Sartel led Dax away from the primary power grid, walking him through the cellars. “We’re holed up back here. We - how much do you know about the local architecture?”

“Not, er, not much.”

“This is one of the old city bulwarks - well, it was, anyway. One of the levels of defence. A good place to bunker in, at any rate.” Sartel gestured with his arm. “All the buildings along these streets were connected by underground tunnels, so each barracks could share supplies and manpower in a siege. You with me? Each tunnel had a door that could be lowered and locked down in case any of the buildings were breached.

“Thing is, now so much of this area is a mess, we’ve been sealing off those tunnels for security reasons. Some have caved in on their own. But we found one major tunnel back from Amtino’s time, and it’s got an Ancestral security door. The scouts have found Earthborn spoor down there, and it might go all the way to the river for all we know. So the captain wants us to lock the door down, to cut down all access routes to the basement level.”

Dax tried to nod along, tried to keep up. “Okay. So why do you need me?”

“We can’t get the door to close. That’s it, really. All the mechanisms look okay but the thing just won’t move.” Sartel opened a door and let Dax go through it. Beyond was a room that looked like a storage area, built into a natural cave in the rock: about halfway across, the flagstones gave way to rough stone with the mouth of a tunnel cut into the wall.

About thirty feet from the mouth, down inside, the rim of a door was visible in the roof. Beside it was a a hollow in the wall full of weird-looking cables, some sort of control board. Another Evinthei, a female soldier with curly black hair drawn back into a braid, was crouching in front of the board, fiddling with a screwdriver. There was a toolkit beside her and implements strewn around her knees.

“Reinforcements, Vale,” said Sartel cheerfully. “Dax, this is Corporal Vale. We’ve been working this problem all day.”

“Heya,” said Vale, with a friendly nod. She had the sleek physique of a swimmer and was, to Dax’s sudden interest, very pretty. “How are things looking up there?”

“Oh, quiet. Very quiet,” Dax replied. Now it came down to it, his nerves were getting the worst of him. “The, uh, the captain’s still in a bad mood.”

“I knew there had to be some upside to being stuck down here,” Vale replied. She rose to her feet, dusting herself off. “Right. So, what Ancestral systems have you studied?”

Dax tried to think, but the only thing that came to mind was: “The, um, Librais.”

Vale frowned. “Not much of a case study… you never work on the Archive?”

“Oh.” He hoped the damp uniform masked how much he was sweating. “Of course I worked on the Archive. I thought you meant, you know, what I’d read about as well…”

She studied him, a small frown between her brows. “…Right. Okay. Well, be my guest.”

Slowly, out of options, Dax went over to the control board and knelt in front of it to take a look. Any hope this was something he might recognise died fairly quickly. There was a large phial in the centre full of a clear yellow-ish liquid, mounted right to the wall. A dozen connectors ran into the sides of the phial as if it was a battery, spawning wires that coiled outwards and plugged into different areas of the board. Along the top and bottom were switches that looked like short piano keys, each with a glyph on top. Some were depressed, apparently at random: some of the glyphs were glowing, others not. All of it was on top of some sort of computer circuit board, but with the metal running in weird and beautiful arabesques instead of regular lines.

Oh. Shit.

He slipped the cell phone out of his pocket and flicked it open, hoping and praying it would go off and tell him something useful. After a moment, seeing Vale’s curious look, he stuffed it back in his pocket again. “Uh. What progress have you made so far?” he asked, stalling for time.

Sartel spread his hands. “None. It’s like there’s no power to it in the first place, but everything looks intact to me. Besides, the board’s got light on it so obviously it’s getting juice from somewhere.”

“And the phial in the middle isn’t breached,” said Vale. “I mean, that was my first guess, that someone would have smashed it to keep the door open, but it’s all okay. No need to replace it. Thank Ember for that at least, we don’t have time to get donors for that amount.”

Donors? Dax wanted to ask, but bit his tongue. The Librais had inserted connectors right into Kaire’s body to power itself up, as he recalled. All at once that faintly yellow liquid looked a lot more sinister. He swallowed, staring at the control board, willing inspiration to come. His eye fell on one of the large switches. “Hmm. We’ve got light on some of these switches but not others. Do you know why?”

“No idea,” said Sartel. “We thought it was something to do with how the power was allocated…”

“It looks almost random,” said Dax. “Look, some of the depressed switches are lit up but not all of them. I wonder…” Maybe he could buy a little time if he ran with this. “Uh, Sergeant, can I borrow that screwdriver?”

He handed it over. Dax put it underneath one of the switches and levered it upwards, wiggling it back and forth to try and pry the cover off.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Vale wanted to know.

“Let’s put it this way,” said Dax, feeling the cover of the switch begin to move, “how much worse off are we going to be?”

She smiled, looking at him askance. “Okay, sure.” She added playfully: “By the way, Dax, we’re not exactly forecast for rain down here. You can take that hat off if you like.”

 

Lessinger waited while the communications tech ran through the channels, two fingers pressed to his headset. “Copy that. Hang tight.” He turned to Lessinger. “Sir, the secondary scout team is reporting Earthborn movements but they’re having problems tracking them in these conditions. They’re requesting additional manpower to outflank them.”

“Send the last squad on the western side and get them to stock up with biomarker grenades before they go.”

The comm tech nodded and patched back into the network. “Spearhead, come back? Your new position is -”

Lessinger tuned his voice out, wandering the room to the large map pinned on the opposite wall. Actually, there were two maps: one was a printout of the area from Jayton Ember’s time. The other was the same map with many of the lines scribbled and redrawn in blue ink to show how it looked these days. Using printed maps of Nones south of the river was usually a waste of paper because of the constant paradigm flux, but the primary power grid in the basement was doing a good job of leeching Gating energy from the local area, and these streets had been stable for a while.

Good omen for the Generator Well, at least.

If the paradigm squalls across the south of Nones could be cut down or removed entirely, they could stop wasting valuable people on clearance crews, a job almost as dangerous as negotiating with the Taugen. Clearance crews made the effort to keep the main thoroughfares in the south open, plotting a running stream of changes in location back to the Archive, and marking anything new that had been Gated through. Being put on a crew was a challenging assignment that carried appropriate danger bonuses.

Unfortunately, clearance crews were at the mercy of the same forces that kept Nones’ geography uncertain. In the past Lessinger had served on clearance crews himself because he could Gate, which increased his chances of survival greatly: anyone who had Gated could sense when a paradigm squall was coming, and usually get their people out of there in time.

Usually.

Lessinger had been out in one of the worst paradigm fluxes in the Evinthei records, about nine years ago. No one knew what had brought it on, though there were plenty of theories. Lessinger still remembered watching as a whole neighbourhood of warehouses was drawn up into nothingness, replaced by heavy low buildings with dark brickwork, slamming into the ground one after the other. One of his crew had sprained her ankle trying to outrun it: when Lessinger had gone back for her, she had been caught in the middle of the maelstrom and merged into the brick. The outstretched hand he had nearly been able to grab in time had protruded from the dark stone, crumbling like sand when he touched it.

He didn’t know if her self, her paradigm, had somehow been absorbed into the building itself: if she had still been conscious while it happened. It had happened before, when people were caught in a large Gating. And it wasn’t just Evinthei, either. That was another thing clearance crews had to deal with - sometimes when the buildings changed, people came with them, Sundered and dying, with the eerie scars of their passage seared across their faces or hands or torsos. Those who survived their passage and missed being merged into the brickwork itself were brought down by Earthborn before anyone could reach them - others died of shock soon after.

He tried not to think about it. Better to think of the Generator Well, designed to stop those kinds of horrors.

Lessinger stretched wearily. He was restless, that was the problem. He knew how important this assignment was, not only to his people but to Adree Aeslin as well, and yet… those Earthborn reports were what really grabbed his attention when they came in. They were not the Taugen, but -

They were still Earthborn. Still a nuisance, a distraction to the real mission. Yes. One that needed addressing so he could concentrate.

Padrin Telcane’s face had been raw and matted. Those animals had clawed their script right into the flesh. Even the morticians hadn’t been able to do much about it. He had died with their mark on him.

Lessinger abruptly made a decision and reached for his waterproof. “Comm, put the northern guard on sweep duty as well. And tell them I’m going along.”

 

 

 

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