“What…”

“Amazing, isn’t it,” said Athellus. “They’re still gorgeous, even when they’re damaged. And Nones couldn’t exist without them.”

Dax had grown up in London; he was a city boy. But even if he had lived in the countryside all his life, he would have had no comparison for what he was seeing now. It looked like a greenhouse… only, it was a greenhouse miles square, nestled in the midst of rusty water towers and surrounded by a heavy chain-link fence that was crumbling into red powder with time.

Like a man in a dream Dax wandered through the gate in the fence - hanging off its hinges - and toward the glass. Spreading out before him were whole fields, badly overgrown into sleek waving forests. Where individual panes had broken, dense leaves and branches poked through and spilled out over the rubble on either side. Above it vapour steamed off in the sunlight, which streamed down and refracted through the soft haze hanging over and through the undergrowth into pastel colours.

Movement drew his eye, coloured scraps fluttering amongst the leaves. Butterflies.

Dax reached for the steel door set in the greenhouse that hung slightly ajar, drew it open, and stepped inside. Warm air spilled toward him. The scent that had drawn him earlier enveloped him now, a layered smell of deep, earthy notes and grass overlaid with pollen. A tang of salt-sweetness in the air settled on his tongue like a wafer. Now he was closer he could see that the plants were not rooted in soil. Each one was carefully suspended in a wire framework between low gantries. Small nozzles sprayed a fine bright mist over the white, writhing balls of the roots which had become badly entangled.

“Aeroponics,” said Athellus from his shoulder. “The roots are fed by nutrient sprays rather than planting them in the ground. Nones doesn’t have any agricultural land, so this is the only way to grow food.” His voice grew more wistful. “Every Evinthei is given a rotation to work in the aeroponic bays once a year. It’s the closest we get to recreation.”

“This one looks abandoned.”

“Likely a malfunction. Ancestral technology’s good, but it does misbehave sometimes. Must have been a serious malfunction too, one nobody could fix… there’s a lot of food going to seed here.”

Dax wandered further inside, his feet ringing out on the gantry. With the glass misted over and smears of stray droplets obscuring the view, the ruins outside were a greyness like an optical illusion, easy to ignore in this place. Leaves and ears of what looked like green wheat drooped over from either side.

Gradually his dream was trickling back into his mind, the one about the bridge and the jungle. He thought again of the bound man and the blindfolded, heart-stabbed woman guarding the bridge, and the shadowy figure who had spoken to him. Nones is not a good place for growing things…

Across the undergrowth between them, Kaire was walking under a spray of lilac-pink flowers from another crop. They were almost exactly the same colour as the jagged markings on her face. She tilted her head up to sniff them, her fingertips gently rising up to pull them closer. Not too long ago, the same hand had been sleek steel with the nails dark-tipped like talons. Like that dark, glistening beast in the undergrowth, white hair hanging in its eyes.

The memory had slipped away, but he remembered now. He remembered that scream ringing in his ears, then the long fall from the bridge into darkness with a metal point pressing into his throat, while the sky swirled dark overhead.

Dax, kill her!

Yes. He remembered that too, with all the questions that went with it. And he couldn’t put them from his mind any more.

* * *

A road ran through the centre of the fields to a small station in the centre, badly overgrown. A couple of slashes from Kaire’s forespines sent the overgrowth slithering down to their feet. Dax braced himself for another one of those Ancestor modules with something gruesome inside, but when he glimpsed tyres he became intrigued.

Athellus grinned and helped Kaire yank the tendrils off. “Ye-es. Perfect.” Under the leaves, sticky with sap, was a heavily armoured truck with bars on the front and sides. “Logistics carrier. Used to ship food and supplies around. They must have left this one behind when they pulled out. If we’re going to the river, let’s go in something more secure.”

Dax brightened up. “This is more like it.”

“For you, perhaps.” Kaire’s forespines vanished as she folded her arms. “It looks like rust and a few scraps of rubber to me. I’ll keep pace on my own two feet, thank you.”

The truck was about the size of a Hummer, with massive treads on the tyres. A few cracks had spread across the back window through the thick glass. Those bars welded to the chassis were coated in heavy anodised rubber with teethmarks scored into them. Dax ran his fingers over one of the marks, then slowly kneaded the padding on the sleeves of the Evinthei uniform he was wearing. It made sense. If you were carrying food around, it wasn’t surprising that the Earthborn would mob the truck to get it. It made the vehicle look like a rolling fortress, and he wasn’t complaining.

Athellus propped up the bonnet of the truck and took a look at the engine. To Dax’s complete lack of surprise, it didn’t look like any engine he’d ever had to take a look at - and he had, usually at two in the morning when whatever band he was with had a gig the next day. But overlaid on that, like a transparency laid over an image beneath, was a very faint sense of recognition, like a ghost of that feeling he had had in the cellar when fixing that Ancestral door.

A leaf was extracted with finger and thumb, then Athellus boosted himself up and took a look inside. “Hmm. I’ll need to clean this out and recharge some of these components. Otherwise we won’t be going anywhere.”

“I’ll have a look in the station,” said Kaire, flicking her arm to bare her forespines again. A few steel feathers floated free - as Dax watched, one drifted against the car on the breeze and left a score on the paintwork. “Quicker for me to do it.”

“Okay. If you see any fluid containers, check them before you bring them out. If they’ve been storing them in direct sunlight they might be volatile.”

Kaire left. Dax reached into the engine and idly picked out a few more bits of greenery. Athellus was opening the truck’s passenger door on the other side: with a sharp yank, he pulled part of the door’s interior free and unclipped a small case. Inside was a set of tools. He picked a screwdriver and began rummaging around in the engine cavity. “Don’t worry. This shouldn’t take too long.”

“I’m not worried.” Dax fiddled with a leaf between his fingers, and glanced over his shoulder to check Kaire wasn't listening. “Uh. Can I talk to you about something?”

 

 

 

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