Arawn Lessinger came back from blackness, up into warmth and light, as if swimming to the surface of a deep, dark lake. The first thing he was aware of was pain in his back and sides and shooting down through his right arm, but it was bearable pain, being held in check with anaesthetic. The second thing was Rachelle, her closeness, her hand resting in his.

He opened his eyes. He was lying in the medical rooms of the Central Complex, back in familiar surroundings. And there was his Rachelle, pale and frightened but still beautiful. Her fingers tightened. “Arawn? Can you hear me? Arawn?”

Lessinger nodded, feeling very tired. “It’s okay. I’m all here.”

“Oh, Ember’s blood, Arawn, I was so scared. After losing Padrin, I - I -” Rachelle Telcane hugged him, hard. Lessinger winced, but he wouldn’t have pushed her away for the world. If he was safe and back home, if the others had got out okay and she was here, then it was all okay with him.

 

Adree Aeslin, standing just beyond the bed curtain with her arms folded, looked away. Through her natural talent, augmented by technology, she could feel what they felt, second-hand, and was unable to shut it out. It was too much of a reminder of why she had been put on probation. “How are you feeling, Lessinger?” she asked, more abruptly than she’d meant to.

Lessinger winced again as he sat up further. “Like I was hit by a piston. What’s the damage?”

“Broken ribs, broken arm but it’s a clean break, and two vertebrae got misaligned but they’re back in place.” Adree shook her head. “What the heck kind of Earthborn was it?”

“It wasn’t. It was difficult to see out in the rain, but the only time I’ve seen anything like that was in Archive footage. I think one of the lapidtalii might have survived the war after all.”

“And it attacked you?” Rachelle looked surprised. “Shouldn’t they still be obedient to us?”

Lessinger raised his shoulder, where his arm was strapped and slung against his chest. “You can see how well the shut-down command was received, sweetheart.”

Adree absorbed this. “Rachelle, can I talk to him in private?”

Rachelle got up at once. “Of course. I’ll be back soon, Arawn.”

Once she was gone, Adree took the seat beside his bed, and Lessinger reported the events at the guard post to her. Adree listened, stony-faced, as he made no attempt to excuse his actions in splitting his forces to hunt the Earthborn. She already knew their attempt to defend the guard post had failed: the computer system for the Generator Well had already registered the power grid’s shutdown and there was no way to repair it. According to their technicians, whatever Athellus’ team had done, it hadn’t just deactivated the grid but fused it, leaving it useless. They were scraping along on backup power until another grid could be set up. In the meantime, the other grid had been transferred to a secondary site across the river. All of which would have been unnecessary if Lessinger had…

…no. No one could have anticipated the Earthborn massing such a co-ordinated attack. It was completely unprecedented. Maybe Lessinger shouldn’t have spread his forces so thinly, but he had no way of knowing he was going to be hit on two fronts either.

When Lessinger got to the part about the young man with the white blaze, Adree sat up straighter. “Say that again.”

Lessinger repeated, with the perfect recall most Evinthei possessed: “ ‘My name is Dax West. I don’t want to hurt you or anyone else. I’m dying and I need your help’.”

“Dying? Of what?”

“He didn’t say.”

Adree thought of the few times she had been close enough to this mysterious young man to try and read him. And of what he had said on Lailenus Street. That reminded her of something else. “I spoke to one of your survivors, Corporal Vale. In her report she mentioned a tech who called himself Dax working on the door down beneath the barracks.”

“I’m amazed he managed to bluff for that long.”

“No. According to Vale he actually fixed the door. Faster and more efficiently than most technicians could have done.”

“What?”

“He co-operated with Vale and the sergeant accompanying her. He could have just shot them both and left them down in the cellar. But he let them live.” She eased back in her chair. “Not only that. He did everything he could to help them.”

“I know you don’t want to hear the name, but could Athellus have taught him about Ancestral technology?”

“No. That was never part of his training. And he dislikes Ancestral technology. He wouldn’t have wanted to learn more about it, nor teach someone else.”

“Huh.” Lessinger inched himself a little more upright. “This makes no sense, Adree. This Dax isn’t one of us, but he knows how to repair the Ancestors’ machines? And after Lailenus Street - you said you couldn’t get a clear read off him?”

“It wasn’t exactly the ideal situation to try, but no, I couldn’t. Not like that woman - I couldn’t read her at all, but this West man had more of… it was like I was being blocked or confused on purpose. Like there was something in the way. I’ve never felt that before.” Adree thought it over. “I keep thinking he’s the key, that he’s the one we can use to get to Athellus and the woman he’s with.”

Lessinger said, deliberately: “He’s reached out to us, Adree. He says he needs our help. That gives us the advantage.”

“Vale said she saw him carrying a cell phone. If we can run a track-and-hack on it, we might be able to contact him.”

“And say what exactly?”

“I don’t know yet. If he thinks he’s dying and that we can help him, that gives us all the leverage we could want. I just need to work out the best way to use it.” Adree rose. “I’ll let Rachelle back in. And there’s plenty of your guys who are anxious to see you.”

Lessinger’s eyes met hers, unflinching. “I’m guessing an official reprimand is going in my personnel file.”

“Yes. But I also can’t ignore the fact you almost died to save your people, or that you’ve brought back vital intelligence for us. So I’ll get back to you on that, Arawn. In the meantime, get better.”

Adree left the medical unit deep in thought, passing Lessinger’s waiting officers in the corridor: she paused only long enough to tell them he was conscious before walking on.

This man, Dax West… how to use him best? Could he even be used? Anyone that skilled with Ancestor technology had to be an asset, but had he been too tainted by Athellus’ ideas about them to be useful? Wait, she was getting ahead of herself. She wasn’t even sure they could hack into his phone to speak to him. Maybe, maybe…

And now there was a lapidtalos out there as well, stirring the Earthborn up? Like they needed more problems. It had been a while since her history classes on the lapidtalii, she would need to brush up on them along with everything else.

As she reached the elevator at the end of the corridor, a chime went off over her head, and a voice spoke through the PA system. “Commander Aeslin’s presence is requested at the Archive. Repeat, Commander Aeslin to the Archive, please.”

 

 

 

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