Author: Asharadoth PM
Abandoned.Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Fantasy - Words: 7,285 - Reviews: 4 - Follows: 1 - Published: 01-28-08 - id: 2468551
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
They'd been working hard for sixty hours straight, but the excavation was proceeding smoothly and without incident. Iris rubbed her gloved hands together and exhaled a cloud of warm condensation on her fingers, to take away some of the cold stiffness. It was chilly this far north no matter what the time of year was, and the thin synthetic fabric of her worksuit may have kept her from freezing, but it wasn't quite as warm or insulating as she would have liked.
The site they were excavating was the ruin of an ancient tower, made of some kind of glass or crystal, said to have collapsed in a planequake roughly fifty years ago. Iris had never seen its like, and no one seemed to know anymore why or how the tower had been created in the first place. It made for beautiful scenery though: shimmering, translucent splinters of silver-blue that looked like enormous swords and spears, jutting haphazardly from the barren, gravelly soil under a dim red sky. She wished she'd remembered her pictcam, although she supposed there would be plenty of images taken by the excavation crew for her to review at her leisure.
Head Surveyor Canon had been interested in the pieces of the tower itself, and had seemed particular about which ones he spent his time studying. Iris didn't really understand, though; it was all pretty much the same, any way you cared to look at it. No, what she was interested in were the ruins around and underneath the tower, the ruins that had been abandoned and buried by the ages long before the tower was ever broken.
For the last three or four hours, Iris's team had been working on one such ruin, what appeared to be a chamber entrance, buried beneath a ton of ash and gravel. They had found traces of some kind of script carved into, presumably, a lintel; she had made sure that that particular feature was very carefully imaged, and had only just left off examining the recordings. Faded and broken as the inscription was, she couldn't tell the language, and she knew it was going to take many long hours of poring over her notes before she'd have any hope of deciphering it.
"How are you holding up?" Lanza asked, passing her a thermos. He was wearing a loose, belted skirt over his worksuit; men had started wearing them 'for the sake of decency' when the worksuits were first introduced, because of how the skin-fitting material moulded itself to the lower body. Lately, though, it had caught on as a fashion, and Lanza's was of a cut and design that Iris found particularly attractive—however disappointed she was at being unable to admire his masculine hips. "You look ragged," he noted with a concerned expression. "How many hours have you been supervising without a break?"
"About thirty-two, now," she conceded reluctantly, fiddling with the cap of the thermos. "But I'm sure we're about to find something, I can't rest now!" She swallowed a mouthful; the cocoa burned as it went down, and she fought not to choke.
Lanza chuckled. "It's hot," he warned her belatedly, grinning and ducking out of the way as she took a swipe at him. "Go and sleep, I'll take over here."
"I'm not tired!" She scowled, imagining that if she glared hard enough she could bore a hole in that smug face of his.
"Yes you are," he insisted. "You're tired and you're irritable and I don't believe you're concentrating adequately."
"I'm not– I can't–" Iris started. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. Talking was a chore, all of a sudden; maybe she was tired. "I have to be here to see it, Lanza," she sighed. "It's important to me. I just … I know there's something big here, so close I could almost reach out and touch it!"
"Go and sleep," he repeated in a soothing tone, placing his hands on her shoulders and facing her towards him. "I'll fetch you the very instant anything happens. Trust me. Go on."
Her eyes were getting sore, and she was finding it harder to come up with an argument. She started to sigh again, but it turned into a yawn. That settled it. "Fine, but only for a few hours. And you have to promise you'll wake me up even if nothing happens in the meantime."
"Of course," Lanza agreed, but his boyish smirk didn't inspire confidence.
"I mean it!" Iris pouted. "If you let me sleep in, you'll have hell to pay!"
"All right, all right!" he said, backing off and holding up his hands in a defensive gesture. "I promise. When would you like me to wake you, assuming there's no incident?"
"I don't know. A little while. Not too long."
"Oh?" he said bemusedly. "Well I guess that's not–"
"Five hours," she interrupted him forcefully. "Not one minute longer." If she gave him any leeway, it was bound to turn out poorly.
"That's so short," Lanza complained. "Iris, you have to look after yourself properly. You'll ruin your health if you keep this up! Why don't you go and get a full night's sleep?" Under her persistent stare, however, he seemed to give in. Now it was his turn to sigh. "Very well. Five hours it is. Pleasant dreams."
He's such a busybody, Iris mused on her way back to the site quarters. A handsome busybody maybe, but annoying nonetheless. Why was he so worried about her, anyway? She scanned through the recordings again as she walked, the bluish glow of the projection from her vambrace lighting up the path in front of her, which may have been helpful if she was actually watching where she was going. She rotated the image. There was definitely something familiar about the script, but she was too tired to really think about it properly. Well, there was time enough to worry about that when she had her notes in front of her.
The loose, rocky soil crunched and slid under her feet, making the short trip uphill more tiring than it should have been, so that by the time she stumbled into her quarters she was just about ready to collapse. She detached the vambrace from her left arm and dropped it on her desk, then began pacing in circles—she doubted she'd be able to get up again, if she sat down now—wondering what she should do first.
"May I be of assistance, Surveyor Iris?"
The lilting, androgynous voice of her impersona jolted her out of her reverie, and she realised she'd been standing and staring into space. "How long have I been standing here?" she wondered aloud.
"Ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds," the impersona replied immediately. "Have you any other queries?"
She was losing track of time. Damned Lanza; she'd been fine until he'd turned up and told her she was tired. "Run a bath for me," she ordered the faceless, android machina. Come to think of it, when was the last time she'd bathed? Certainly not since they'd arrived here, which meant it had been at least three days. Worksuits kept the dirt off, and were designed to process bodily fluids such as sweat and urine, and even menstrual discharge, but she felt disgusting.
"Mirror," Iris called, tugging on the release catch over her left breast. There was a moment's delay as the recording lens in the ceiling focussed, before her 3d 'reflection' hummed into life. Stripping the worksuit off and leaving it on the floor, she took a good look at herself. She'd become used to being complemented on her looks, but it was hard to appreciate them at the moment. Lanza had been quite right; she looked ragged. Her normally milky-white skin was blotched and bruised from cold and carelessness, there were scratches on her face, she had dark purple circles under her hazel eyes, and her golden-blonde hair was windswept and matted.
Unclad, she quickly realised exactly how cold it was. Shivering, with her arms wrapped around her chest for what little warmth she could retain, Iris followed the sound of running water into the washroom and was greeted by clouds of warm steam.
"Your bath will be ready in fifty-two seconds, Surveyor," the impersona informed her. "In respect of your poor condition, I have added mineral salts to the water."
These recent impersonae were quite autonomous. For a moment, Iris considered thanking it, but the sentiment would have been wasted on a machina, however well it mimicked sentience. "I can't wait that long," she said, and climbed into the drum, ignoring her impersona's protests and slipping into the water to get away from the icy air that prickled her skin. It was hot, almost scaldingly so, and she hissed under her breath from the discomfort.
"The temperature is still being adjusted," the impersona droned. "It is advisable not to disregard my instructions, Surveyor. You could cause yourself harm."
"Thank you!" Iris growled, wrestling with the urge to throttle it. She couldn't kill it like that, anyway, and they weren't designed to feel pain. "Finish that quickly, and then wash my back."
She sat down, and the water enveloped her up to the neck. It was all recycled, of course, but quite clean nonetheless. The aroma of the bath salts, and the soothing way in which the heat drew out her body's aches and pains, were compounding her drowsiness. She took a cloth and scrubbed half-heartedly at her skin for a moment, before deciding to untangle her hair instead so she could wash it.
As the water temperature settled to a comfortable level, the impersona turned its attention to Iris. Its hands were smooth but quite hard, and the way the fingers dug into her back made her squirm. As it picked up on the tension in her muscles and started massaging her rhythmically, she decided that autonomy was a very good thing, and quickly began to doze off.
She was roused what seemed only a moment later, to find that her hair had been washed and combed, and if she wasn't mistaken, given a slight trim as well.
"You should not remain in the water for so long, Surveyor. If you intend to sleep, please do so on your cot."
Who had designed the damn nagging thing's personality? she wondered. Her arms and legs had turned to jelly in the heat, and she sloshed about in the bath for a moment, scrubbing her face briefly before stretching and tensing her body until movement felt normal again. The impersona helped her out of the bath and she stood under the heating vent, which had begun running half an hour ago, for the twenty minutes it took to finish drying her skin and hair.
By the time she was done, her quarters had warmed considerably, and on the whole she felt much better. Her impersona had prepared a fresh worksuit for her, but she left it hanging over her chair and crawled naked under the bedclothes, enjoying the feel of the soft, slightly cool fabric on her blushing skin. She hadn't slept in this bed since she'd arrived here, and although it was just a simple folding cot designed for ease of transport, it now felt like the height of luxury. Why did she only ask for five hours? She could lie here forever.
Just as she had found a comfortable position and was falling asleep, a chime sounded from her desk. Someone was trying to call her. Lanza must have told everyone that she was on break; what the hell did they want? She decided to ignore it, wrapping her pillow around her head to block the sound out, and eventually it stopped and she settled back to sleeping.
She was jarred awake suddenly by loud hammering on her metal door. "Iris!" Lanza was shouting. "Iris, get up, dammit!"
Iris groaned, sitting up and rubbing her eyes groggily. What in the world was this about? "I'm coming!" she called out to make the noise stop, and shuffled over to the door. Tugging it open, she was struck by a blast of freezing air that forced her wide-awake. "What do you want?" she asked, shivering.
Lanza looked her up and down. "Well, before that, you may want to get dressed," he said, grinning from ear to ear.
She slammed the door in his face, blushing furiously. "Bastard!" she shouted through the door, and tried not to listen to him laughing back at her.
Once she was dressed, she followed Lanza back to the site, though she was conscious of him eyeing her curves with a little more interest than before. "So? What's this all about?" she demanded, desperate to break the silence and hide her embarrassment.
"There's no need to sound so annoyed. You asked me to wake you, remember?"
"That's not why I'm angry!" Iris muttered. "Now get on with it."
"Fine," he said, sounding exasperated. "I'll drop the subject. As for why I called you, we've made some progress. We've cleared the opening of debris, and it leads into a tunnel."
"A tunnel?" She was curious now.
"Yes, and the interesting thing is that it aims roughly towards the centre of where we believe the tower used to stand," he said, watching her face carefully. "And the interior walls are engraved with patterns similar to the ones you were looking at."
"More writing?" she exclaimed, ecstatic. "Wait. You've been inside? Why didn't you call me earlier?"
"I tried, but you didn't answer," he replied, scowling. "It's your own fault."
She didn't have anything to say to that.
The site was a flurry of activity. Crews were shifting the rubble with huge exos, bare skeletons of adamant with only the components necessary to serve as labour. The integrity of the internal structure was being tested for threat of collapse, and the interior walls scanned by high-resolution imaging devices. Briefly, Iris wondered who had directed all of it, but the question was answered a moment later.
"Hey, old man!" Lanza called. "How does it look?"
Canon, a square-jawed, broad-shouldered giant of a man, turned back to glare at him. "Speak to your father with a little more respect, boy." Aside from their dark hair and eyes and suntanned skin, they weren't very much alike. Lanza was a lackadaisical pretty-boy who liked to play around with women, whereas his father was stern and severe—serious, competent and professional. To be honest, Iris was quite intimidated by him, though he'd never brought her work into question. "I'm assembling a team to penetrate the tower core," he said matter-of-factly. "Both of you are on it. Get moving."
"Whatever you say, dad," Lanza replied. He grinned and elbowed Iris in the ribs. "Isn't that good news? I wonder what else is in there, other than dusty old hieroglyphs?"
"Probably nothing interesting," Iris said.
"Bones, maybe? Utensils? Weapons?" The thought was visibly exciting him.
"Like I said," She reiterated, waving one hand in a dismissive gesture. "Nothing interesting." She sighed. "Why do I have to come along, anyway? I'd be better off just studying the recordings."
Lanza gave her a perplexed look. "Are you serious? You were the one who insisted I call you the instant anything changed. You were even offended that we went in ahead of you, remember? Make up your mind!"
"Well, that's true, but …"
"Gaah!" she cried, fed up with him. "Fine, I'll go in! Just leave me alone!"
"Not a chance," he teased her, putting a friendly arm around her waist. "We're officially a team now, you and I. What say we start practicing our teamwork?"
"Oh, go bury yourself in a hole in the ground."
"If I do, will you promise to excavate me for future generations?"
"Once you're quite finished petrifying," Iris growled, but she left his arm where it was.
When everyone was present—Iris didn't recognise most of the faces—they entered the ruins, Canon leading the way, as the long night began to settle in outside. The pale light from their illuminators seemed strangled in the darkness, which Iris fancied to be thick and heavy, like a blanket of viscous ink that shied away from touching them. She stopped from time to time to examine the inscriptions, running a finger along the rough-hewn symbols before Lanza dragged her on to catch up with the others. Canon had no intention of waiting for them.
"Lanza," Iris moaned at one such moment, "I'm tired of walking and I want to go back to bed! What's taking so long? We should have arrived at the centre an hour ago, I'm sure of it!"
"You're just losing track of time," he chided her, laughing as though she'd said something terribly amusing. "Although when you say it like that, it is a lot longer than it looked from the outside. Come on."
"Well how long have we been down here, then?" she grumbled.
"Only forty-six minutes," he said, showing her the bright display on his vambrace.
How could that possibly be right? It felt like they'd been walking for hours on end, and it couldn't just be her state of mind, could it? Turning back, she set her illuminator to project a beam and looked towards the entrance. She couldn't see anything, not the tiniest glimmer of light at the end. It could stretch on infinitely, for all she could tell from here.
Well, forty minutes was kind of a long time to be walking. It wasn't so strange that she couldn't see the entrance, was it? Even though the tunnel had been dead straight for its entire length? And it was night outside already—wait, no, that didn't matter, there would be floodlights on at the entrance. She shivered, as something altogether unpleasant occurred to her.
"Lanza, could you change the setting on your clock for me?"
"Set it to display the passage of seconds for me."
He gave her a look that suggested he was suspicious of her sanity. "And what difference would that make?"
"Just do it and don't argue!" she cried, grabbing his wrist and fiddling with the device on his forearm. After a second, he even stopped struggling. "There!" she said, satisfied, and started watching it. "Oh dear." Her gut sank, and she felt like she'd just swallowed a brick.
"What's the matter?" Lanza asked disinterestedly. "What could possibly be wrong with—" and he cut off, swallowing, when he noticed it as well.
The passage of seconds on the display had slowed to a crawl.
"Let's hurry up and meet the others," he said. His face was composed, but she could see something in his eyes that looked like terror.
It took a minute or so to catch up—it was impossible to tell how long, but only a few seconds had ticked by on Lanza's timekeeper—and they found the others in a huddled group, talking anxiously and not moving. A girl spotted the pair and called out, but hesitated partway through waving at them. Her arm went limp, and she took on a crestfallen expression.
"It's not him," she muttered quietly.
"What?" Canon cut her off. "Iris, Lanza! Where in the blazes have you been?" He was sweating and, if Iris wasn't mistaken, had a slight tic. "Did you pass Amilcar on the way here?"
"Who?" Iris asked, looking at Lanza.
He didn't seem to know, either. "We didn't pass anyone," he said. "What happened?"
"He's disappeared!" the girl wailed despairingly, and a friend put a comforting arm around her shoulders. "I turned around for a second and he was … he was just gone!" She broke into sobbing.
"Get it together, Diana!" Canon growled, covering part of his face in one hand. Iris had never seen him look so pressured. "He's got to turn up somewhere. It's all dead straight, he can't have gotten lost."
"Actually," Lanza said nervously, "it might … it might not be quite as straight as we thought."
What in the world was he talking about? Geometrically, the tunnel was perfectly straight and smooth; it didn't vary even slightly.
"What are you saying?" Canon asked. "You can't mean…?" His face held a mixture of fear and denial. "But that's just a theory! It's never been proven, dammit!"
"I imagine that's only because there have never been any surviving observers," Lanza replied, looking quite pale.
Iris had had enough of such inscrutable talk. "What are the two of you talking about?" she cried in frustration.
Lanza gave her a quizzical look, and snorted in disbelief. "You pointed it out! Don't tell me you don't even realise the significance?"
Did he mean the clock? "I thought it just wasn't working," she said weakly.
"You don't even know how a timekeeper works?" he shouted.
"I'm sorry," she offered tentatively. "I never thought it was important. I can use it without knowing how it works."
He gave a long sigh, and shook himself. "I shouldn't have shouted. Iris, we're in grave trouble. Timekeepers are updated externally, by connecting to the anchor-nodes. If it's slowed down, that means that the signal itself is warped—time here is moving faster than time elsewhere."
"So we're standing in a planar fault," Canon muttered. "Archon help us." He turned back to the others and issued orders. "Everyone, get moving! We don't have any time to lose, and the only way is forward! Stick together! And more than anything else," he added grimly, "concentrate on your surroundings and don't lose focus for an instant!"
"What happens if we lose focus?" Iris wasn't quite sure she wanted to know.
"Maybe nothing," Lanza whispered, taking hold of her arm. "But just maybe, you could end up here, or there … or nowhere at all. What do you think happens to people who slip through the cracks between planes?"
"Is that what happened to Amilcar?"
"Let's hope not."
Exhausted and frightened as she was, Iris had difficulty staying focused. Her mind kept drifting to whatever grisly fate might be waiting for them, and she kept seeing ripples of colour in the blackness. But then the grip on her arm would tighten, and she'd smile at Lanza reassuringly, and that would be that.
Each step blended into the next. The timekeeper seemed to be slowing down even further, and it didn't look or feel like they were getting anywhere. Everyone was on edge and no-one spoke, and the only sound was their muted footsteps on the hard tunnel floor. Iris was starving. It felt like a week since she'd eaten last, and she couldn't find the voice to say anything about it. She felt like she'd been walking for a week too; her feet were killing her, but she plodded along without complaint, supported by Lanza's hold on her arm.
At length, however, the decision to stop was made for her—someone else in the group collapsed before she did. She recognised Diana's face from earlier.
Canon was arguing with Diana's friend, a fierce-looking redheaded girl whose name she didn't know. "We'll have to carry her, then!" Iris heard. "We can't stop now, not for any reason! You two, grab her arms and lift her."
"Everyone's exhausted, pops," Lanza interrupted. "Can't you see that? We barely have the strength to stay on our feet, how are we supposed to carry anyone who can't walk?"
Canon squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temples with his fingertips. "Fine," he conceded after a moment. "We'll take a break. But if we're doing that," he levelled a finger at Iris, "then you can start doing your job. Read these blasted inscriptions and tell me how to get out of here."
"What?" she protested. "But I don't have any of my notes, or—"
He cut her off with a warning glare. "This is not the time for excuses, Surveyor," he said with an air of finality. "We are in a difficult position, and the inscriptions may prove to be our only lead. If you can't do it, then we may be doomed. Now. Can you read them?"
No pressure. Ha! Iris wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all. She hadn't taken up the study of language expecting to hold others' lives in her hands. She took a deep breath and tried to settle her nerves. Her life depended on it as well. "I can try, Head Surveyor," she replied once she had her composure. "It will be difficult without my research notes, but I believe I recall a good deal of it."
As no one had expected to be in the tunnel for long, few supplies had been brought with them. What little food there was had to be shared, but Iris's portion did little to calm the growling of her stomach. It was no more than an appetiser, and if anything, she felt a little worse afterwards. Their power wasn't reliable anymore, either—like Lanza's timekeeper, all of their devices relied on energy drawn from the anchor-nodes, and had been running on internal batteries alone for several hours. Two of the illuminators had already failed, and Iris had turned off the power in her worksuit to conserve it for the remaining lights. The chill was worse than she remembered, and as she traced carven symbols with numbing fingers, she realised that she was at a loss to interpret any of it; her sleep-deprived, hunger-addled brain refused to give up the information she so badly needed.
"How does it look?" Lanza murmured, after she'd been studying the script for some time.
Iris gave him a sidelong glance. "Did Canon send you to check up on me?"
"Now you're being paranoid," he replied, chuckling. "I stopped taking orders from my old man a long time ago. Didn't you notice?"
"He sent you down here, didn't he? Into this mess," she gestured at the blackness blanketing the tunnel, "with the rest of us."
"I wanted to come."
"Well I didn't!" she wailed. "I'm cold, Lanza, and I'm hungry and tired and everyone's relying on me to do something that I can't do! I can't take this," she sobbed, sagging down and wrapping her arms around herself. She felt defeated, worthless. "We're all going to die in this horrible place, and everyone will blame me!"
"Come on, don't say that," he said pleadingly. "You're good at your job. All you have to do is try. Like this one," he went on, indicating one of the simpler symbols. "What does this mean?"
"Stop it, Lanza."
"No, just humour me. What does it mean?"
"It means 'sword'—that's a bladed tool of warfare," she added, at his blank look. "Men used them to kill each other a thousand years ago."
"I guess that's one way to do it," he muttered distastefully. "And this one next to it?"
"You read in the other direction."
"'Blinding.' The sword blinded them. I think it's talking about peoples' eyes being cut out. It's just horrible, anyway," she said, shuddering. "It's like a list of war crimes. Like here," she indicated a section somewhat further along, "it describes someone being impaled on a spear by a great warrior at daybreak. None of this is even remotely helpful! Even if I could read the rest of it, it's not going to get us out!"
"What's this one?" Lanza asked curiously, tracing a complex symbol in the spot Iris had been talking about. "It looks so strange."
"Oh, that?" she sighed. Lanza had pointed out the object of the impaling, and she didn't really want to think about it anymore. "I think it's a name. I can't read it. Whoever it was, they were probably important, but they died painfully a long time ago."
They sat in silence for a while, Iris staring at the inscrutable name. Lanza had been right; it was strange, and she found it simply fascinating. She looked away a number of times, but her gaze would always be drawn back to it, almost magnetically. It was so perfectly alluring, but there was something deeply unsettling about it as well. It was a powerful name, and a frightening one.
Iris was getting drowsy again, and finding it harder to keep her eyes open. She leaned in against Lanza for warmth, and he obligingly placed an arm around her shoulders. She was so tired … just a few minutes shuteye was all she wanted. It wasn't too much to ask, was it? They were all doomed, anyway … what difference did it make? Just a few minutes … she was just going to rest her eyes, that was all … just for a moment …
Suddenly she was falling—no, swimming through inky blackness broken by swirls and ripples of colour. The Name, that solitary character, was etched into the darkness—sharp and angular, looming and sinister, all lines of fire that blazed blacker than the starless void. She felt an instinctive, animalistic terror, but as she turned to flee, the fluid darkness in which she drifted began to turn viscous and catch at her limbs, leaving her floundering, thrashing madly, sick with horror in her haste to escape—
Who are you?
Everything was calm. She felt like she was standing now, on a vast, flat plain. A face appeared, blurred and indistinct as though seen through warped and foggy glass. A soft blue glow began to fill the space around her, lightening to an almost silver ambience. Mercurial bubbles rose up from somewhere far below, and she stretched out a hand to one; her movements felt surreal, as though she was bodiless. The bubble touched her fingertips and burst into a thousand dazzling points of light, filling her head with strange thoughts and sensations—
Let me out of here.
She was flying, coiling through multifaceted columns of glass, and something was terribly wrong. She was in pain, agony, as though flayed to the bone, and a terrible, hungering emptiness was growing inside her. Something important, something more precious than life, lay far below her, yet try as she might she could only drift higher, further and further out of reach, spiralling into dizzying, sickening heights—
It was dark again, a deep midnight blue like ocean depths, dark and cold but for the red pulsing of her heart. She couldn't move, could barely think—her muscles ached, breath burned in her throat, her mouth frozen open in a soundless scream, the silken taste of glass on her tongue. There was something, someone here with her, a male figure, and her pain was his pain. His shadow shifted in the dark, his form drew closer, and she saw the outline of his face, the fine long features calm and serene as death and now he was just inches away and he reached out to her and his eyes opened scarlet—
Iris! She was mired, sunken in the cold flowing stone that dragged her down. Iris! Hands stretched out to her, voices were calling from a great, echoing distance. Iris! She wanted to go to them, but the stone was pulling her down, down, and she fought it, struggled against the sucking mire, trying to tear her limbs free. Iris! Warmth enfolded her and her body felt light as the mire began to dissolve. Iris! She drifted towards the surface, the friendly hands wrapped around her and—
"Iris! Wake up!"
Her eyes snapped open and she took a long, gasping breath, as her body convulsed once. Lanza was leaning over her, his face etched with worry, but he sat back and ran a hand across his forehead when he saw that she'd woken. The lights were working again, and Canon was watching her with a strange, unreadable expression. "I was dreaming," she said dumbly, and Lanza sat and laughed, looking relieved.
"I thought you were a goner," he said, helping her to her feet. "Everything started getting weird for a second, there."
"What do you mean?" she asked, rubbing her eyes. "'Weird' how?"
"Well, first, all the lights went out at once," he began. "And there was a strong breeze, and a … sort of a lurching feeling, like I was falling, I guess, even though I was sitting on solid stone. And I tried to wake you up, but, how do I put this … it didn't feel like you were all there." He shrugged and scratched his head. "Like, part of you wasn't where it should have been. For a second I thought you were sinking into the ground. And now this," he gestured at the surroundings, "everything's working again. We've even got the nodes back. And look, you can see lights in the distance."
He pointed, and sure enough, Iris could see the white glow of the floodlights at one end of the tunnel, and a soft, rippling blue that radiated from the other. They were both only a short distance away. It seemed like they were standing right in the middle of the tunnel.
Iris looked between Lanza and Canon, who seemed to be studying her. "What? What was all that nonsense about a 'planar fault', then?"
"It's hard to explain," Lanza said. "It's all very subjective. Maybe it righted itself somehow? I can only speculate. We just don't know enough about the phenomena."
"We've wasted enough time," Canon cut in gruffly. "I know you're all tired and hungry, but I'm not letting you off just yet. I—we—aren't going to leave empty-handed. Come on, all of you. We're checking out the chamber up ahead." He spoke into his vambrace; Iris couldn't hear the orders, but the floodlights intensified sharply, hurting her eyes, and then flickered with human silhouettes.
After twenty minutes walk towards the blue glow, more peculiarity became apparent. The rippling blue light, which Iris likened to sunlight filtered through deep water, didn't radiate from the tunnel's end. Rather, it was emitted by the walls of the tunnel itself, and grew stronger the further they ventured. When she stopped for a moment to examine more of the writing, which was much clearer here, she saw why: veins of glass ran through the stone, tiny crystals forming capillaries that shone from within. As the composition of the walls shifted more steadily towards pure crystal and lost the muffling dullness of stone, their steps gradually took on an echoing quality, and Iris fancied that the light rippled and moved in response.
It was not much longer before they entered the chamber proper, a vast, vaulted space with bladed walls that sparkled with a million droplets of light. It was something akin to the interior of a geode, every surface but the glassy-smooth floor jutting with innumerable razor-sharp needles. Beyond that first impression, there was evidence of labour here; some hand must have shaped the chamber, for it had five walls of even length that spanned between five spiralled columns. But the most impressive edifice was the pillar of molten glass that stood in the centre of the chamber, a frightening thing that raged and boiled beneath its calm surface and was encompassed by a delicate, coiling stair that seemed too frail to support any weight.
The party stood awhile, quite stunned in the face of such spectacle. Canon, ever disciplined, was the first to recover and collect his wits. "Magnificent," he breathed, stepping reverently into the chamber. His footsteps resounded like water-drops, and rings of colour rippled outwards where he touched the floor, but he didn't seem to notice—he was apparently unable to tear his eyes away from the seething chaos within the pillar, which cast its lapis pall upon his broad frame like eldritch fire. He turned back to them, his face lit up with rapture. "Don't just stand there!" he urged. "What are you waiting for? Record it!"
They entered cautiously with scanning instruments, afraid to touch anything or to tread too heavily. The floor felt slick like melting ice, though it wasn't damp and gave off no moisture. It rang however lightly they stepped, and even from the slightest touch, as Iris discovered when she squatted down to run her fingers across it, watching the colours ripple out from her fingertips. The party's many feet produced a cascade of clear notes like rain, rich with harmonies and almost hypnotic to listen to. There was no writing here; indeed, there was no surface fit to write upon.
Within, the chamber was quite spacious, and could have comfortably held a hundred people. The fearsome pillar apparently touched no part of it, as it rose from a circular gap in the floor and disappeared into a similar aperture above, and the insubstantial stair—which was wide enough for two to walk abreast, though it had no rail—stood apart from it by half a foot. Iris was glad it stood alone, for she would rather not go near it, and would not have dared touch it.
Canon was now appraising the stair, testing it with his weight. Much to Iris's dismay, it was clear he planned to explore further, which meant being near that dreadful pillar and traversing that flimsy stair. Iris couldn't shake the premonition that it would shatter beneath them, betraying them to a bloody demise upon a thousand blades of glass, but Canon appeared convinced of its integrity and ordered them onto it. "I'll take half the group and go up," he detailed, "and Iris and Lanza will take the other half down. Stay in single-file and be careful."
The path down led back into stone, a twilight-space with dark walls, filled with dancing, half-cast shadows. As they descended, the pillar grew cloudy and its light dim, and it bulged outwards, the stair broadening its coil to accommodate and sweeping outwards to describe a dome. After some time travelling in ever-widening circles, the walls ceased to lean in close over them, and instead opened suddenly into a space much greater than the one above, its extremities lost in blackness.
The pillar formed a huge, hideous knot before ceasing, and a pure, brilliant shaft of silver-blue depended from the cancerous mass into a pool of liquid light amidst bare, jagged rocks. The stair continued to sweep outwards although the pillar did not, and the dome of its descent touched down near the chamber's edge onto smooth-worn stone.
"What is this place?" Iris wondered aloud, running her palm across the cold, rough-hewn wall. The pool looked like water at first glance, but the rock here was bone-dry; the tower was situated in a parched desert, an ashen waste that hadn't seen rain in centuries if not millennia. If it wasn't water—and Iris foresaw no way that it could have been—what in the world was it?
"I don't know," Lanza replied, moving towards the edge of the light-pool. "I doubt there's anyone alive who does. Well," he corrected, "maybe Lord Argent, if it's true what they say about him being immortal."
"'If'?" Iris prompted. "He's the Archon. Of course he's immortal. Isn't he?"
"You should be more sceptical," he chided her. "Do you really think he'd announce it if he wasn't? What would be the point of undermining his own authority?"
"I suppose you have a point," she conceded reluctantly, "but now is hardly the time to discuss your radical theories. What do we do now? And what do we do with them?" she asked, gesturing towards their five cohorts, who were talking quietly amongst themselves at the base of the stair. "Shouldn't we be making use of them?"
"You're right," he said. "We should. You three," he called towards the stair, pointing out those he addressed with two fingers, "follow the wall that way, and the two of you can follow it the other way. Look for openings. When you make it back here, set up the image recorders and environment monitors. And we two," he said to Iris, "get the grand prize. Let's take a closer look at that shaft."
They headed along an outcropping of rock, clinging carefully to its sharp, raised edge to avoid slipping into the pool. Whatever the liquid was, there were better ways to analyse it than falling in. Though Iris tried to keep her eyes on the rock and her footing, she found herself gazing into the pool more than once, watching the lambent, nebulous shapes that drifted through it.
During one such lapse, she bumped into Lanza, who was in front of her and had stopped abruptly. "Archon's breath, will you look at that!" he exclaimed. "Who would have thought?"
Looking up, she gasped in shock. Suspended within the shaft of silvery glass was the dreamlike shadow of a humanoid figure, its long, graceful limbs hanging limp and weightless. It seemed to be dormant or sleeping, but it stirred slightly as though agitated, its fingers twitching in slow motion within the heavy fluid.
Some half-remembered fear gnawed at the back of Iris's mind, and she decided that she would rather be anywhere than here, even back in the tunnel in the darkness. She started crawling backwards along the rock but she slipped in her haste and struck her chin, drawing blood. She tried turning around to face the shore, but panic had stolen her balance and she almost fell into the pool.
"Iris!" Lanza shouted, trying to turn and face her. "What's wrong with you? Calm down!"
"I've seen that thing before," she choked out, as she began to hyperventilate. "We have to go, Lanza, we have to go right now. I don't know what it is, but it isn't human and it shouldn't be here and we shouldn't be here and we have to go!"
"Get a hold of yourself!" he growled, reaching out a hand to steady her. "What are you talking about?"
A great bass thrum passed through the ground beneath them, and a high, keening wail like tortured metal echoed from on high. The pool churned and boiled with silver-bright bubbles, and the pillar began to warp and bend with a great grinding sound.
"What's happening?" Iris cried out as the world split into double- and triple-images.
Lanza caught her shoulder tightly, a wild horror in his eyes, and shouted to be heard over the cacophony. "Planequake!"