It was midnight by the time Adree emerged from her negotiations with the lapidtalos, back into the tower with the Scorpieth’s scar. Through the broken masonry, she could see the sky overhead. The stars that had been fading in when she began her watch, when the battle started, were fully birthed now, themselves now gravid with light. Everything was quiet. The night wind tasted electric and strange.

Tired almost to death, Adree reached out automatically for the minds of her team and found them. Robbes and Rachelle had done their work. The Taugen they had faced were dead by now. More ashes and corpses for the foundations of Nones.

Lawley help us all.

Robbes was waiting for her on the stairs; he leapt to his feet as she approached. “Commander.”

Adree noted the long scratch on his face, smeared with analgesia, but couldn’t process it. “…How many?”

“Forty-four,” said Rachelle. She was crouched by a pile of Taugen bodies, her uniform speckled with blood — not her own. The only marks on her were a couple of biomarker holes burned in the thick padding of her sleeves. Of course not, thought Adree, faintly. Only our enemies bleed. The Evinthei continue, even… even if…

“Commander?” Robbes asked, concerned, peering at her. “What is it?”

She still couldn’t think. “Robbes, I — need you to patch the transmitter together again if it’s not too badly damaged. Can you do that?”

“Yes, of course. But you —”

“Then do it. Rachelle.” The lieutenant came to attention. “You have radio ops experience. I need you… to encrypt two messages.”

“Y-yes, Commander Aeslin.” Rachelle reached for a pad.

“This is for the Central Forum. Message begins. Commander Adree Aeslin is executing the field operative’s privilege and commandeering military resources in a time of crisis. I hereby requisition four PT-07’s with accompanying ordnance, a company of heavy-ops ground troops and sharpshooters.” She wet her lips. “Will be returning to Lyon’s Boulevard to relay further details by verbal report due to the volatility of intelligence. Am in process of confirmation but believe initial contact is sound. Message ends.”

“And the second?”

Adree barely heard her. “What?”

“You asked for two messages, commander,” Rachelle ventured. “Do you still want me to encrypt another one?”

The darkness of the skyscraper was strange, shattered and chopped by the way the walls had fallen. Every now and again it would become briefly charcoal grey as the lightning from the Librais Tower changed the timbre of the night.

“Commander, do you —”

“Not yet. Robbes!”

He flinched and one of his tools rang out on the concrete floor. “Almost ready, commander!”

“Hurry it up.”

Three minutes later he stepped aside smartly. “Done, commander.”

Adree brushed him aside, keyed into the transmitter and entered the search code the lapidtalos had given her: a vehicle radio rig’s code. If the information the creature had given her was accurate she would have — she checked the time — five minutes, maybe a little less. If he would speak to her. If this wasn’t all some hallucination; if she hadn’t been savaged by a Taugen and was trapped in a blood-loss nightmare. If, if, if.

She hesitated, punched the last digit in, then picked up the handset. Nothing down the line but static now and the soft bleeping of an outgoing signal. Part of her wanted to slam the phone down, then find the lapidtalos and kick it off a high ledge to shatter in the street for its heresy. But she couldn’t. She didn’t dare — if it had told her the truth, the future of her entire people could be at stake.

Click.

Now I find out.

“H… hello?”

The voice was not as she had imagined. He sounded very young. There might be more for her to work with than she had expected.

Adree made herself smile through her uncertainty — and her terror, which she would have to deal with later. “Hello. My name is Commander Adree Aeslin. Your name is Dax, isn’t that right? Dax West?”

“Yes — that’s right. How —”

“I thought so. A… friend has been monitoring Nones’ systems for me and reported that you had taken a vehicle from one of the aeroponics bays. He tapped the radio system for me; I’ve been hoping for the chance to talk to you. I have a report that you’re alone. Are you?”

He was silent for a moment. “Yes, but I suppose you knew that already if you’re spying on me. Our truck blew a tyre, Athellus is changing it. If you want to talk, do it quickly. He’ll kill me if he finds me talking to you and he might have heard the radio go off.”

Get his trust. “We have a friend in common, Dax.”

“Who?”

“Arawn Lessinger. You met him at the guard post. You said some things to Lessinger, Dax, about your… your medical condition. I need to hear those things for myself, from you. Talk to me.”

“I don’t know if I can trust you, commander. You killed one of your own men back on Lailenus Street.”

Adree was conscious of Rachelle standing nearby, of Robbes listening silently. “If you travel with Athellus Borden you must have a strange perception of… us. The Evinthei are warriors. I would explain more if I could but believe me, he was mortally injured and I saved him from a fate worse than death.”

She made her voice as soothing and maternal as possible. “For now, let’s talk about you. I want to listen to what you have to say. Everything.”

The transmitter picked up a sound, a soft click as West swallowed, and Adree knew she had him.

It would be easy, after all. This was the plan she had devised back on Lyon’s Boulevard. She just had to remember what she had been told, and think of this as part of her operation. Perhaps her ancestors were smiling upon her when she needed them most…

That thought wiped the smile clean off her face.

“I have cancer,” West said. “I have a brain tumour that’s killing me. Something happened to me back in London, back home, I almost died and I ended up here with a big mark on my chest. I… think I’m here for a reason. And, well, your people have the technology to save my life. Is that a coincidence? I don’t know. But I — you might be my only hope. I don’t know what I can offer in return, but —”

Adree cut in smoothly. “I might be able to help you but you’ll have to be fast before Athellus sees you. Reach under the dashboard; there’s a smooth handle with grips in it. Pull down on it. That will open your vehicle’s onboard first aid compartment.”

“A-all right…” Clunk. “I think I see what you’re talking about…”

“There’s a hemoanalysis unit inside. That looks like a finger splint with some spongy stuff inside. Put your index finger into it. You’ll feel a brief scratch when the lancet pricks your fingertip. Your vehicle’s onboard computer will transmit the results to me along this line.”

“You want my blood?”

The lie she had planned came easily. “It will help me analyse your condition, Dax. Please. It might be the only way to save your life.”

He hesitated. Then there was a soft rustle, a pause, then — “Son of a — That was more than a bloody scratch.”

“Sorry.” Adree took out the small case Nandie Harpeti had given to her at the genetic security department, unwound the cable wrapped around the back and plugged it into the transmitter. Then she flipped the case open and looked at the download. “Stay on the line as long as you can.”

“You’re really going to help me?” Dax sounded wonderingly young at that moment.

Lying came easier a second time. Or perhaps this was just a half-truth. “Yes. Give me a minute.”

A soft slam. “I can’t. Athellus is nearly finished. I have to go.”

“No, Dax! Wait. I just need a few seconds more… “

“I — Hey, Athellus! The, um, the dashboard says the tyre pressure isn’t high enough yet.”

Faintly: “Hell. Fine, just keep an eye on it.”

Adree concentrated on the data with all her might. West came back on the line. “Okay. Okay. Just be quick.”

“…There. I’ve got it. We’ll… need to analyse the results, Dax. Don’t worry. When I need to find you, I will. I’ve been — promised that. Be careful.”

“Wait, I have to —”

Adree cut the call off and sat back on her heels, staring at the device in her hand. Amber lights were circling around the outside, bars going green as it worked. This was one of Nandie’s better toys, developed to remove the need to keep blood samples of every Evinthei in cold storage. Linking with the Archive, through the transmitter, it could sift through the DNA profile of any Evinthei soldier and create a drop of synthesised blood based on that profile. Very useful for lab experiments.

And the occasional “non-scientific” means of connecting to someone, if you were slightly telepathic already, and just needed something of theirs to touch. Adree had only been hoping to maybe recover a tiny sample from him elsewhere in the city, and use this to reconstruct something makeshift… but she wouldn’t look a gift lapidtalos in the mouth, whatever price he demanded later. After all, it might be synthesised, but what’s more personal than someone’s DNA? If touching this can’t help me get a read…

Not a read. A confirmation. The creature could have been lying. In a way she prayed that it had, if she ever prayed again after this.

Beeeep!

A tiny capsule on the underside of the device slid out. The ‘blood’ inside was an odd colour, paler and more iridescent because of the way the synthetic blood cells reflected the light.

Hardly aware of Rachelle and Robbes staring, the smell of dead Taugen lingering in the air along with the half-remembered stony scent of the lapidtalos when it spoke, Adree unscrewed the capsule and tipped it, watching as the droplet inside descended towards her upturned hand.

 

 

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