Dax froze, one hand still on the front of the hat. He was terribly afraid a hand was about to stretch out from behind him, rip the hat off, and expose him for who he was, right in the middle of the enemy stronghold. It took a full ten seconds to realise the shout hadn’t been directed at him.

“- got to be forty or fifty,” the voice was barking now. “Don’t tell me that’s not a reason for concern!”

The voice was coming from behind one of the doors in the barracks, getting closer now. Dax could hear footsteps, like someone pacing, low voices. The officers who had been chatting down the corridor straightened up, casting guilty looks at each other.

The door was opened and a man emerged, dressed in a standard Evinthei uniform like the ones Dax had seen on Lailenus Street, blue and grey. There were bars of rank on his shoulder, and he was tall and lean, on the point of being thin. Thick hair neatly cut short - and dyed blond - was brushed back from his face. Looking at him, Dax was struck with a sense of presence, of authority. But there was an almost visible aura of anger and impatience around him too, clinging in a cloud. He crossed the corridor in quick strides to the coffee canisters and began pouring himself a cup.

Another soldier emerged from the room he had just left. “Captain Lessinger -”

The man swept one hand in annoyance and the soldier fell silent. Dax remembered what the soldiers had said, the name: this was the man in charge. He was standing a few feet from someone who could order his death. Or worse, his capture. His mind leapt on ahead: what if they did capture him? Torture him? Did the Evinthei torture people? What then?

And why hadn’t he thought to ask stuff like this before being stupid enough to just… volunteer?

Lessinger finished pouring himself a drink and tossed it back in a couple of swallows. Then he turned to the soldier who had tried to speak to him. “You get back on the radio and get confirmation, right now. Teams seven and eight are sitting on their hands: I want them out there and giving me news.”

“Sir, they’re both on the western side. I thought we needed everyone to watch this position.”

“This place is deader than the Iron Banru and we have manpower to spare. I want those teams on the move. If they see Earthborn out there, they’re to plot their position and then wipe them out. If that report was accurate I don’t want Earthborn hanging around, and I don’t want to be sending those numbers back to Lyon’s Boulevard. Let’s get the vermin at the source before it becomes a problem.”

“Yessir. I’ll have scouts sent ahead, maybe there’s a new nest nearby.”

“Yeah. You do that.” Lessinger began refilling his cup, then looked at Dax. “What? You here to report to me?”

“Ah…” Dax wished he could back away, but willed himself to remain still. Lessinger’s eyes were bright and intelligent, but there was something else in them too, like this annoyance was just the first venting of a devastating temper. “I, uh -”

Lessinger continued watching him. Sweat broke out on Dax’s back between his shoulder blades, in the hollow above his kidneys. Then, to his astonishment and relief the captain’s face broke into a tight, controlled smile and he laughed. “Hey, relax. I’m not usually this bad. What are you here for? You the maintenance relief we called?”

Maybe if I make like before, tell him what he wants to hear, I can play along - just long enough to look around and make it out of here alive…

“I - yeah. Yeah, that’s right.” Dax remembered and quickly added: “That’s right sir.”

Lessinger shook his head as if marvelling. “That frigging security door. Damned if our guys can figure it out and naturally, it’s the one bit of defence we’re stuck on. We’re thinking it might be from Amtino’s time, so I hope you’ve got some Ancestral tech know-how.”

Dax was struggling to keep up. “Amtino… yeah. Yeah. Um…Ancestral, you said? Like, as in the Ancestors?”

The captain wasn’t listening. “Down this corridor to the end, down the stairs into the cellars, and it’s the second door on your left. Ask for Sergeant Sartel, he’s the one who was working on it last night.”

“Will do. Sir.” He knew it was dangerous but he couldn’t help asking: “Captain, are you okay?”

Lessinger drew in a breath and let it out. “Fine enough. I’m just a little keen to see those animals - Never mind. Go on. Dismissed.” He went back into the room he had left and closed the door behind him.

 

Dax pretended to get lost and wandered through the barracks, getting an idea of the lie of the land and trying to keep a running tally of the people he saw. But instead of counting numbers he found himself noticing faces, and realising dully that if worst came to worst, quite a few of these people could end up dead. After what he’d seen and heard of the Evinthei he had got used to either thinking of them in a vague way as his only hope or, more immediately, simply as people who were trying to kill him. Now he saw them from the other side, working together, talking, sharing a heavy load, and he really understood what he had been told, that they were a family as well as a militia. He had come to Nones by accident, but these people lived here by choice, and did their best to make a good job of it. Athellus had been one of them once, and he had become a traitor in their eyes. Now Dax began to understand why the red-jacketed banru was so often pensive and quiet, why he seemed to think of the Evinthei with a mixture of pride and pain.

After a while it occurred to Dax that if Captain Lessinger came out of that briefing room again and saw him up here rather than being hard at work, he was going to have some tough questions to answer. His eye fell on the door marked ‘Cellars’ and he repressed a shudder. He hadn’t understood half of what Lessinger had been talking about, but the word ‘Ancestral’ had leapt out. It brought the memory of Kaire, vomiting bloodily outside the Librais Tower, right back to him.

Then again, staying up here could also mean trouble if the actual maintenance specialist showed up and he was still around. Maybe he could pretend that he just couldn’t fix whatever it was - oh yeah right, that would take some acting - and make an excuse to leave for some… tools or something. Besides, hadn’t Kaire said the power generator was in the basement? That would be information worth taking back, if he saw anything handy.

Feeling better he opened the door to the cellars. Beyond it was a concrete staircase, like something in a nuclear bunker, lit by small wire-framed lights set in the wall. He put a hand on the rail and began descending. The place smelled damp, as the tunnel under the Chapel of Silence had. From the bottom of the stairwell he could see light flickering from somewhere: as he reached the last step he saw it was coming from a glass window in one of the cellar doors.

Dax craned his neck to see through it and then recoiled, dazzled. Afterimages swam in his eyes. The room on the other side was full of light, a network of strands and nodes of brightness. It was as if someone had knitted it into the air, the strands generated from enormous steel pikes set upright in the floor, the walls, the ceiling. It wasn’t like the lightning being drawn down into the Librais Tower: this was static, controlled, humming in a set pattern. The central pike had several large cables plugged in the bottom of it, running through a hole in the floor, and two machines hooked up to it that seemed to be monitoring the output. One had been duct-taped to the pike itself. This close, he could feel the static prickle and tremor that he associated with Gating energy.

That’s the primary power grid? Dax thought, pressing the corners of his eyes. Got to be. Hell, how are you supposed to destroy something like that? If you tossed a spanner into that lot it would probably bounce straight off!

“Got you too, did it?” said a friendly voice from nearby. “Give yourself a minute, you’ll adjust right back. Someone was meant to black that window out but I guess they’re just too busy topside to remember about us.”

Dax blinked and tried to focus. Here was another Evinthei soldier, forty or so but with a chiselled face and physique. He looked a little like a sheriff from some forties western, the kind of man who stops a gunfight by bending a rifle barrel, smiling the whole time.

“Are you Sergeant Sartel?” Dax asked. “I was meant to report to you.”

“That’s me. And you are?”

“ -Dax.” The name was out before he could stop himself - he had a lifetime’s habit of being friendly to people who needed a hand. Damn!

Sartel shrugged and started walking down the corridor. “Well, I hope you’re as smart as you look. That door’s not shifting for any of us. ‘Course now you’ve been airlifted in, it’ll probably just start working, sweet as you like. Come on, then. Give us your expert opinion.”

 

 

 

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