For some reason Dax had expected the Evinthei headquarters to be more… well… fascist. He had imagined some iron citadel with dungeons, more bizarre technology—no one could live in Nones without deadly machinery, it seemed—or at the very least, a few wanted posters with his name on one of them.

Instead, this felt more like the head office of some enormous multinational corporation. Pale carpets. Tasteful decor. Potted plants. Yes, there were people in uniform, but they were variations on the blue-and-grey Evinthei uniforms he had seen elsewhere, pressed to sharp creases with their shoes buffed to perfection. They walked with military precision, but carried no weapons. When Adree strode past, her fellow Evinthei saluted, but their eyes were curious and kind, devoid of fear.

Dax felt them watch him as he passed. He wondered if Arawn Lessinger was here, somewhere.

The only thing that seemed particularly out of place was what appeared to be a shrine, set in a small alcove on the wall. A young officer was kneeling before it; he sprang to his feet as Adree approached and saluted. Adree smiled. “Don’t let me interrupt you, corporal.”

The young man nodded with relief and turned back to the shrine. Dax lingered and gazed over his head. A framed picture stood in the alcove, depicting a very slender woman in black-and-white body armour. Her black hair was chopped extremely short, a messy cut as if it had been hacked with a knife. In one hand she held some kind of scientific instrument; in the other, a lit candle. The image looked like a painting of a saint.

“Luki Lailenus,” said Adree, coming to stand beside him. “Wife of ‘Orca’ Lailenus. She was a great biotechnician, a genius of her time. One of Jayton Ember’s great Entourage.”

“You mean the people who almost destroyed Nones,” said Dax. The young corporal glanced around, wide-eyed as if he’d heard some blasphemy, then got to his feet and stalked away. Adree rolled her eyes, but said nothing.

“What’s wrong with her hair?” asked Dax, nodding at the painting.

“Luki Lailenus studied Earthborn-human transmittable diseases,” said Adree. Her voice softened. “Her eldest son died from one, you see. After that, they say Luki would study for days at a time in her laboratory, looking for cures. She got obsessive. Her husband had to convince her to eat. One day she hacked off her hair because it was getting in the way of working at her instruments.”

Adree turned and kept walking; Dax followed. “Luki exemplifies compassion, scientific progress and maternal love,” Adree continued. “Her lab’s preserved somewhere in the building’s lower reaches. She was, as we say of the Entourage, destroyed but not defeated.”

“You make her sound almost like a goddess,” said Dax.

“She’s an ancestor to several families of the Evinthei. Her descendants show their respect at her shrines; they pray to her if they feel the need. If that makes a goddess, it’s not much of a stipulation. Her life story’s inspirational. Maybe that’s all it needs to be.”

She stopped Dax in front of an elevator and swiped an ID card through a slot on the wall. The doors opened almost at once. Dax stared at the number of buttons on the panel inside: most of them were for levels below ground. How far did this complex go?

“Deep enough,” Adree answered, joining him and pressing for one of the upper floors. She threw a tight smile over her shoulder. “And, yes. The creature Kairendyrian is down there somewhere.”

Dax had forgotten that Adree was slightly telepathic. But it was one thing to hear it and another to have her read his mind, plucking out thoughts right in front of him like a magic trick. He realised he was growing quite a profound dislike of this woman. This soldier and ambusher. This murderer.

As the elevator began to rise, he thought of a way to get back at her. “All right,” he said. “What am I thinking about now, then?”

Adree blinked… and then a flush of anger ran up her cheeks. “He’s not coming to help you,” she said, in a tight, hot voice. “If Athellus came within a mile of this building, any Evinthei would be willing to blow his head off.”

“Except you, apparently,” said Dax, deliberately turning the knife.

A muscle fluttered in Adree’s jaw. The elevator passed several floors before she spoke again, in a calmer voice. “I beg your pardon,” she said. “I forgot that you—“ She stopped and took a deep breath.

What a strange apology.

They rode the rest of the way in silence.

* * *

The elevator opened on a windowless reception room at the top of the building. The walls were wood-panelled; the carpet was a rich, royal blue. Adree showed her ID card to the guards waiting there, who cast baleful glances over Dax. He was frisked for weapons, and then allowed to follow Adree to a dark wooden door at the other end of the room.

Adree raised a hand to knock, then paused. “My father is a sick man,” she said in a low voice. “He’s seen many troubles. But he wants to help you. Remember that.”

“I’m not promising anything,” said Dax.

She smiled. “You don’t have it in you to do harm,” she said, and Dax knew she was thinking of the elevator. “Not really. You’re a good person. Thoroughly. A person worth helping.”

She knocked, then pushed the handle down and held the door open. Dax stepped through alone. The door closed behind him.

He was standing in a spacious office with a single desk and several chairs. Rows of bookcases stood against the walls. An old suit of battle armour rested on a mannequin between them—not ornamental armour. This had more in common with Kevlar, and had clearly been used.

Adree’s father was standing near a plate-glass window that ran ceiling to floor at one end of the room. He was in a crisp blue-and-grey uniform, obviously freshly laundered, but it hung on his body as if he’d lost weight recently. His white hair and beard—which still had fading traces of Adree’s red—were sparsely trimmed. When he turned to Dax, his bright eyes seemed too large for his face, childlike. And Dax had a sudden, pleasant surprise at the look of welcome and acceptance he read there. It was as if the two of them were old friends or colleagues, meeting on a railway platform by chance.

“Mr West,” Adree’s father said, crossing the room with a hand extended. The fingers were thin, and the skin felt dry and cool against Dax’s palm as he accepted it. “Tobias Aeslin. They’d have me say General Aeslin, but… I dislike formalities.”

“Dax,” said Dax, offering the name he gave to his friends without knowing why.

Aeslin let his hand drop. His eyes narrowed, seeming to search Dax’s face.

“So strange,” he murmured. “When she told me, it made complete sense. But now I see you, I wonder. I wonder.” A smile suddenly creased the corners of his eyes. “That is the way things go. The mind makes its theories, but sooner or later they bump up against the world.”

“Sir,” Dax began, hesitantly, “believe me when I say—I have no idea what you’re talking about, what Adree was talking about, or…” He laughed bitterly. “Well, pretty much anything anyone’s said to me since I arrived in this city. Adree said you wanted to talk to me about… something. I don’t know.” He raised his hands and let them fall. “I’m just tired of questions. I need some explanation. Anything.”

Aeslin nodded. “Yes. I see.”

The older man put his hands behind his back. “But some situations are like complex equations, Dax. The answer is already known; it is an existing number. But its meaning is derived from going through the equation, function by function, until you arrive at the solution. I beg your indulgence, just a little longer.”

He wandered back and forth through his office. “There is something I want to show you, Dax. A vital piece of the equation. It will make all this easier to understand. But it will involve Gating briefly, out of Nones. Is that all right with you?”

“I—yes.” A rise of excitement ignited in Dax’s belly. “Gating—Gating where?”

Aeslin said, slowly and with solemnity: “We are going to see Marchion.”

He turned away before Dax could react to the name; a name he knew from somewhere. “I can take us there. But you will need to stay calm, and breathe, and above all, stay very still. If you agree.”

Dax’s mind was working furiously. Tobias Aeslin was not only a stranger, he was one of the enemy. Dax was already in his power. To place himself further in Aeslin hands seemed foolish, at best. But he felt… something, some bond of trust with this man. Dax had laid unconscious in the hospital room for many hours, helpless and alone. And the Evinthei had done nothing more than bandage his wounds.

Besides: the chance to Gate willingly? The chance to travel between worlds, without murky water and death? Tired as he was, that seemed an adventure worth having.

“I agree,” Dax said.

Aeslin lifted his aged, parchment-skinned hands… then abruptly lowered them again. “In that case, you’ll need this.”

He crossed the room and jerked something long from a stand by the door, tossing it in Dax’s direction; Dax caught it clumsily, in two hands, then stared.

It was a large, black umbrella with a hooked handle. The kind that ministers and office workers used on wet days in London.

“Now,” said Aeslin, and the world began to change.

 

 

 

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