Ch. XV, p.2

. . .

Dominic held his gun to his chest and glanced downward into the black. He didn’t take time to consider how to proceed, instead descending swiftly, a crystalline covering on the stairs glowing intermittently with subdued colour beneath each of his careless steps.

“Welcome visitor.”

He caught his breath and stumbled, planting his hands on the wall. Feeling for his rifle, he swung the barrel up and pointed it at the origin of the voice—a colorful hologram glowing with images of the building.

“Would you like to learn about the architectural wonders of the Reihvass Center?”

He paused. Ghosts of the past… Then, almost to his own amazement, said, “yes.”

“Construction on the Reihvass Center began in December of 2036 and was completed in July of the following year.” The recording paused, a series of three dimensional architectural blueprints springing into life. “Currently, the Reihvass Center is the most technologically advanced structure in all of Idest. Whereas most of the buildings here were constructed during the mid 2020’s period of hyperexpansion, and as such had only semi-advanced construction techniques employed during their creation in order to enhance the properties of more traditional materials, the Reihvass Center is a stunning example of what can be accomplished by integrating ultramodern elements, such as nanoweave, into a more classic environment, allowing for—”

“Stop playback,” Dom said quietly. Don’t need any more of that… His eyes flitted away from the holographic display and he looked back up the way he had come. He could barely distinguish the faint outline of a staircase and an archway… Night had finally fallen.

No more sounds… he looked down the stairs. Nothing. Maybe there was no one here. Berin might have already left…

Popping a few small light bulbs from his belt, he stuck them to his chest and the tips of his fingers on his left hand. Without his aura, he would need more traditional means to see. Finally, he attached one beneath the barrel of his gun, and all at once they began to glow brighter and brighter, reacting to the absence of light, until a radiant white aura lit the path ahead of him, reflecting as white orbs on a surrounding sheet of nanoweave-reinforced glass.

I must look like a glowstick. He knew he stood out, but the brief pause to listen to the artificial tour guide had calmed him somewhat, even though it seemed that a loud voice echoing in the spacious, tube-like hallway should have had the opposite effect. He breathed slower now, the adrenaline from his blusterous entrance reduced to a slow ebb, helping him to remain aware of his surroundings rather than overcoming his sensibilities. There wasn’t much room for surprises along the path so far; still, he stuck to caution as he maneuvered down a rubble strewn stairway made of stone and synthetic fiber, ripped in places but mostly still in a good condition uncharacteristic of local constructions.

Otherwise, everything was as he remembered it: the first branch in his path down led into an observation area on one side and deeper into the pitch on the other. He, of course, continued down, all along surrounded by a still intact tube of glass meant to display a wondrous selection of flora and fauna within a spacious cavern; as seemed to be the case with these things though, he saw no such wonders. Just a thick, smudgy collection of grime, accumulated over the years.

Glass corridor soon led to a second branch, heading off in three directions. The first break to the left he was familiar with from a video he had seen about the project—apparently, it had once led into an “indestructible” tunnel of nanoweave reinforced glass surrounded by water where visitors were supposed to be able to view exotic marine life swimming all around them. He had been down there once, only to find the water murky and impenetrable. To the right, the stairs led up onto a lookout placed over an immense swathe of land, where a holographic scene would have displayed long extinct animals and reptiles amongst the arboretum’s unique vegetation, everything occurring under the light of what was supposed to have been the most realistic artificial sun ever created.

Of course, it all did him a whole lot of good now. He continued straight along, a massive, arching tube of grimy glass lit overhead with redly brilliant specks, capturing the motion of the bulbs swaying on his chest and outstretched hand which he used to direct the light forward.

His feet pattered quietly along. He didn’t see anything alarming, but he wouldn’t let his guard down. As he approached his destination, a single thought slipped through his calculating demeanor, his skin trembling as it did—I wonder what this place was like when it was first built. It was strange to him that no one could recall ever having seen it finished. He knew what he did only from rooting around in its depths long after the destruction had already occurred.

If no one can remember that year, then can they really be held accountable for what they did then? He hated the thought. Someone had to be responsible. That was just how things worked.

He kept onward, lamenting the remote setting of the rendezvous. He and Berin could have chosen a different place, something closer to the surface; but they had found no avenue better for their work the year before, and it only seemed fitting that they would be meeting here again; possibly for the last time.

He went over the area in his mind. Adjacent to the lower levels of the arboretum was a parking garage, spaced not too far from an underground system of tunnels that had once been used mainly for transporting supplies in and out of Idest without disturbing the city’s peaceful surface visage. And between that garage and tunnel system was an intricate series of entryways and medium sized holes, well guarded from prying eyes by a series of bribes (mostly in the form of favors and, occasionally, slave labor), A.I. hacks, and physical covering. But in a way, the hideout was one of the worst kept secrets of the smuggling underground—everybody knew about it; but everybody important turned a blind eye to it, and everybody else was too afraid to come near.

Fortunately for Dom though, even the people who did know about the location knew little about the details. Only two things were relevant to them: 1.) That they were compensated and 2.) That they were to make up excuses to keep their men away from section nine of the city’s outer regions. Which meant that he should have time before any other government agents came swarming in; of course, this didn’t say anything for the smuggler’s themselves, who could be lurking around any corner…

He stepped heavily sideways, his feet catching the floor solidly as he swung around the end of the hallway, rifle nosing ahead. His eyes scanned the hallway and he stalked forward carefully, his steps consciously metered to match the rhythm of his breathing, calming him. The fingers of his left hand extended, casting light upon the divots and cracks in the walls, shining gem-like where a crosshatched web of nanofiber struggled to hold the broken concrete together. Apparently, even a building as technologically advanced as this couldn’t stand up to the force of a trembling Earth.

As he rounded the corner leading to the meeting place, he came to the realization that he wouldn’t be able to enter. His systems weren’t functional, and so there was no way he could interface with the—

The door is open. His skin crawled. The main door was never supposed to be open.

Instantly he made a fist with his left hand and shielded the light on his gun with the palm of his right, covering the bulbs on his chest with his forearm. And all at once he felt himself come to a dead stop, absolutely paralyzed by fear.

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