The scent was intoxicating, but for several minutes Dax tried not to pay any attention. It smelled of greenery, blossoms and pollen, coming and going on the breeze. A scent like that had no place in this city, where half the time all you could smell was the thick mildewy odour of buildings exposed to the elements for too long.

The only explanation was that the tumour was acting up again, and he didn’t want to think about that too much. Well, it seemed fair in a way. He’d started seeing things and hearing things, maybe the other senses were feeling left out. Besides, he’d take the scent of flowers over, say, cigarette smoke, any day of the week. It was only when he saw Kaire raise her head and sniff the air that he became intrigued.

“You can smell it too?”

“Of course.”

“Where’s it coming from? I thought this place was all city.”

Kaire smiled. “It means we’re heading in the right direction.”

Dax glanced over at Athellus, who nodded, then sneezed briskly as if from the pollen. “We’re going to need more than crazy ideas to go near the river,” he said. “Quick stop on the way, assuming this place hasn’t been reclaimed.”

The argument over the cell phone had made Dax wonder if Athellus was going to be angry at him and Kaire for the rest of the journey, but in a way Nones itself had been helpful for once. The three of them had gone back to ground level after coming to a section of the skyway that had mostly collapsed into the district below, leaving a eighty-foot gap between one side of the road and the other. It was obvious that descending to ground level would be a ticklish business. Even Kaire, who was feather-light on her feet, had only to touch some of the chunks of debris to start a minor landslide.

“Now what?” Dax had wanted to know.

Athellus had tossed a little piece of concrete down. It had bounced and then fallen. “It’s not as high as it was, but we’re still looking at… must be a good fifty feet down to the ground from here.”

“I can make a fall like that,” Kaire said, thoughtfully studying the drop, “but you two would end up as paté.”

“Where’s one of those paradigm storms when you need one?” Dax wondered, aggrieved. “That could put the skyway back together again, right?”

“Or put another road here,” said Athellus, folding his arms, “one with vehicles still running on it. Ever seen what happens to a car that switches worlds at seventy miles an hour?”

Kaire knelt on the edge of the skyway and peered down.

“Don’t do that,” said Dax, feeling queasy. “You’re making me dizzy just watching you.”

She ignored him and kept looking. “ ‘Thel, the supporting pillars are intact and not too big around. They’re not crumbled at all and I can lower you down. It’s not far.”

“Wait, what?” Dax said. “You want me to shimmy down a pillar? Without a rope? That’s crazy! I can’t climb down there!”

Athellus was shrugging off his backpack and opening it. “Unfortunately we don’t carry abseilling equipment. But the Evinthei don’t use it either, so they came up with an alternative. Modern technology is a wonderful thing.”

He pulled something long and smooth out of the backpack and passed it to Dax, who recognised it at once. When he and Kaire had treated Athellus for his injuries at the Chapel of Silence, he had seen two large unmarked aerosol cans when they opened up his backpack. Dax had been wondering what they were for. Unfortunately he was still none the wiser.

“Um…”

“It’s pressurised CBP,” said Athellus, taking two pairs of gloves, one of which he threw over to Dax. “Covalent bonding polymer. Put those on and make sure your skin is covered. I hope we’ve got enough left in there.”

Bemused, Dax pulled the gloves on and rolled his sleeves down. He was still wearing the Evinthei uniform he had taken from the barracks; it was warmer than his T-shirt, at least, and maybe he wouldn’t be such an instant target. Once he was covered up, Athellus, now also wearing gloves, shook up the can and started spraying his clothes. “Keep your mouth and eyes closed. Not even a wonder boy like you should breathe this stuff in.”

Annoyed, Dax shut his eyes while his clothes were carefully and methodically sprayed. Finally Athellus tugged his arms out in front of him and liberally sprayed his gloved hands. “I usually have to do this myself, Kaire can’t use a spray can. But you get better coverage with another person. Do the same for me.”

Dax took the can while Athellus shut his eyes. He weighed it in his hand for a second.

He’s trusting me to do this? After what he did? Why should I even bother?

Firmly, he shook up the can afresh.

But I don’t have to be like him. And I can’t do this on my own. For all her strength there are things Kaire can’t do. We need him.

For now.

He went over Athellus’ shirt, jacket and gloves in even, regular lines. Fine mist from the can was carried off on the breeze away from them. Dax had just finished doing both of Athellus’ hands when the spray sputtered. He shook the can, but there was just a dry rattle from inside.

“Damn,” said Athellus, taking it off him and shaking it of his own accord. “Usually we only need enough for one. Never mind.” He tossed the can away.

“Do you mind explaining how spraying stuff all over me is going to help us?” Dax asked.

“The polymer spray will help you stick to the pillar,” said Athellus, letting Kaire help put his backpack on. “The concrete will bond to your clothes very slightly, enough to take your weight until you pull away. It’ll be like climbing down a wall of velcro. Don’t look down and you should be fine. But I’ll go first just in case.”

“You’re serious?” Dax asked, impressed, looking down at his hands.

“CBP works like a charm. Clearance crews use it when they’re exploring buildings because of paradigm flux. You can never guarantee the building will be the same halfway through the climb, that’s why they don’t use ropes. Anchor your safety line to a building, that’s fine, but if it changes halfway through and the anchor point isn’t there any more…” Athellus took a look over the edge of the skyway, and pushed some rubble off the edge with his foot. “So the Evinthei developed this. But CBP is hard to come by these days. They keep it under lock and key.” A grin of reminiscence crept over his face. “There were too many ‘misuse incidents’ back in the dorms. Being able to stick someone to their bed or to a wall was a bit too tempting for some.”

“Are you ready?” Kaire asked.

“Yeah. Lower me down first.”

She turned her right hand palm up and gave it a thoughtful look. Dax blinked as Kaire’s hand and arm… shifted colour. It wasn’t dissimilar to what he had seen before, but instead of baring her forespines the whole of her hand and forearm mottled, then turned dark silver and took on a sheen. Her skin looked like it was covered in armour plating or as if she had dipped her arm in pewter scales. Along the outside of her arm were small spines, and toward the elbow there was a cluster of steel-bright feathers.

“The spray would tear off bare skin,” she said simply, as if that was some sort of explanation. “Come on, ‘Thel.”

Kneeling beside the edge of the skyway, Athellus clasped her hand and she bent her arm, then lowered him down with only a frown of discomfort. Dax craned over anxiously as Athellus vanished out of sight. “Everything okay down there?”

His voice floated up from below. “It’s fine. CBP’s still good, it’s working like a charm. Just put your arms around the pillar and you’ll be fine.”

“ ‘Still good’? You mean this stuff has a sell-by date? How long does it last?”

Silence.

“Hey!”

Athellus’ voice was growing fainter. “Oh, don’t be such a baby. Come on, we’re wasting time. If we’re going to follow your stupid idea, let’s get on with it.”

“Don’t worry,” Kaire told him, holding out her hand.

Dax hesitated, then took it. He couldn’t feel her skin through the glove, but there was the pressure he remembered, like there were steel bones underneath. He wasn’t sure that was entirely a metaphor any more, though. Those ‘scales’ scratched lightly against the fabric of his glove when she bent her fingers. For a second he wondered what it would feel like against his bare hand; whether the living armour would be warm, or cold as the iron statues at the Chapel.

Kaire braced herself to lower him and Dax nervously grabbed onto the edge of the skyway with his free hand. Athellus was right - his glove stuck to the concrete but came off with steady pulling. He swung himself up and stuck to the underside of the skyway. With Kaire’s help, his clothes gripping to every surface they touched, he managed to climb down to the pillar, where Athellus was already halfway down, moving with the ease of long practice. The underside of the skyway was intriguing, big steel girders that were twisted where they had collapsed and fallen. On the ground they -

Without thinking Dax looked down and his stomach rushed into his mouth. He clung to the pillar, frozen, terrified.

Athellus’ voice came up, calm and measured. “It’s okay, Dax. Just keep your eyes on the pillar. I know, I was like that the first time. Just relax, the CBP’s doing all the work. I can see from here. Keep moving, you’ll be fine…”

Standing here now, smelling that odd scent of grass and flowers, Dax looked down at his hands, wistfully. He had been terrified but Athellus had talked him down, telling him where to move and how to shift his weight. From his voice, Dax could tell a lot of his rage and sarcasm had evaporated: it’s very difficult to remain angry with someone who’s genuinely frightened and needs your help. And the last twenty feet or so had actually been fun, like being able to climb in real life the way you could climb in dreams. Dax decided, as the ground grew nearer, that he was going to get some of this stuff for himself.

Once safely on the ground Athellus had used the other aerosol can to spray a solvent-smelling reagent that neutralised the CBP on Dax’s clothes, while Kaire jumped down to join them. All Dax had seen was something white landing, rolling in a cloud of dust, then Kaire was standing up, shaking dust from her hair. Athellus had gone to help her clean up, but while he brushed them off a trace of CBP had stuck his hand to her clothes. Dax had teased that he should have left them that way, until he could spray enough reagent to unstick them. Doing it, for a moment he had felt like they were, all three, a team again, not like they were pulling in different directions. Maybe it wouldn’t last, but at least for now they were tal -

“There,” said Athellus, pointing. “Not far now.”

Dax looked in the direction he was pointing. It was almost sunset; the light was shining in his eyes, but the radiance shed through the sight like a prism. And in this drab place it was, as far as he was concerned, the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

 

 

 

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