It’s that day, and here you are, and here I am. And I have more fiction! Yay, fiction! I’ve been focusing on consistency of production, recently, over absolute wordcount. And I think it’s working, actually. I’ve been focusing on getting a manuscript page per day as a minimum, and after a week, I sat down and ripped out three pages in roughly half an hour. Which was fun and exciting, and I haven’t done that in a while. Anyway, enjoy.
Chapter 19: And Up
I couldn’t be certain who’d be on the lift when it reached bottom, but I knew there would be at least one guard on it. More likely, several, and possibly armed with more than control rods. They’d come down, find me, and that would likely be that. Jaems and Crind would have their plaything back, and eventually Perseus would decide I needed to die.
Or more likely, cut me open to find out what Prometheus had done to me. Because there would be – interrogation was what we’d called it in the Assault Corps, but torture was more accurate. They’d hurt me. I’d been through the Corps’ Prisoner of War practicum, and I knew exactly how long I could hold out. They’d get the information out of me, and then the knives would come out.
Chill gripped me, all over, all at once. I could feel myself shaking, and the rank tang of my own fear filled my nostrils. Fortunately, my training came to the fore, and my mind began analyzing my options.
I could hide, sure, but there just wasn’t anywhere useful in the warren of tunnels under the prison. And that was before a crazy, alien AI messed up the structural integrity of the caves and the slender human artifacts supporting them. My eyes twitched to look down the tunnel which led to my oubliette. I could hide there for a while, but they’d find it eventually. Assuming it wasn’t the first place they looked, considering what Crind had seen.
I could hide in the warren, and hope they only left one guard at the lift. It was a slim, slim hope, however, and I couldn’t trust it. Jaems was no idiot, and his guards certainly weren’t, however cruel or brutal they might be. If it were me, I’d leave at least two, one of them at the controls, and the other in a corner. I had to assume they’d do the same. Never assume your enemy is stupider than you are, as more than one trainer had told me.
Then, there was my physical state. I was flat exhausted. Fear wasn’t the only thing making me shake, after all. My stomach chose that moment to emit a growl, and I’m ashamed to say it made me jump.
It also grounded me. The human body is a ridiculous meat machine full of messy processes and frustratingly contradictory impulses, and anybody who disagrees is insufficiently experienced. Or maybe I’d just lost my grasp on sanity somewhere along the way. Regardless, I felt, if not in control, then less out of control than I’d been a moment before. Less panicky.
I could fight. I had some energy, at least, and while learning how to accidentally blast holes in stone gave me a potent weapon, it might well leave me completely burned out. I presumed the climbing claws I’d fashioned from pure energy would make equally effective weapons as they did tool. The same problem applied, however. So, I could fight. It wasn’t my first choice, but it might be my only one.
A quick glance at the readout showed the lift nearing the halfway point. Apparently, my supposition that Jaems lied about the depth of the mine was accurate. Regardless, I had a very brief minute or so before my world became very uncomfortable.
A thought caught me.
“Maybe,” I murmured, “there’s another option.”
I pulled the Book out of whatever pocket of my mind it occupied. Instead of opening it at random, which had a relatively poor track record, I addressed it directly.
“Okay, you whatever you are, if I don’t get out of here, it’s going to be a world of hurt more than what I’m already in.” I bent my will on the virtual thing hovering in the air in front of me. I mentally pleaded for something, anything that could get me out of the dead end I was in. Hopefully not literally. “Just, something, please.”
Long seconds ticked by. I knew it was impossible – the lift design didn’t allow for it – but I could swear I felt the air moving as the lift descended. Even hear a bit of rubbing as the metal and duraplast interacted.
And the Book just floated in air. Not moving, not changing, not doing a damned thing. And every second it did nothing brought a squad of heavily armed badness closer to my tender flesh.
“Come on, come on!”
I glanced over at the indicator panel. The light had changed from green to orange, which gave me at most ninety seconds. When it turned red, I’d have ten seconds to get out of the way or get crushed by the descending lift. I felt my heartbeat accelerate in response to the thought.
I looked up into the darkness of the open lift shaft, and wished again for a light, and then almost hit myself in the head.
“You’re a bright one, Dare, y’know that?” I sketched out the sigil, and my own, personal nightlight appeared in its usual spot. I put a hand out to the wall to steady myself against
“Okay, little buddy, I need you to do something for me.” I directed my will at the sigil, whom I resolutely refused to think of as Siggy, “I need you to fly up the nasty, dark, scary shaft and show me how close the lift with the big, bag men is. Can you do that?”
Sudden tears pricked the corners of my eyes. I hadn’t had anything I’d talked to like that for a long, long time. The Guard was too uptight, and the Assault Corps encouraged affection in different directions. I’d grown up with a very odd mix of societal behaviors and expectations, however, and free trading had only made that worse. My purser had nicknamed the cargo crane aboard ship “William” and painted a grouchy expression on “his” face. Even my old first sergeant referred to her personal firearm as Timmy, for some reason.
I pushed with a thought. More accurately, from my perspective at least, I thought of the glyph moving up the lift shaft. The glowing symbol obediently moved upward, taking its light with it. I pushed some more, and it kept moving, illuminating a section of the vertical tunnel roughly two meters bottom to top.
I kept my eyes focused on the band of light as it rose through the nearly featureless duraplast shaft, broken only by the safety tracks on each side. I focused until I got spots in front of my eyes. I released an explosive breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, and nearly fell over. With a shaking hand I sketched the glyph, and the distant point of light disappeared. I realized my knees where shaking as they gave way and I collapsed into a sitting position.
“Void,” I swore, panting. I hadn’t realized how much energy pushing the light up the shaft was going to take out of me until I couldn’t stand back up for weariness. By the time I did, the lift indicator was flashing red.
I swore some more, briefly, but left off. I actually could hear the lift approaching, now. The subtle breeze as it descended wasn’t just my imagination, this time. My stunt with the glyph meant I wasn’t going to be able to fight off whoever was on the lift. I could barely stand.
Flashing lights popped out of recesses in the ceiling, a safety indicator to tell morons like myself to get out of the way of the descending meat tenderizer. It made me jump, and I glared at the Book I’d forgotten to put away.
The Book pulsed, and my own quickened painfully. The virtual manual appeared to shiver, and then dissolved of its own accord. Before I could do more than realize it, another pattern crystallized in my mind, and I found myself muttering those alien words. I knew I was opening a door. I knew it, but beyond that gut-deep belief, I had no genuine comprehension that the syllables dribbling from my lips weren’t just nonsense.
Still, I planted my feet, and with desperate energy thrust out my clenched fists at navel height. To my muted shock, though with a distinct lack of surprise, a crackling fuzz of energy cascaded off my hands, to pool in a flat plane roughly parallel to my torso. Driven by compulsion, I wrenched my fists apart, and opened a hole in the world.
A circle a meter and a half in diameter hung in midair. A silent corona of polychromatic energy rode along its rim. It tingled where it crawled over my fists, though not unpleasantly. Inside the incandescent ring I saw a floor. The surface was identical to the duraplast used throughout Tartarus, though cleaner than most of the prison. Jaems kept his floors covered with expensive rugs. Crind and the other guards imitated him with cheaper substitutes. I had no idea where the free civilian contractors lived.
Something was off about it, though. The light on the other side of my tear in space wasn’t the normal artificial daylight of every other lamp used by Thebes. It was weird, as though someone was turning on another color of lamp, and then turning it off and quickly turning another, bluer lamp on. And then doing it again. And doing it again.
It was about then I became aware of two- no, of three things. The first was that I could see boot-encased feet on the other side of the hole. Atop those booted feet were Assault Corps camo-clad legs. I thought there might be hands somewhere in there, but the second thing I noticed was the claxon sound which preceded the arrival of the lift. Usually by just enough time to dive out of the way if one was stupid enough to stand in the way. Which meant I needed to move, since I’d been stupid enough to stand in the way.
The third thing of which I became aware was that my vision was tunneling. All I could see was the feet standing on the other side of whatever rent I’d made in reality. Not the warning lights at the bottom of the lift shaft, not the pure, shivering energy riding the rim of my hole, and not even my own hands holding the portal open. Hands which I couldn’t actually feel.
The black tunnel I suddenly found myself in extended into infinity as I collapsed forward.