Harpeti flicked a switch on the console, and the lights in the laboratory dimmed. The next switch lit up the large central screen. Harpeti began going through menus. “One of my sons is ops director for this lab. He was the one I assigned to analyse the sample. Thankfully he had the good sense to contact me and clear the lab once he confirmed this, and it became classified about an hour ago. I’m passing on a report to General Aeslin, but I thought this needed a more… utilitarian opinion in the meantime.”

Tayner caught Adree’s eye as Harpeti busied himself with the console and she nodded, understanding. It was a courtesy on Harpeti’s part to have informed her privately, but something more as well. Harpeti was a powerful man in a prominent position; by informing her on the side, he was making a statement about how Adree’s own position in the Evinthei hierarchy. Maybe the Central Forum would think twice about hauling her in after this.

The screen changed and Adree blinked. The image Harpeti had brought up was a silvery 3D image, turning slowly against a black background. She had expected to see a DNA strand. Instead she was looking at a strange but beautiful shape, like one formed in the frost on a window.

“What’s this?”

“The analysis result,” said Tayner. “You’re looking at the DNA Harpeti extracted from the sample. At first we thought it was contamination, but that’s the genuine article.”

The light cast from the screen’s image made Adree’s red hair look silver as she stepped closer. Her first impression hadn’t been too far off. It looked like a snowflake, spreading out in all directions with dozens of fronds, turning as if tumbling through space. And it reminded her of the woman she had taken it from, in fact - winter-white, with hidden sharpness underneath.

“I’ve never seen a DNA strand like that before. -Well, it’s not even a strand. It’s a -”

“It’s unique. Not even Earthborn have this kind of DNA.” Harpeti was studying it, looking as impressed as he did about anything. “I’ve run several projections using the Archive’s processor, and I’ve never seen an organic structure like it. Even samples from our Gating teams all show a double helix.”

Unconsciously, Adree’s right palm was running over her left arm, where the scars the woman had left on her had almost faded. “I’d guessed she wasn’t human, but this is… I don’t know what this is.”

“Neither do we,” said Harpeti. “Our analysis equipment crashed when we tried to run further tests. The parameters aren’t set up to handle this. That’s why I contacted Archivist Tayner.”

“He thought there might be some record of whatever species this is in the Archive’s main library,” explained Tayner. “Enough to give us an idea of what we’re dealing with. Maybe her people had… been to Nones before and left records, or something.”

Excellent. It was what she would have ordered. “What did you find?”

“Something and nothing,” said Tayner. “And that’s what’s disturbing me. We got a result from the search but it reported back to Cache 0-83. And that isn’t good.”

She had worked in the Archive long enough to know that ‘not good’ was an understatement. The original destruction of the Archive had been catastrophic, leaving huge swathes of data lost forever. Other sections had been badly damaged, the files corrupted almost beyond recognition. Jayton Ember had made restoring the Archive a priority, so a lot of work had been done on those sections, but there were still hundreds of caches in storage awaiting painstaking restoration. However, Ember had done a cursory overview of those sections in his time, flagging any with data that had originally been highly classified. All these caches were tagged with the prefix ‘0’, and because only personnel with clearance could work on them, very few had yet been restored. In other words, the Archive metaphorically knew the book they wanted was in the restricted section, but the actual volume was moth-eaten and unreadable.

“I’ve got my best people working on the data now,” Tayner was saying. “We got lucky in that it’s an intact cache rather than one of the missing, though I can’t feel too grateful about that at the moment. But it’s an old cache, one of the oldest in the Archive, in fact. It’s been classified since well before Amtino’s time.”

Adree leaned against one of the desks and folded her arms. “What could her people have done to merit that kind of security? There’s no mention of anyone like her in any of the other caches, the official histories, Ember’s diaries…”

“But someone thought it important enough to classify.” Harpeti’s voice rang out like an oracle’s. “So in the meantime we’re running back and forth in the dark while our visitor is wandering around with Borden.”

“Not just Borden.” The thought of what Lessinger had said about Dax and what had come after, sparked a connection. “There’s something you should know. Lessinger reports his injuries were caused by a surviving lapidtalos.”

Both men looked at her. “Did he say which one?” Tayner asked.

Adree was taken aback. “No. Do they have serial numbers?”

“They had names, Adree,” Tayner corrected her gently.

“A surviving lapidtalos?” mused Harpeti. “That is… unexpected.”

“And it’s rogue,” Adree went on. “It wouldn’t obey any of Lessinger’s commands. It may even have been behind the attack on the guard post to start with.”

“Why would a lapidtalos go rogue?” Harpeti asked Tayner.

“Well… if it’s a survivor, it must have been active for a long time. Lapidtalii were loyal but reasonably smart, and they were built to be nearly indestructible by ground forces. If this one’s been alone, and had enough time to sit and think, it might have come to its own conclusions about the Scorpieth. That’s one side effect of Ancestral defences: leave them online too long, and they’re smart enough to get bored.”

“This can’t be a coincidence,” said Adree. “This happening just as Borden and his team are launching an attack. There’s more going on here than we're seeing.”

“The Central Forum can’t ignore it either,” Tayner told her. “You do realise this whole thing makes them look like bureaucratic idiots, don’t you? For taking you off the job? You’d be well within your rights to lodge a formal rebuke.”

“An ‘I told you so’ gesture?” Adree asked, ironically. “That would be... petty. I’d be creating problems unnecessarily. And if I just step in and say I’m going back onto the ground, it will look like I’m stepping into my father’s shoes too soon. I need them on my side, I’m not secure enough yet.” She mused. “No. There’s got to be a way to investigate this, and save face for the Central Forum too. I just need to work it out.”

Besides. If I'm going to get this Dax on my side, I'll need all the support I can muster.

 

 

 

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