Three hours later Adree was sitting in one of the Archive’s reading rooms, her feet propped up beneath the table on the seat of the chair opposite her. A public laptop’s screen was glowing nearby, and a pile of disks was gradually spreading across the tabletop. Her notepad lay open on the table with a pen resting between the leaves. The pages were covered in her neat, regular scrawl, blocks of bullet points, headings carefully underlined.

There were three books in the Archive about the lapidtalii: two were worth reading while one was pompous, self-opinionated tripe, but Adree read them all for the sake of completeness. She was quite used to skim reading and thought nothing of reading half a dozen books onscreen if she had to. Once the salient points had been jotted down for future reference, she could set them aside and go through something more interesting, something she had only vaguely remembered before now and never seen as relevant.

The text she had loaded onto the laptop to study, to find the episode she remembered, was intimately familiar. Reading with her arms folded, Adree didn’t realise that her face changed when she went through it, that she didn’t so much read the diary as almost relive what was written there.

Thursday. A long perimeter watch this week. Only had time to think and write tonight, while it’s quiet. No fear of an ambush. We haven’t seen Earthborn above ground here on the south side for months now. Jayton’s patrols and proximity sensors paid off. It’s been a long time since anyone was taken, since children were snatched from their homes. My two babies, I would have had to guard them night and day. But they are safe across the river tonight with their godparents. And Bataz Corvini would sacrifice himself before he’d let them come to harm. Truth be told, I’d rather be out here than at home while Jayton is away. There’s an empty place where he should be. Better to be out and working. And the stars are too beautiful tonight to miss.

…Fascinating development. Our scout Ganen explored one of the deserted buildings and found a secure cellar. Outside the vault door was a statue-type Ancestral defence, the Archive calls them ‘lapidtalii’. Scraped a download from the remaining data in the files, including the verbal commands, and managed to reactivate it. The creature appeared to be of functional intelligence though not on the level of the river defences. It gave its name as 'Avaughnian', and I was able to open a degree of dialogue with it. Avaughnian apparently has a liking for word games, puzzles and riddles. Enough to keep us in conversation. I can’t but think how my little daughter would have enjoyed talking with it, if I would let her speak to such a thing. Transcribed the most notable exchange here:

Myself: And your nature is to be a guardian? I’ve heard some mention of your kind in the Archive.

Avaughnian: A guard, a voice, a gatekeeper, a key. We are many things, just as you are lover, mother, soldier, lieutenant. You are the one whose mate seeks to rebuild.

Myself: How do you know who I am?

Avaughnian: What’s in the Archive, we know. We lapidtalii are linked to the heart of Nones, and the Archive was her deep-set memory. Now that you have begun adding your own elements to it, we have new things to remember.

Myself: Were you linked before Ormian Amtino’s time? Could the… link be reversed? Could you transcribe what’s missing for us?

Avaughnian: If I chose. But why should I choose? I know what I know. You are the inheritors. I simply am.

Myself: Is there some trade we could make?

Avaughnian: You have nothing I want, soldier-mother. But answer a riddle, and perhaps I’ll consider it. Interested?

Myself: I can try.

Avaughnian: ‘A mansion built in darkness with many rooms, for only one inhabitant therein. When you speak, he says nothing, but when you listen, he whispers.’

We have discussed the creature’s riddle and found no answer. Our business is fighting, not children’s games. Perhaps this lapidtalos merely enjoys playing with us. Still, it is a diversion in our quieter times.

Adree leaned back in her chair, making it creak. So the lapidtalii had had names after all. This was the only mention of them in Adrigal Lawley’s diaries - Adree had only ever seen it as a diverting episode in her ancestor’s life, skipping over it as Adrigal had, just another curiosity amongst the many Nones had to offer. But now they knew there was a surviving lapidtalos this suddenly took on a whole new significance.

Again, she read the conversation Adrigal had described, lingering over Avaughnian’s Riddle until it was indelibly fixed in her mind.

Maybe here was the pivot she needed. Tracking down a lapidtalos was a respectable but tricky mission, one her father or the Central Forum would likely have assigned her to anyway. But she had more detailed plans than just finding the thing. Tayner said the lapidtalii had been intelligent, once loyal to the Entourage or at least willing to help protect them. That had changed - Lessinger was the battered proof of that - but perhaps this survivor could be… bargained with. Adree thought of Tayner’s talk of boredom, curiosity. If she could find the right solution, Avaughnian’s Riddle would show she had an interest in its people and history, enough make this creature listen to her. She could convince the lapidtalos that the Evinthei were truly sorry for what had happened to its fellows. Adree was in a good position to grant favours - she could correct the official histories, shower the lapidtalos with thanks and honours…

And in return? Why not, say, a complete and intact copy of the Archive, preserved from the creature’s memory? Including any missing data from Cache 0-83? And its link to Nones’ sensory systems was exactly what she needed to help her track down this man Dax. Along with Athellus.

But even that might not be enough.

Adree wound her pen between her fingers, staring into space. She was used to being able to understand people instantly, to see their answers and ideas in their heads before they had time to shield them in words. Being deprived of that understanding was a massive setback. She needed something more than Dax’s location to work out the truth about him, then…

Before her implant had strengthened her latent telepathic talent, occasionally it helped if she had a possession from the individual she was trying to read, to get a better… resonance from them, for want of another word. She found the idea irksome and unscientific, though occasionally it was necessary to take a step back to see things clearly. But how could she get something like that without making him suspicious about her intentions?

The soft glow of her laptop screen reminded her of the console down in the gene labs, that bizarre snowflake of DNA turning gently, and then her pen almost snapped between her fingers as the perfect solution came to mind.

Yes. Oh… yes. That would answer half a dozen questions at a stroke. And it would require asking for Nandie Harpeti’s help too, reinforcing her need for his support and getting him wholly on her side. Perfect.

More to the point, her father would never, ever have thought of it. You needed a particular brand of ruthlessness to follow through with something like this.

Adree flicked to a clean page in her notebook and began to scribble rapidly as she thought through the sequence of events, examining her plan for flaws as she did so. First, a humbly-worded petition to the Central Forum in order to return to active duty, along with a proposal for… for… ‘Archive reconstruction assistance by recovering an ancient sentient defence’, yes, that sounded good. A desire to return to service and address the injury done to Arawn Lessinger. A tacit suggestion that she was a suitable ambassador to smooth things over, given her ancestry and descent from both Adrigal Lawley and Jayton Ember. Then a new plan of attack to handle Athellus Borden, to isolate him first by getting one of his allies on their side, then tackling the woman once enough intelligence about her people had been gathered…

Isolate him and drive him back. Ensure he has no choice but to see the error of his ways. Perhaps when the truth of this woman is known, when her inhumanity is laid bare and raw… he will realise just how much his own humanity means. What his own people mean and represent. Banru sow chaos, whereas we bring order. Like - well, like a billion regular snowflakes falling on the towers of Nones, making them pure again...

Adree stabbed a final full stop on the page, tossed her pen down onto the table and grinned.

I’m back.

 

 

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