Dax faked indignance to buy himself time. “Look, you said yourself that you get flashes from the People Upstairs without knowing what they mean. Why should this be any different?”

Athellus laughed humourlessly. “You want to compare this to how I get my orders? Okay, sure. How about - I know where my orders are coming from. I’m not just getting ideas that seem like a good notion at the time. Or random phone calls.”

“But you don’t know what the overall game plan is -”

“I don’t need to know!” snapped Athellus. “The People Upstairs have kept me alive and they’ve helped me save other people’s lives. They’ve never sent me into danger unnecessarily, never asked me to hurt anyone except in self-defence or to protect others, and they’ve got a genuine interest in sorting out the mess the Guardians left behind. They’ve got an attention span of decades, they see across hundreds of worlds. Who’s to say I could even understand their game plan if I knew what it was?”

“So what, you’re just their pawn? Their cipher?”

“I’m banru,” Athellus retorted. “I’m a walking corpse already, remember?”

Dax shook his head, wondering. “You know you’re more than that. You’re a human being, you’ve got thoughts of your own - you’re still alive, ‘Thel. You have your own life, your own ideas! So do I!”

“But that’s just it, isn’t it? These aren’t ‘your own ideas’. You don’t know where they came from or whose they are. And they’re contradicting what we’re being told!”

“Then because the People Upstairs are always right, anyone who contradicts them must be wrong? Oh great, they’re really working for a better tomorrow, aren’t they?”

“You don’t understand -”

“- why two incredibly intelligent people can’t even entertain another point of view? Yeah, I can’t!”

“Listen to what you’re saying,” Athellus said, his voice very low and taut with anger. “You’re asking us to walk into the lion’s den for no good reason other than your say-so. Because you’ve had some message or other that even you can’t explain. You’re not even banru, Dax, so I don’t know where this direct line of yours leads to, but it’s sure as hell not anywhere we recognise. For all we know, you’re a sleeper agent who’s following orders to bring us down.”

Athellus turned to Kaire, who was standing there silently. “I mean, look at all the evidence! He only cares about getting to the Evinthei so they can cure him. And how do we know he’s even sick to begin with? It’s not hard to fake having a migraine! That lapidtalos wanted to talk to him, he knows things about the city he couldn’t know if he’s really a stranger here, like the Librais Tower! What does that tell you?”

“It’s not my fault I know this stuff!” Dax shouted back, losing his temper. “You think I like this? That I like knowing stuff without knowing where it comes from? That I like being able to fix Ancestor stuff without knowing how? That I like being here, in this goddamn city full of monsters and lunatics and machines that eat you alive? I’m not an agent for anyone! I never wanted to be here! I don’t know why I ended up in this madhouse or what I did to deserve any of this! If I could change anything about this, I would! You can’t blame me! It isn’t fair!”

They stared at him.

“What is it now?” Dax demanded, out of breath.

“What did you just say?” Athellus wanted to know. “About Ancestor technology?”

He paused, his mind running lightning-fast over what he had just said. “I - I -”

Any story he scrabbled for withered under their stares. There was only the truth left. “There… was a-an Ancestral door under the barracks at the guard post. The Evinthei thought I was a technician, so I played along, but when I got down there… I found out… that I could fix it.”

“How?” Kaire asked.

“I… I don’t know. Really. I don’t. I just could.”

His words fell into an ominous silence. A silence broken, a moment later, by an electronic noise coming from Dax’s pocket. Not the ringtone he barely recalled, but a softly insistent tone repeated over and over.

Not taking his eyes off Athellus, Dax reached into his pocket and took out the phone. Closed, the little screen on top reported ‘TXT MSG’.

With his thumb, he flipped the phone open and held it up. Under the bright sunny sky, it took a moment to read the message onscreen. There were just two lines of message, no sender’s name, nothing else. Dax snapped the phone closed again, gripping it tightly. First ‘BRH resonance’, now this. And what absolutely perfect, perfect timing the damned thing had too.

“Finished?” Athellus asked. His voice was calm, mild.

Dax shrugged. “It was just a message. A harmless little piece of nonsense. So yeah. I’m finished.”

“Good,” said Athellus. “Now toss it off the skyway.”

Dax recoiled. “What?”

“You keep getting calls on that thing, right? Like someone’s trying to get through to you? You said you’re not a sleeper agent, that you want things to change. So prove it. Throw the phone off the skyway.”

“But it saved your life at the Librais Tower,” Dax reminded him. “I’d never have been able to react in time without the warning it gave me beforehand.”

“Yeah, right. And that’s after it nearly got all three of us killed on Lailenus Street by going off at just the wrong moment.”

“But -”

Athellus rolled his shoulders and rested his hands on his hips. He might just have been showing his exasperation, but the stance also drew his jacket away from the weapons he was carrying - his gun, and that special knife he had used to cripple the Earthborn. The blade was weighted and razor-sharp. Dax remembered perfectly the noise when it hit the creature. He’d seen how good Athellus’ aim was. If he didn’t co-operate, Dax would have several inches of silver-inlaid steel in his heart before he had a chance to argue.

He weighed the phone in his hand. Yes, he needed it. But he had pushed the issue as far as it would go. His life expectancy had become too short, his time too valuable.

Dax went to the edge of the skyway, hesitated just a moment longer, then flung the cell phone away. Sunlight glinted briefly off the casing before it fell out of sight. He waited a long time, listening, before he heard a faint, glassy crash.

Athellus relaxed. “Okay.”

“Anything else you’d like me to do?” Dax asked. “Swear an oath of allegiance, maybe? Stand still while you use me for target practice?”

“I warned you when we started out that this wasn’t a game,” Athellus told him. “You agreed to come along with us on the condition that you didn’t endanger the mission.”

“I’ve done nothing but try to help you,” Dax replied.

“And long may that continue,” Athellus said. “For your sake.” He held up the schematic. “Now, we are going to the coast. So grab your gear, and let’s go.”

Dax hung his head.

Then Kaire said: “No.”

Athellus looked around at her. “Excuse me?”

Dax found himself the subject of that predator’s stare. The whites of her eyes seemed a little brighter than they should have been, drawing him into the dark blueness at their core. He thought of what Gothgorius had said, about how Kaire’s soul was more opaque than most - well, now, like Gothgorius, he could feel instead of just seeing. But when she spoke her voice was placid and calm. “I think we should listen to him, ‘Thel. I think we should go for the river pylon.”

 

 

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