waited by one of the teaching areas; an alcove carved into the rock. Three barefoot male Indigenes dressed in white tunics and trousers stopped walking and lowered themselves into a protective crouch. He felt the familiar brush against his mind as they tried to access his thoughts. He let them in partially and introduced himself with a silent greeting. They nodded and resumed their walk.
The Indigenes didn’t do human-style formality and custom. There was no one to greet him, no one to wait with him. He had grey hair and tanned skin, and wore a black suit covered by a long trench coat. He blended into the Indigene surroundings like oil to water.
After ten minutes, Stephen showed up. Others in the core greeted him by his formal title: Elder. By the time he reached Bill, he was smiling.
‘I don’t know if I should be offended that they’re calling me “Elder”. I’m barely older than them, and younger than most. Serena handles her title better than me.’
‘It’s not how old you look, Stephen. It’s that old-man head of yours. They can see the wisdom, the way you present yourself.’
Stephen tilted his head. ‘And how is that?’
‘Why, grumpy, of course.’
Stephen laughed and pressed his forehead to Bill’s. ‘Good to have you down here, Bill Taggart. It’s been too long. The Evolvers miss you. Laura, in particular.’
Laura, with her easy-going nature, had been a hit with the Indigene young.
‘Only because my mind is so easy to read.’
‘Yes, in comparison to ours, it is. Come.’ Stephen started to walk. ‘I want to show you where we are conducting the tests.’
They arrived at an area west of the core, in a quiet, dark section of unoccupied tunnels and accommodation. Bill pulled out a torch.
‘He shouldn’t be able to detect you. He’s been sedated.’
They walked up to one of the accommodation rooms. There was a viewing hole in the door; Stephen opened the flap and Bill shone the light inside. There was a male Indigene lying curled up on his side, asleep. His hands and feet were bound and he wore a blindfold. Stephen closed the flap and Bill clicked the light off. Stephen couldn’t tolerate the light for long periods. He allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness again.
They walked to a nearby set of rooms. Bill winced when he heard a female cry out in pain. They stopped at the entrance to the room she was in. Anton and Serena were standing behind her chair, just out of sight. Anton was asking her questions, and she was looking up at him, confused.
Anton motioned for Bill to enter. He took a deep breath and walked forward. The female grunted like an animal and her head whipped around. She sniffed the air, picking up on his presence. Her eyes widened with fear. She’d had the genetic reversal treatment and was beginning to look more human. But it was clear that she still had her feral Indigene instincts.
Bill kept his back to her as he walked to the other side of the room. He clicked on his torch and turned around. He shone the light in her eyes. She pulled her head to the side, squeezed her eyes shut, yowled in pain.
Then he started what he had come to District Three to do.
He began to torture her.