The room was a total write-off. The plant had not spared a single item in sight, not even the walls. The linoleum was cracked in a dozen places, and little green shoots were popping up, their buds slowly flowering right before their very eyes. It was almost imperceptibly slow, but visible, if you had the patience.
Jones had the patience.
The vines that crept over the walls and split into dozens of other creeping branches were turning, altering their course towards her and Malus, who was systematically cataloguing every inch of the room with his onboard scanner, recording genetic information, phenotypes, even the heat signature of the invader. The source of the infection was easy enough to see. A large square ventilation duct that ran across the top of the room had birthed several large stalks. Even now, she could see more tendrils beginning their descent from the ceiling.
"How long has this been going on?" Jones asked, dispassionately.
"Unknown. It seems to be feeding on paper and other digestible office supplies. I would estimate by the rate of growth that it has been about six hours since the first spore was germinated. Probably sucked in by one the purifiers." Malus replied.
He was a machine quiet unlike the standard of Court androids. His surface was smooth and white, like some chitinous insect, rather than the bold and simple designs of Diego's kin. Jones preferred it that way. She had asked to bring him in at the beginning of the job, no, insisted really. All of Diego's sentient creations possessed a… whimsical mood that annoyed her. Malus was a tool, not a plaything.
"Impossible. Any contamination from Gillite Wood down to the microscopic level would have been detected the moment it entered our airspace."
"Yes, not to mention the Anan Waters makes such a thing unlikely anyway. I don't want to be the first to say it, but there may be a turncoat in our midst."
"It wouldn't be the first time, and it certainly wouldn't be the last." Jones said, surveying the damage with an imperious eye. "Why wasn't this caught before it reached this stage?"
Malus shrugged, a very difficult maneuver for a robot to pull off, but one he managed effortlessly.
"The monitoring software hasn't been changed in a generation. All it knows is whether there is air moving through the vents or not, it can't detect pressure or rate."
"Then its time that was fixed, don't you think?"
"It is already being done. A cleanup team is on its way here, and there are others already moving to purge the remainder and eliminate any spores that might be floating around."
At that moment Jones felt a vibration against her outer thigh. She exited the room out into the corridor beyond and answered her phone.
"Jones. It's me. I would like a progress report."
"The threat has been contained, we're assessing the damage now."
"No, not that, I mean Mrs. Carver. How is her instruction proceeding?"
Jones paused to think for a moment before answering, a rare occurrence.
"She has… exceeded my expectations. I have accelerated her progress."
"Good lord, praise? From you Jones? She must be the ninth wonder of the world."
"I suspect she has even more latent potential than her mother." Jones replied, ignoring the sarcasm in the man's voice.
"Interesting. I would have thought it declined with successive generations. Perhaps it has something to do with her father…?" He trailed off, as though expecting her to finish the sentence.
"I am not one for speculation" she said, before adding "sir."
"No, bless your heart Jones, you are not. Regardless, I wish to perform a more practical test of her ability as a medium. There are many loose ends she could tie up, now that we know what she is capable of."
"What did you have in mind?"
"I want you to take her down to the vault level." He said. Jones could detect the slight inflection of anticipation in his voice.
"For what purpose?"
"…are you sure? How can you know if she is ready?"
"That is what I aim to find out." He said.
Jones paused again, which had to be a record. She thought briefly about Antimony's safety, about what this man wanted from her, and then about what her best interests were.
She decided that the three overlapped to an acceptable degree.
"Will that be all?"
"No. I want you to swing by one of the freezer units while you're down there and pick up a sparkling wine, doesn't matter what year, but I would prefer a flint dry, Kent vintage, if you can manage. The Headmaster is throwing something approaching a party in the astronomy spire, and I aim to save it from ignominy. You are of course, invited."
There was a faint click, and the conversation was concluded. Jones put the phone away and turned at the noise of clacking metallic footsteps. A group of robots waltzed down the corridor lugging a defoliant projector, entering the afflicted room just as Malus exited. There was a muffled THOOMP and they began drowning the entire chamber in rich orange flame.
Antimony reclined on the couch, hands behind her head. Faust lay open upon her lap, a kneecap preserving her place, but she doubted she would come back to the book today. The classics, it seemed, were books that everyone wanted to have read, but nobody actually wanted to read, including her. She didn't particularly care for whatever prevalence of taste had dictated the "classics". What was the use of taking advice from a bunch of dead people anyway, she wondered.
Kat lay on the rug, controller in hand, mowing through a crowd of zombies like a hot knife through butter. Antimony had heard her call this particular game "Dead Island" or something along those lines, and whatever it was it was far more entertaining than von Goethe's roundabout musings. She enjoyed watching more than playing, really. Every time she had been handed the controller she had managed to get pinned underneath a horde of undead and devoured.
Reynardine was in an odd mood. Normally he would be on the floor next to Kat calling out tips, and Kat would be saying something like "I know how to play the game you big fuzz ball!", but today he had been sitting on his haunches, staring out of the single porthole in their room, watching the strange bioluminescent fish go by with a pensive, almost blank expression on his face. It worried her a little, but Antimony didn't particularly feel the need to get up and bother him over it.
She was very much enjoying the break that Jones had given her for the past few days. For the first time in a while she didn't feel scraped hollow at the end of the day. It was unclear what the purpose for this hiatus was, but Antimony was not one to question a run of good luck. As if sensing this thought, her computer terminal chirped. There were several conversations in progress, threads of thought left hanging. Mostly everyone was offline at this time of the night, and their tabs closed, but a few conversations remained. The longest was from Jack, a stream of useful advice and observations on Court happenings that went both ways. All else aside, he was an incredibly useful person to know, and a sharp pair of eyes, but it was hard to get a hold of him. His account was logged on almost constantly, but he was rarely at his terminal.
The new tab was blinking yellow, and on it was a name that she did not expect to see.
Jones - 11:47:23
Antimony, please come to my office after class tomorrow. We will be having an "exam" on what you've learned so far. Bring the tooth.
She reread the message several times, trying to divine what this "exam" could possibly be. It sounded ominous, not least because Jones thought it necessary for her to have Coyote's Tooth with her.
"Should have knocked on wood." Antimony murmured quietly, to herself.
"What?" Kat said, looking up briefly from the game.
The night was bitingly cold, but Jack was dressed for it. He loved this weather, the crisp clear air backlit by a field of stars. It was strange how bright they were, considering all the things the Court vented on a continuous basis. Perhaps the ether had something to do with it. One more thing to check up on when he got back to his terminal.
When he had first begun to roam the court at night, Jack had never gone past a fast walk for fear someone might overhear. Now however, he knew that in all likelihood there was no one around for miles, not once he got clear of most of the school facilities. He could probably have lit a firework off and nobody would hear it. Nobody human at least. This allowed him to make as much noise as he wanted. Sometimes he would sprint for blocks, choking and sniffling on the icy air.
The object of his little trip was visible even behind the tall buildings. Every so often a faint pulse of yellow light, as if from an old filament bulb, would wink into existence, and then out a moment later. He turned the corner and found that the road hit a very solid dead end. The way was bricked up, and it was obvious that this was a more recent addition as the mortar was still fairly clean. A vicious coil of razor wire topped off the barrier.
Jack reached into his pack and retrieved a large beach towel, an item that hadn't seen much use since he had come to live at the Court. He folded it lengthwise once, and then tossed it over the top of the wall. He tossed his backpack after it with some trepidation, it wouldn't do to break the containment vessel now, when he was this far out. Walking home empty handed was not a fun feeling.
He took a few steps back from the wall and let his breath out as completely as he could. He held this for three seconds before taking another gulp of air and slowly exhaling, clouds of vapor billowing from his mouth. He closed his eyes, let his heartbeat settle, and reached out through the Aether. Then he began to run.
At the last moment he leaped what seemed an improbable height and grasped onto the towel. Immediately it began to slide forward, over the wall. He clung on grimly; knowing that if he tried to shift before he was completely over the wicked loops of wire would slice his legs to ribbons. This meant waiting until he was upside down to begin his turn, and though he was agile, he was not a cat. He landed hard on his forearm and shoulder, rolling once, twice, and coming to rest in the shredded tangle of towel.
"Oooooh bugger…" He muttered, tenderly probing himself.
Nothing appeared to be broken, so he extricated himself from the torn fabric and continued on his way. All the buildings here had been boarded up haphazardly. The only one that still stood was a tall spire surrounded by what looked like at first glance like an oil refinery. Jack knew better, of course. The pipes that criss-crossed beneath the maintenance catwalks carried coolant to keep the etheric energy at conductible temperatures.
As he watched another pulse zoomed in, crossing the horizon in a second from some distant transmitter to alight upon the spire and then travel down its length. The strange sensation of flying got more intense as he approached, and he tasted copper upon his tongue.
Jack observed the control room door from the shadows of a blocked doorway across the street. A single camera was pointed down at a forty-five degree angle, to catch the face of anyone who entered or left. He waited for a quarter of an hour, but nobody emerged. Feeling more confident, he retrieved a long pole from the ground and sidled around the edge of the camera's field of view until he was up against the wall. Gently he tilted the lens upwards, so that it couldn't see the immediate vicinity of the door.
Working quickly, Jack dropped the pole and reached for his lock picks.
Carver was truly an intriguing girl. His first impression of her had been of someone overly concerned with rules and regulations, but their conversations had revealed quite the opposite. She had even taught him a thing or two about tumblers, and how to make them go where you wanted in a hurry and without excessive noise.
It took nineteen seconds in total. Jack subtracted them from a mental timer of about fifteen minutes, which was the minimum amount he figured until someone noticed that the external security camera had moved even though it didn't have a motor track. The inside of the building was fairly typical Court architecture; function over form. The immediate vicinity was crowded with rows of server racks, almost like library shelves, each one blinking green. At the far end of the room was a plate glass window into the core chamber. A single flat panel was the only thing that connected the interior with the room he was in.
He almost went for the crowbar when he saw the padlock holding it closed, but decided against it. Too messy, too brash. It had to be easy for someone else to clean up or ignore, otherwise they would complain, and that would bring it to Jones' attention and that…
He shivered. That was the last possible thing he wanted.
It took him much longer to pick this lock, partially because he was rushing himself, and partially because his hands were shaking with adrenaline. It didn't help that one of the tumblers was loaded, with a little slippery false head that trapped his pick ineffectively every time, forcing him to start over. At last he managed to manipulate it back into the side of the bolt and twist. The cover popped open, exposing a series of circular plugs. Another glow of energy lit up the room briefly as he reached into his bag and pulled out a cylindrical glass container capped on both sides with metal as well as an adaptor.
He had made it himself, and though it was of dubious quality compared to the original hardware, it would work. It had to.
He inserted this item into the plug first, and then slid the containment vessel snuggly into it. The next burst of energy traveled down the conduit as usual, but a small portion of it was deposited into the container. It reverberated off the glass for a moment, until finding equilibrium and settling.
Suddenly, Jack didn't feel so well. The flashing lights, lack of sleep, unstable ether and the tracker-suppressant pills were all getting to him. The room swayed like the deck of a ship, and leaned up against the wall, avoiding the urge to gag. When he looked up again, he received a shock.
Not literally of course. It was a visceral burst of adrenaline he received when he realized that the fourth energy pulse was coming down the purifier array and the container was only designed for three. Without thinking, for there was no time for that, he pulled the vessel free. The fourth pulse of energy reached the base, and seized upon the adaptor, which was still plugged in.
Then, he received a much more literal shock. The condensed energy arced across the room, latching onto the server housings and dancing between itself. Jack might have stopped to admire the perfect geometry present in the lances of pure ether if he hadn't been thrown roughly onto his back. There was a loud bang, and he felt an incredible heat sear his skin. He recoiled reflexively into a ball, which was about the only thing he could do while the unbound energy ricocheted off the walls for a fraction of a second longer before dissipating. He could smell smoke.
Even in the back of his dazed mind, he knew he only had a few seconds at most to remove the adaptor before the next pulse came through and knocked him unconscious entirely, an outcome that would surely prove fatal. With one mighty effort he stood up, dashed forward and wrenched the piece of metal free. He let it fall instantly with a yelp as he realized that it was almost glowing hot.
That was when the alarm started.
It was a horrid sound, like an old air raid siren that had been left to rust in the bottom of a parts bin for ages. Jack's adrenaline shot into the stratosphere in an instant, and his eyes darted to the doorway. He knew that sound, and he didn't have to think twice about what it meant. It meant exit Mr. Hyland, stage right.
He was off and down the street in the next instant, sprinting across the road and ducking into an alleyway. His heart pounded a staccato rhythm on the inside of his chest. Twice he stopped to catch his breath, his nose running uncontrollably, his ears smarting, but he always moved off again. Up ahead, as luck would have it, was a chain link fence. Obviously the people who had blocked off the purifier station had decided this section of the barrier didn't need to be bricked up. He quickly scaled this and dropped down onto the other side, following the alley out towards the main road.
The sound of a vehicle passing in the street made him get down behind a trash bin and wait until it had passed. He peeked out of the alley and looked both ways. When he got the opportunity to appraise the buildings around him, he realized he was at the bottom end of the park. The large grassy square spread out in front of him, and in the distance he could see small herds of laser cows milling around, doing whatever it was sleepless cow automatons did all night long. Beyond that were the woods where he had first laid eyes on a blinker stone. Feeling more secure in familiar surroundings, he reached into his pocket and flipped open his phone.
It rang once. Twice. Three times.
"Come on… pick up…"
On the fourth ring the call was answered.
"You have it?"
"Of course. It'll be on the top floor of the one that looks sort of like a hotel, on the parkway where the train tracks cross the pavement."
"You won't be there to pick up your payment?"
"I told you, dead drops from now on, remember? I'll send you a location to put the cash at. Right now I have to get back. It's going to be light in a few hours and I have class in the morning."
"Heh. I bet it's really cold out there."
"You have no idea." Jack said stonily, and hung up.
He stood for a moment, admiring the view as the first fingers of light clawed at the horizon. Before he continued he took a look into his bag at the glowing containment vessel. Time was short. He would have to hurry.
The cart track was much bumpier than the standard of court rail transit she was used to, and the interior of the trolley was nowhere near as comfortable as the high speed magnetic trains that she usually rode. She was sitting up front, next to Jones, who was wearing her customary green suit and had one hand on the throttle wheel. Papers and documents spilled out from a compartment just in front of Antimony and overflowed onto the floor. She glanced in the mirror. The robot Jones had called "Malus" was sitting perfectly still behind them.
Her surroundings were a mystery. They had been moving in complete darkness the whole time, the only light coming from a fluorescent illumination panel on the ceiling. Until now, that is.
They braked roughly to a halt, stopping in front of what looked like a patch of wall that ran directly across their path.
"You are not to tell anyone about anything beyond this point. Even Mrs. Donlan"
"Of course" Antimony lied.
A light flicked on, and the hatch squeaked slightly as it opened for them. Jones sent them crashing down the track at a much faster pace, causing Coyote's Tooth to slide forward slightly. She had it in blade form now, the scabbard's strings bound neatly to her waist. It would probably have been easier to simply carry it in tooth form in her pocket, but it was comforting, almost like her doll had been before Reynardine inhabited it. Even though she knew she would never in a million years unsheathe it while they were still in such an enclosed space, being able to put her palm on its hilt made her feel somehow more in control. As they moved, rows of lights high overhead snapped on with a faint crashing sound, one after another after another. Antimony's eyes widened. It was massive.
Huge concrete squares supported each track, and she could see a hundred other paths branching from theirs. There were huge circular vault doors on one side of every square. Looking back, Antimony could see what now looked like a small black hole in the monolithic surface of the wall.
Then, for whatever reason, she looked down.
The squares were actually incredibly long columns stacked next to each other in rows, every level crisscrossed with track. The bottom was so far away that she would have had to strain to see it, but she did not get the opportunity, as she averted her eyes with a wince.
Heights were not her favorite thing in the world. Especially not when traveling in what amounted to a small metal coffin racing along a pair of thin iron rails.
"How deep does it go?" She managed.
"The first layer? A few miles, after that everything is-"
"Malus." Jones said.
She didn't raise her voice a single decibel higher than normal.
"What, I'm allowed to tell her that, aren't I?"
They turned a corner, and then another. The track switched itself seemingly at random as they went along, or perhaps Jones was controlling it, she didn't know.
"You haven't asked me why we are here." Jones said.
"I trust you will explain in due time." Antimony replied, feeling herself tense slightly.
She hated it when Jones tested her with odd questions like that. Sometimes it felt like she was under a microscope.
"Why do you trust me?"
"I don't really have a choice. The ground is miles below and I don't know the way back and probably couldn't get there if I did. But now that you mention it, yes, I would rather like to know where we are going."
The sarcasm fell flat upon Jones, like a small wave petering out before it hit the shore. That was another thing Antimony hated. Jones had no tells. No change of expression, slip of emotion, not so much as a twitch.
"Several decades ago, the Court took in a boy named Charles Parker from an orphanage in Newfoundland. His parents were members of the board of trustees. Eventually he came back to work for us, teaching history to the sixth form students as an adjunct."
"Why did the Court adopt him if his parents were still alive?"
"His mother was a journalist. She disappeared in Bolivia soon after he was born. The details may never be known. His father died before he was born in a steel plant accident in Newcastle. The babysitting service had turned him over to a local orphanage when the mother did not return, assuming she had abandoned him." Jones said.
"He was drafted a year and a half after he began teaching, and declined to take his skilled-worker exemption. Unfortunately, it was his undoing. He died on the fields of France."
"That's horrible…" Antimony said.
"It gets worse. He was not able to die a natural death. He was "stuck", unable to proceed."
"Like the ghost of the Annan Waters?"
"More or less." Jones replied. "Through etheric means we were able to transport his memories here."
"His- memories?" Antimony said, incredulously.
"His memories, his preferences, his habits and intricacies. The imprint of his personality and its circumstance at the moment of death, left on the Aether."
She could swear Jones had almost smiled at those words. Almost.
"If you like."
"Then what am I to do?"
"It will come to you naturally." Jones said. "You are a mediator, like your mother. The dead will seek you out."
The trolley came to a stop, and the door next to her snapped to, punctuating that encouraging thought. She stepped gingerly over the minute gap between the concrete and the faded paint of the trolley, trying not to think how deep that chasm actually was. Malus stepped out behind her, his plastisoid soles clicking smartly. She expected Jones to step out as well, but she did not.
"I have other matters to attend to. I will be back here by the time you are done."
Before Antimony could reply, the car took off again, swaying ominously as it found its new center of gravity. She was left alone on the platform with Malus. They exchanged a brief glance, and then looked simultaneously towards the door. It was truly enormous, taking up a majority of the wall into which it was set. Rivets studded its surface at regular intervals. A tic-toc was perched upon the top right edge of the block, watching them intently.
"Shall I?" Malus inquired.
"Please." Antimony said. "Let's see what Jones has cooked up."
The robot pressed a few keys, and the locking mechanism gave out a loud crunch, as though shaking off a century worth of rust. Still, it did not budge.
"Okay, I know Jones wants me to just toss you in there, but she's not here, so I'm going to let you in on a few things" Malus said.
"The first is that it can't hurt you if you don't let it. What you will see is strictly speaking 'real', but not in the physical realm. You shouldn't have anything to fear. The second is that once you go through, you won't be able to come back until you're done, that's how it works. I'll stay by this panel here, but you're the one who has to make it all come together. Stand back a bit, please."
There was a hiss and a clunk, and the door swung outwards with surprising speed and quietness. On the other side was a drab watercolor world of greys and blacks. It was night, and it was raining, that was all she could tell. In the background of this tapestry, points of white light appeared occasionally, accompanied by a far-off rumble.
"And the last thing?" She said, one foot on the threshold, her heart in her throat.
Malus looked at her. His eyes were electric blue, and strangely expressive. At this moment they were radiating a mixture of concern and something else she couldn't identify.
"It's been a long time. He's forgotten why he died. Before you come out of there, he'll have to relive it. All of it."
With that, Antimony turned and stepped through the doorway. She could hear it slam behind her, but she did not look back to confirm that it had faded from sight. There was no point in considering that now. It was too late to turn back.
The ground was pulverized. A fine grey mist poured from the skies turning the mud to muck, and though it sucked at her dress shoes with every step, no dirt or water was present when she pulled it away. Similarly, the rain seemed to be passing right through her. She held up her hands to the big fat drops and received no moisture on her palms.
"Curious" she said quietly, to herself.
There was thunder in the surrounding hills. It rolled and echoed, the flashes unusually close to the ground. She continued over the rolling mounds of earth. Craters covered everything, a dark pox on the earth that spared not a single inch. Rows of barbed wire lay tangled around what she first assumed to be tree logs, but she soon discovered were bodies. The relentless rain had bleached all color from their uniforms and medals. Here and there lay a fragment of a helmet, like a shattered tortoise shell. The stench of death was heavy in the air, and along with it, something else.
Normally when she made use of her projection, she could sense faint whispers of things that her normal five senses could not capture. Now these whispers were louder than church bells on Sunday. Fear. Anger. Despair. They clouded around her and shrouded the distant landscape from sight somehow. She didn't understand. Her astral self was firmly planted within the confines of her body, and yet she could hear them, as if from a great distance. Cries and shrieks of the dead.
She could also sense that these presences were now turning toward her, examining her. She continued, not quite sure what she was looking for. How was she to find one specific person among all these bodies? Some of them were ruined beyond recognition, a fact she realized with a shudder. What kind of test was this? What had Jones been thinking, sending her in here? What good could she do for this godforsaken place?
That was when she heard the first moan. Not ethereal, but real, tangible, vocal. It carried over the noise of the thunder and the rain, and found friends. Other moans rose and fell, joining in an unearthly chorus. Then, she turned and saw one of the bodies move. It was a severed torso, both of the legs taken off at the knee. The head turned towards her and the jaw fell slackly open as a pair of sightless eyes surveyed her.
A hand reached out, and another moan issued from the lips of the tortured soul. It began to drag itself towards her. Antimony stood frozen with pure terror, her limbs seemingly made from lead, immovable. Something else sparked in her mind, the little voice of reason that told her to move, to act!
In one unbroken motion she unsheathed the toothblade and brought it down through the skull of her assailant. It went through effortlessly, and she had to catch herself from falling. There was no time to berate herself for not studying her form more, as another deathly cold hand with an iron grip got a hold of her school uniform. She spun around, taking off the corpse's head with a blazing backhand stroke.
"This is insane!" She cried aloud.
The corpses took no heed. There were more of them. Dozens. Hundreds. She could see them climbing up towards her, their voices mixed into one single howl of despair that blocked out everything else. In that moment, she realized that she was surrounded, and that there was only one solution. She carefully placed the sword back in its sheath, and took a deep breath. The first one was only a few yards away now, and the noise made it hard to concentrate, but she forced herself to find a semblance of calm. Even if what Malus said was true, and she could not be harmed in this place, she wasn't about to test his hypothesis. She dug deep, and found the fire.
It burst out of her, gushing over her hands and down her fingertips, given fuel by her panic. She spun once in a circle, extending the web of flame all around her and pouring what strength she had into its maintenance. There was a great hiss of steam, and for a time, everything in her immediate vicinity was obscured. She staid perfectly still, waiting for another clammy hand to grope at her, but it did not.
A breeze came in from the east, and bit by bit the cloud wafted away and dissipated. Nothing around her stirred. Their rest was now final. As she looked up, she spotted something. A single flower was blooming amidst the destruction. It was a modest, minute little flower with baby blue petals. The only thing besides herself that had any color whatsoever.
"A forget me not…" She said, bending and plucking it gently from the ruined soil.
She froze again. The voice was like that of the corpses, tired and hoarse, but it was calling a name.
"Sally, oh god, is that you? What are you doing here? Are you dead too?" It chocked.
She turned, and saw Parker.
It must have been him; there was no one else it could be. She was sure of it. He was slumped up against the ridge of a crater. His rifle lay shattered beside him, no more than a collection of splinters. A large dark spot had blossomed upon the breast of his service uniform. Antimony went and knelt beside him.
"I'm afraid I'm not who you think I am" She said, softly.
"Oh, for a moment I thought… I thought…"
What little color was left in his pale face drained away, and she suddenly realized that he was only a few years older than her, at most.
"Then you must be it."
Antimony didn't quite know what to say to this. It was a fair assessment of her role in this situation, but somehow not quite accurate.
"I am here to get you out. To help you continue. But first you must remember."
At this Parker looked away, as though he would rather be anywhere else.
"No. I won't. You can't make me."
"You must. Otherwise you will stay here longer. Do you want that?"
Parker shook his head.
"I don't want to remember. I forgot for a reason, and it was a good one, I remember that much. I don't know how long I've been here. Sometimes it feels like years, and other times, only a few hours."
Antimony reached out a hand and deposited the flower on his lap. Then she sat down behind him, no longer afraid that the mud would stain her clothes.
"Where are you from?" She asked, hesitantly. They had to start somewhere.
"Saint Johns" he supplied, with some effort. "Yes, that's it. Saint Johns, Newfoundland, born and raised."
"Jones-" she began, before catching herself.
"You worked at a place called Gunnerkrigg Court, did you not?"
He looked over at her somewhat strangely.
"Yes, yes that name is familiar. I lived there too, for a long time, but how do you know of it?"
"I go to school there" Antimony replied.
"Really? But then… you're not Death?"
She couldn't help but laugh.
"No, just a helpful assistant" she said.
"I wish you were" he said. "I was afraid of death, just like the rest of 'em, but now that's its done, I want to…" he trailed off, waving his hand in the air gently.
"Move on?" Antimony supplied.
"Yes, move on."
He reached into a breast pocket and rummaged around.
"Blast. They're not there."
"What aren't?" Antimony asked.
"The letters. I had one for Sally, and one for me old uncle, who lives up by the Vicar's green, explaining… things. In case it went wrong."
"I guess you couldn't take them with you."
"Yeah, or they fell out while I was-"
He paused, and stared off into the distance for a moment, transfixed.
"-while I was running."
Then he turned his head, and she could see his face was full of terror.
The change was sudden, and almost instantaneous. One moment she was there, and the next she found herself sitting on a wooden chair, looking at a man who wasn't Parker. His cap and gold braid denoted him as someone of importance. She could see one corner of a grey moustache peeking out at her from behind his ruddy cheek. They were inside a sort of alcove, earth help up by crudely-stacked wooden posts. Sunshine was streaming in from the outside. The noises were much nearer and clearer now. The capped man was examining a large map spread out on the wall before him. It's surface was nearly covered with pins of two colors. A younger man ran in from outside and snapped a crisp salute. Antimony could feel the anxiety coming off of him in waves. He seemed to take no notice of Antimony, although she was clearly visible.
"I have the latest from the forward observers, sir."
"Thank you Lieutenant, read them aloud."
The young man's hands were shaking as he unrolled the sheaf of paper. Outside the noise of shouts and detonations almost snatched away his voice.
"The results of the first wave were mixed. To the north, the French have been turned back. 86th brigade reports continued resistance, despite the bombardment. The 26th have been repulsed to their start point with heavy casualties. There are some reports of breakthrough in some areas, but the Germans are holding."
"And what are the orders from division headquarters?"
"The Newfoundland Regiment is to attack immediately after the barrage ceases at 0930 hours. They are to take and hold the first line of German resistance and wait for reinforcements."
"What is the date on that order?"
"Yesterday evening sir."
Antimony could see the older officer's shoulder sink slightly. His back was to her, so she could not read his expression.
"Is the General Staff aware of the situation?"
"I assume so." The lieutenant said, without much conviction.
"Has the mine been completed?"
"It should be going off any minute sir, its timed to blow with the last salvo."
"Then there is nothing more to be done, except to prepare and pray that our artillery boys managed to knock out the wire in more than one place."
The lieutenant moved farther into the cramped space, and Antimony realized that he was going to sit down in the chair she currently occupied. There was no room to avoid him, but luckily instead of colliding with him she passed right on through. Out in the trench beyond it was a similar story, pale young men crowded into every nook and foxhole, clinging to their equipment and each other like a life raft. The barrage was much louder out here. Every shell fired from friendly lines screamed overhead like a freight train at full steam, before falling to earth in a spear of fire and dirt. It was a surreal experience. She moved carefully down the row, trying to pick out Parker's features among the multitudes of petrified faces. She found him sitting inside a machine gun nest, peering over the edge of the earthen rampart with a periscope.
"Well, how about it Parker, is it clear?"
"Hard to say with the mud still flying. It looks beat to shit, but then so does everything around here."
A somewhat older man with a grizzled face full of scars and stubble piped up.
"No use worrying about it. If the Huns are still there, that's that, and if they've scarpered, dandy. We've got to go out there one way or another. Might as well make the best of it, eh?"
"Yessir" the surrounding group repeated as one.
The sergeant checked his watch and spit out a foul mixture of saliva and chewing tobacco which traveled through her shoe unhindered and hit one of the sole patches of ground not occupied by a human being. Somewhere behind her she could hear the Lord's Prayer being recited.
"Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us. And least us not to temptation, but-"
The rest of his words were cut short by an unearthly whistle, which was followed shortly thereafter by a boom and a thick cloud of yellow vapor.
"German counter-fire! Get down! Heads down!"
"GAS! GAS! GAS!"
The trench was suddenly alive with scurrying as the cloud bore down on them and poured into every crevasse. Most got their masks on in time. Others did not, and Antimony had to close her eyes, as she could not turn her head. The horror was everywhere. Choking and wheezing soldiers still tried to get the hood over their tearing eyes.
Suddenly, and without warning, a terrible din descended out of the west. The force of its birth made everyone stumble, and the gas was agitated somewhat, and began to clear, blown by a swift gust of wind. It sounded as though the sky itself had cracked, and from where she sat she could see a huge mushroom-shaped plume of earth reach up and touch the clouds. All at once, the British guns fell silent.
"That's the signal, that's it lads!"
There was an awful, pregnant pause while the men cycled their weapons. Then a high pitched whistle sounded.
"Over the edge boys, for king and country!"
Antimony quickly located Parker again as the regiment clambered over the edge of the trench and into the harsh daylight. She could instantly see why they called it "no mans land". The stretch of blighted earth looked even worse in the day. The pools of stagnant water glistened like scars under lamplight, and in the distance she could see a single tree still standing, its burned and broken branches still grasping skywards.
Footsteps. Feet pounding forward. Heavy, labored breathing.
From the grimy hills and gullies ahead the enemy lines opened up with a teeth-shaking chatter.
"Keep your spacing!" The sergeant cried in vain as men began to tumble.
It was no use. Antimony could see the lines of wire ahead, and there were a precious few places where it had been severed entirely, the rest of it only more hopelessly jumbled by the bombardment. The men made for the choke points, but so did the German gunners. After that, Antimony lost track of what was going on around her. The grim specter of death stalked skillfully among them, taking as it pleased. Her concentration was on the sweat soaked back that she assumed belonged to Parker. He had made it past where most of his brethren had fallen, but he was tiring under the stifling heat of the gas mask.
They were only a few dozen feet from the enemy when a flash of red mist obscured her vision, and something tripped her. She tumbled, feeling something wet splash her face, and she closed her eyes and wiped it, expecting her hand to come back red.
But it was not blood, she realized as soon as she dared to open her eyes again. The sounds of battle had died away and she was back on that lonely plain under the cover of night. The rain was at last beginning to slack away to a thin drizzle, and a glow in the west projected the subtlest of gradients onto the sky, hinting at he dawn to come.
With trepidation, she looked around. Parker was standing now, looking towards the west with his back to her. The wound was fresher now for whatever reason, and a single red drop fell from his finger into the dirt. She turned to see what he was staring at, and caught sight of a large shaggy black dog with glowing eyes. The hound raised its muzzle and sniffed at the air.
"Somme… You'll never forget that smell, as long as you live."
"Well at least I don't have to talk to Muut."
The dog snorted, the canine equivalent of a guffaw.
"He's busy elsewhere, so I decided I'd handle this one."
"You don't look like the angel Gabriel." Parker said.
"Well we aint goin' to the pearly gates."
"Oh dear, I thought I'd been a good person…"
"What if I told you it don't work like that, mate? Come along, I'll explain on the way. I'm in a bit of an 'urry if you don't mind. It's almost daylight."
Parker cast Antimony a questioning glance, and she nodded.
"You'll be fine. He doesn't bite."
"Often." Mhoddey Dhoo said, with a mischievous expression. "Carver… good one. Your mum would've been proud, I reckon."
Antimony said nothing, and kept her expression level. It meant a lot to her, but a compliment was not enough to forgive what had been done. A doorway had appeared, and it hovered in the air, bobbing slightly.
"Till next time."
"You too, Mhoddey Dhoo." Antimony replied.
In a moment they had gone, leaving her alone on the wet battleground. She turned, casting around for her own door, and in the process almost stepped on something. She bent down, and picked up a pair of envelopes she had not seen before.
Malus sifted through the wreckage of the control room. The damage was superficial, at best. The Court had long since learned the most efficient ways to control fires. When you lived inside a single unbroken human-built structure you had to learn quickly, and correctly.
Jones was crouched near one of the scorched server racks, a digital player hooked into one of the jacks.
"Could it be a geist?" Malus suggested. "We've had problems with those before, at the high-volume stations."
Jones had seen something. She rewound the video to a certain marker, and paused, before holding it up for Malus' inspection. Two black nub were sticking into the frame.
"Aethergeists don't wear sneakers."
The hallway that preceded the boys dorms in Queslett South was far more decorative than the simple catwalk over a dark pool that marked the girl's portion. The glass walls on either side of the walkway made it appear that she was looking at a giant fish tank, but in truth she was the one enclosed by glass. A current from somewhere far out wafted silt past the illumination panels, casting strange shadows. It was like something out of a high renaissance oil painting. Gem-like blue water, and the occasionally school of fish, scales shimmering.
A familiar crustacean sidled up to where she was staring out at the blue nothingness.
"Something on your mind?"
"Oh, hello Bud" Antimony said, jerked from her reverie. "No, nothing in particular."
It was a lie as transparent as the glass in front of her face, and she knew Bud was aware of this, but he didn't put up a fuss.
"Just remember to be clear of here by ten before I lock up."
"Sure thing" she said, turning and passing through the airlock into the dormitory proper.
The boys too had a pool, but instead of leaving it be they had made use of it. She could see an assortment of fins and snorkels gathered at the far end of the water, near the console. There were a few still awake, small groups of stragglers that talked quietly whilst leaning against the balcony railing. She could feel their eyes on the back of her neck, watching what door she went into.
Matt was sleeping in the first half of the capsule. He was spread eagle on his bed, snoring gently, a collection of papers lying flat on his chest. The television was on, but muted, and the light flickered and danced across the room, illuminating the Manchester United posters that crowded the curved walls. A small mound of clothes was piled in the far corner. She hesitated at the wooden door that separated the unit, and then knocked.
Antimony let herself in, shutting the door behind her as softly as she could manage. This room was much different. It was tidier for one thing, as thought its occupant aimed to get as much use per square millimeter as physically possible. Against the right wall were a cot and a dresser, upon which the room's computer terminal had been placed. On the left was a desk which contained many labeled drawers. Jack was sitting in a small swivel chair, holding a heating iron in one hand and a coil of solder in the other. The object of his attention was a jumble of parts spread out on an aluminum cooking sheet. A fan with an attached funnel ferried the wisps of smoke to the vent in the ceiling.
A marmalade kitten cracked its eyelids as Jack swiveled around and switched off the iron. It leapt off of his lap and curled up next to her as she sat on the cot, rolling over to offer its tummy for scratching.
"He's cute, what's his name?"
"Oliver. Paz found him in our first term. I'm making a friend to keep an eye on him, so I can let him out in the daytime."
She hooked a finger underneath the animal's fuzzy chin and scratched, eliciting a rather noisy rumble.
"Why don't you just chip him? That would be easier."
"When I first came here I would have sad the same thing, but now that I know what it's like to have my every movement monitored I wouldn't wish it on anyone, even an animal. Call me weird."
"You're weird" Antimony said, biting back an uncharacteristic giggle. "The cat isn't going to know, let alone blame you."
"But I'd know." Jack said, with one of his signature strange smiles.
He leaned back and interlaced his fingers behind his head.
"So, what can I do for you?"
"I came here in person. The terminals aren't secure enough for what I have to say, even with the encryption you sent me."
She took a deep breath, removed the letters from her coat pocket and told Jack everything, start to finish.
Jack looked like he wanted to interrupt at several points, but refrained, for which se was grateful.
"I went to the post-bot, but it's out of order, and I can't seem to get a straight answer about when it will be fixed."
Jack nodded and extended his hand.
"I can get them where they're supposed to go."
"It's not just that" Antimony said, handing the worn envelopes over. "I don't know if the addressees are even still alive."
"There are ways of locating their next of kin fairly quickly."
"Thank you Jack, I really don't know how to repay you."
"In a way, you already have" Jack said. "I suspected there was some kind of tunnel complex, but this…"
"Please use discretion with what I've shared with you. I've been sworn to secrecy."
"Naturally" Jack replied. "Have you told Kat?"
Antimony shook her head.
"Well you should go do that. She'd want to know. Oh, and when you do, can you give her these to look at?"
Jack reached across his desk and grabbed a rolled up blueprint.
"If, you know… she feels like it."
"I'm sure she will. Good night Jack."
Antimony left as quietly as she had entered. Jack sat slack in his chair for a few moments, his brain running in circles.
Underground vault complexes miles in diameter? Etheric containment? Memory imprint storage and retrieval?
He reached underneath his desktop and switched off a small device that had been recording the room since Antimony had entered. He turned to his terminal, considered sending a conventional mail to his "benefactor", and decided against it. Antimony was right, even his home-brew encryption key was not enough to guarantee beyond a shadow of a doubt that his communications were not being snooped on, which was the standard he demanded.
Instead, he reached his pocket and retrieved his cell phone. Recording the audio from one device to another left the playback much rougher, but every word was still perfectly intelligible. He attached it to a text message and sent it on its way.
Then he turned to the letters, opening another tab on his terminal and selecting a broad search heuristic. The man specified in the first one was one Willard James Parker, who had died at least a decade previously. He chose the oldest son out of the remaining family and took down the address, and then thinking better of it copied the others down too. The woman, Sally Bines, was still very much alive, and it was only a few minutes until a water utility record steered him to her home address.
Parsing the text of the letters was easy enough. They had been soaked fairly thoroughly, but luckily Parker the younger had chosen to write his farewells in pencil and not ink, which hadn't smudged away completely. He withdrew some stationary from another drawer and dutifully copied out the two messages onto a fresh paper before enclosing all four letters in their envelopes and applying postage and placing them in a tray marked "for delivery".
He was just leaning back in his chairs, allowing the warm ache of pleasant labor to leave his fingers when his phone vibrated on the desk next to him. He flipped it open and read the message.
-April 12th, 10:12 pm-
Tomorrow night, easternmost loading docks, bay four. The door around the side will be unlocked.
Jack set the phone down gingerly, as though it might explode. He could already feel a little bit of adrenaline seeping into his bloodstream. At the same time, he knew he would be there. Money was no longer an object, and this change in motive worried him somewhat, but not enough to dampen the thrill of the hunt. He glanced back at the bed, where Oliver was now sleeping soundly in the warm spot Antimony had left behind.
The last lines of Parker's letter to Sally Bines drifted across his mind.
"A good soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him."