Athellus looked between them. “I don’t believe this. You asked me to come with a strategy. I came up with one, the safest one for all of us. And now after all that, you’re agreeing with him?”

“I didn’t say I was agreeing with him,” said Kaire. “I said I thought we should go for the river pylon. Or, at least, that’s the way I should go. Whether you want to accompany me - or us - is another matter.”

Dax stepped forward, not wanting to lose the advantage while he had it. “What makes you think that, Kaire?”

Athellus suddenly sagged. “Oh no. Oh, Ember’s blood, tell me this is a joke…”

Kaire spoke to Dax, ignoring him. “When I used the Librais, it tricked me and I got a lot of secondary data shoved into my mind as well as the grid locations. It’s complicated. But I remember seeing water, with concrete and steel and glass on all sides. It could have been the river.”

“What… like a vision?”

“No. Not quite. But enough to make me think there’s some sense in what you say. And maybe to accept that’s the way I should go, too.”

“This is crazy,” said Athellus, angrily. “Kaire, we talked about this, that ‘vision’ is not what you think!”

“Oh yes?” Kaire demanded, with an arched eyebrow. “Then prove it.”

The look on Athellus’ face was priceless. “It doesn’t matter! Whatever you saw won’t save you from the Evinthei!”

“You think the Evinthei will slow me down?” Kaire wanted to know.

“No. But what you might do to yourself defending Dax? That scares the hell out of me.”

Kaire shrugged. “So come along with us, and do what you do best - keep me out of trouble.”

Athellus stammered once, then fell silent. Despite his discomfiture, Dax was impressed. He’d never seen anyone cut down to size quite so efficiently before. But then again, one way or another, that seemed to be Kaire’s raison d’etre.

After a while Athellus sighed. “You’re going to go no matter what I say, aren’t you.”

Kaire thought this over, then nodded. “True.”

Methodically, Athellus folded up the grid schematic, careful to sharpen down all the creases. “For the record,” he said as he tucked it safely back inside his jacket, “I think the pair of you are insane. But I can’t do this by myself. The mission is… the most important thing, and if this is what it takes to get it done, then… I’m okay with it.” He turned to Dax. “But I’m not sorry I made you get rid of that cell phone first. The damn thing’s been a sword hanging over our heads.”

“It was more of security blanket over mine,” said Dax, unblinking.

Athellus stared at him, then turned, picked up his pack, and started walking away. Dax reached down for his own, saddened and more than a little pissed off. Maybe if he had been clever enough to talk him around, like Kaire, he wouldn’t have lost the cell phone. He felt naked and vulnerable without it. And yet… he felt a bit better too. The storm had passed and cleared the air.

“He’ll be all right,” said Kaire.

“I hope so. All that stuff about ‘I’m dead already’… that was getting creepy.”

“Everything has a soul,” Kaire mused. “Even if we wish otherwise.”

“Yeah, that too.” Dax smiled. “…Thanks, by the way. He’d never have listened to me if you hadn’t said anything. I thought things were going to turn nasty.”

Kaire shrugged slightly. “It’s just the way of the Evinthei sometimes. They’re hard-headed, especially about stuff they can’t analyse in a lab. You’d think ‘Thel would know better, but… I suppose coming back here has set his mind in old tracks.”

She quirked a look at him. “And I have to agree… I’m happier without that gadget, Dax. Maybe that’ll teach you not to pick up things off the floor. Come on. We should go.”

Dax waited until she had followed Athellus, then rummaged swiftly through the pockets of his backpack and found a piece of scrap paper. As he got to the second line he was suddenly worried he’d forgotten the last text message while they were arguing, but then it came back to him.

He studied the words he had written. This was the last thing the phone had had time to tell him, as if it had somehow known it was about to be tossed away like a piece of rubbish. This had been important enough to risk a bullet or a blade for.

Five steps to safety and to death.
Only the stone and the word can hold back the flood.

Dax rolled up the note and slipped it into a pocket of the backpack, pushing it down to the bottom so it wouldn’t be easily found. Then he put it over his shoulders and began running along the road to catch up, squinting a little in the bright, clear day.

 

 

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