Introducing a few more characters and the first glimpse of the conglomerate Meridiem. You don’t have to read the first novel to follow everything, but you should because it’s actually quite good. The novellas are even more optional, but are also fun.
Asterion – Prologue, Part 2
A volcanic islet in the south pacific had been charted by the Royal Navy two centuries ago. They found it uninhabited and to contain little of interest. No people, resources or large animals to exploit and so, officially, it was marked as a site for potential settlement but as it was so far from any of the sea routes no one ever returned. Unofficially, the island was owned by Meridiem, although as far as they knew it had really not been visited for over a century. Eren Conway was determined to be the first since the disaster.
He stood on the deck of the Sovereign, struggling to keep his curly brown hair from his eyes as he spied the island. The Sovereign, a superyacht, had a helipad but the drones they had sent to scout confirmed there was no place it could land, most of the island being covered in impenetrable foliage. There had once been a dock, presumably, but it must have long ago been claimed by the ocean. For the moment, the ocean was crystal and calm so there shouldn’t be any difficulty in landing.
His only concern was that even Meridiem’s own records were sketchy about what exactly transpired here. They had enlisted the services of one Stephen Gosforth to develop for them a new source of energy. That appeared to have not happened, yet the satellite imaging did show a source of heat lurking underneath the isle. And no – it wasn’t a volcano. That had been dormant for a long time. Gosforth had been given the freedom to pursue other experiments too. The records showed delivery of various equipment, builders, chemicals and wild beasts to the island. But from the day his generator was supposed to have been activated, there was no further traffic in or out of the island and all who had been there at that time were thereon listed as deceased. What had happened and what the source of the energy was were the questions Eren had travelled all this way to answer.
After weeks at sea he was eager to set foot on land, but the captain was more cautious. He hadn’t struck Eren as a superstitious type, but these waters were unfamiliar to them all and the island was quarantined, officially. Even Meridiem had no idea they were here and the captain wouldn’t let anyone go until he was convinced there was no danger to his crew. So they spent hours sitting on the ship watching the coast, the drones circling like seabirds above until the captain was convinced there was no other activity. Only a few hours before sunset did Eren board the boat and moments later was on the beach, the sailors being a little rough with his belongings.
“Hey!” He yelped as his rucksack was thrown from the boat, splashing through the waves to pick it up. “Please, t-that’s… there’s some sensitive equipment in there,” he stammered, heaving the pack on his back. “So, y-you… you just,” he turned, coming nose to huge muscular chest of the sailor. “Y-you’ve just got to be careful, okay?”
The seaman in question looked down on him, chewing tobacco. Eren had spent most of the voyage in his cabin, going over notes, sometimes, but mostly just being seasick. He wasn’t too familiar with the crew and realised he had never heard this one talk. Maybe he didn’t speak English, but in any case, he now seemed rather agitated.
Fortunately, Moya was there, as ever, to get him out of trouble, speaking to the man in his own tongue which seemed to relax him and then guiding Eren up the beach. His family insisted he have a bodyguard and although he resented the idea at first, he had to admit that without her this crew would have probably made him walk the plank a long time ago.
“So where to now, doc?” She asked.
“Er, yes,” he wiped sweat and a strand of hair from his eyes. “T-there should be an abandoned house just a little way inland from here. I mean, t-the whole island is abandoned of course, but…” she squinted and he quickly got back on track. “It’s as good a place as any to begin our investigation.”
They made their way into the jungle, single file, the man in front chopping through the foliage. The going was slow, the sun touching the horizon without the party finding any evidence that men had once dwelt here. Suddenly they halted, Eren overhearing urgent muttering as he pushed his way to the front.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Samuel, some survival expert they’d picked up in New Zealand, was crouched examining some ferns that had been crushed. “You said there were no animals on this island, no?”
“N-no large fauna, according to our records.”
“Yeah,” the hunter stood back and gobbed impressively. “Well, that looks to me like a game trail.”
Even Eren could see it, as sheltered as his life had been to this point. A path through the jungle, a little overgrown but less than it should have been if nothing had walked there in a century. “I… suppose it’s possible some of the animals imported here have somehow survived.”
“What kind of animals?” Moya asked, pulling up her gun.
Unfortunately, the drawback of being part of a highly secretive organisation was that even he struggled any really detailed records. Still, he had utmost confidence in his bodyguard and the others they had hired. “Nothing that’s a threat to us, I’m sure,” Eren looked at the map on his tablet. “So… s-should we go this way then?” He said, nodding to the trail. “It seems to be leading to where we want to go.”
“Sure,” Samuel nodded. The island hadn’t looked so big from the ship, but still it was almost dark and they had yet to reach their destination. Then once again the hunter signalled a halt, and once again Eren blundered toward them.
“W-what… oh!” He smelt it first – the pungent odour of rotting flesh. Eren puffed his cheeks and spun away from the torn open pig. He tried not to vomit, but given everyone had already seen his reaction he saw little point in holding it in for long.
Moya squinted, holding her gun more closely. “What kind of animal hangs its prey in trees like that?” She asked.
“Leopard, maybe,” Samuel suggested, followed by a golf ball sized gob landing close to Eren’s feet. “Should make camp soon as possible if there’re cats about. They hunt mostly at night. Mostly.”
It was a splendid idea, but before they could act on it they heard a scream, followed by the thunder of gun fire. Samuel and Moya ran toward it, Eren trailing behind confused but still able to count and suddenly they were one man short. The man now at the back of the lone lay on his back, rifle pointed up, still screaming. Samuel barked madly at him but it didn’t calm him down. The man’s eyes were bulging and he kept pointing into the murk that now surrounded all of them.
“Wh-what’s he saying?” Eren asked.
Moya slowly shook her head. “He says it was a… a werewolf, or some kind of beast man…”
Samuel got his flashlight, scanning the deep jungle. The light did catch a pair of green eyes, watching them for a second before turning away. And for a second, Eren thought he saw the shadow of a man.
“Let’s go,” Samuel said, already marching back down the trail.
“B-but,” Eren ran a little after him, “w-what about our man?”
“We’ll never find him in the dark. Searching now would just put all of us in danger. We need to…”
“Look out!” Moya yelled. Eren felt her body plough into his, landing on his back with her covering him. He looked across the ground and saw Samuel’s face. Or what was left of it. Half of it had been slashed clean through. And above them, he saw a man with the head of a beast…
On the ship, the crew heard the gun fire. The captain tried desperately to radio his men on the island but all he got was garbled screaming. His first thought was to send another party to rescue the first, but he had no idea what he would be sending them into. He should at least wait until it was light. If it was safe to wait at all… he was then called onto deck.
Some of the crew were chattering and pointing over the side. The captain went to see, and there was something shimmering beneath the ocean. Something big emanating an eerie blue glow, like no vessel or natural phenomena he had ever witnessed. It seemed to be stationary and he looked for a moment as if in a trance. Then it suddenly lurched forward, and then to pick up speed making a run straight at the yacht. In a moment of panic the captain yelled to get under way, but it was too late. The Sovereign screeched, as if a mighty sword had pierced her side.
Vera stood in a room full of ghosts. Holograms, really, but she thought calling them ghosts was apt enough. These people lived their lives in shadow, away from the public eye, and yet there wasn’t a single aspect of anyone’s life that wasn’t in some way influenced. Vera had lived long enough to see communication evolve in so many ways, but seeing all these grim suited people there but not there was by far her least favourite.
They had been listening to the last distress call from The Sovereign before she was silenced forever. After it, one of the gentlemen asked, “the island was declared off limits. Why was he there?”
“You’ve all seen the satellite images,” the old woman explained. “The heat signature. Something is buried there.”
“But he knew the risks.”
Vera rolled her eyes impatiently. “How could anyone know the risks? No one knows anything. For a hundred years we’ve just ignored it hoping it would just disappear. But it hasn’t. And if we do not secure whatever is hidden there, someone else will.”
She thought that would win them over. The idea of anyone else having something they didn’t was anathema to them. Yet, something about that island, about Stephen Gosforth, seemed to frighten them. Perhaps because he was the first person to really humiliate the organisation. After a few moments nattering, the same gentleman returned to her. “We shall consult Pythia.”
Vera rolled her eyes again. “Of course,” she sighed. ‘Pythia’ was a computer, programmed with centuries worth of history and algorithms it used to predict events in the future and assess risks. She wouldn’t pretend to understand how it all worked, but whoever designed her avatar must have had a thing for women drowning as she always appeared with her long white hair flowing all about her.
The oracle shimmered as she spoke. “On the question of securing the isle… there is insufficient data to determine what profit could be had from such a venture.”
“Of course there is insufficient data!” Vera spat. “In order to have data we need to investigate, but no one has ever been there and returned…”
“And for that reason,” Pythia floated and stated flatly, “I recommend the island remain under quarantine.”
“Enough!” The old man in charge snapped. He then took a moment to compose. “I am sorry about your nephew, but the risk of sending anyone else in there is too great. The island shall remain off limits, and any further attempts to breech it will be punished. Severely.”
Now Vera composed herself. “I… of course. I had to try, you understand.”
“Of course,” the man sighed. “Take a break. We’ll see you at the next scheduled meeting.”
Vera bowed, and after all the formal farewells marched from the meeting room to the elevator, where she was joined by her assistant Ellie. She was young and pretty but Vera never held it against her. In fact she was quite fond of the girl.
“What did they say?” Ellie asked.
“They’re all slaves to that blasted machine,” the old woman moaned. “The risk is too great it seems. I will therefore fund a rescue anyway.”
“Plenty of people owe me favours. I’m sure I can arrange something.”
“But if the others find out…”
“I can deal with them. Don’t worry.”
But Ellie ground her teeth the way she did when she was worried, which was often. It was a good thing she dated a dentist. “If,” the young woman said at last, “if Eren is alive, and you get a ship to go there, what’s to stop it from meeting the same fate as The Sovereign?”
“Are you saying they were right?”
No, Vera sighed. Ellie was just worried about her, urging her not to be reckless or to get her hopes up. It was why Vera liked her. “We don’t know what happened to The Sovereign, or what else is waiting there. But I’ll be sure to get the smartest and strongest people to find out.”
“Like, a superhero?”
“Something like that…”