Chapter 34

Beneath the Surface

Dante opened his eyes. He was standing at the top of a short stairway leading down into a long, narrow corridor lined with strips of dull blue light. Emily, studying something on the nearby wall, flashed him a congratulatory smile.

“It’s a maintenance readout for the doorway,” she said, stepping aside so Dante could read it for himself. It was simple enough to understand, listing the present state of the Aethex and offering options to alter its yield strength and output readings. Emily jabbed at the luminescent buttons until the doorway was set to maximum strength. “It’s as close as we’ll get to locking it,” she said. “Now let’s get moving before Seelie realises what’s going on.”

The sight of the Seelie lieutenant guarding the door had left Dante feeling on edge. It was one thing to go up against Avalon and its overseers, but Seelie had a power and influence few outside the Cities could match. If they wanted Emily, there was little he or Byron or anyone else could do about it. He could only hope that Ms Thorbjorn and the rest of the Torsten troupe could deal with things while they made their escape underground.

At least Emily seemed to know the way. Unlike the catacombs of Torsten, built to support a society, Avalon’s tunnels were narrow and labyrinthine, a maze of pipes and access panels with little to differentiate one from another. Dante had to estimate their position using a cellular map of the surface.

As they reached their third junction, Emily raised her hand and pulled him back. “There’s something up ahead,” she said. “Can you hear it?”

Dante looked up from his cellular and closed his eyes. There, in the background, he could just about pick out the slightest hum coming from the left-hand passageway. It was getting louder. Closer. “Sounds like an engine,” he whispered.

Emily crept along the wall and held up her cellular to use as a mirror. “I think I’ve—”

Before she could finish, a metallic orb shot past them, its underside casting a rainbow light of levitation across the walls. That Emily didn’t jump in fright was testament to her reflexes.

“A maintenance drone,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Figures. This place must be filled with them.”

As they continued on their way, they passed the drone studying a collection of pipes that ran into the ceiling above. According to the accompanying readout, they supplied Alchemium to the tennis courts above. There appeared to be some kind of malfunction in the system, a “Port Three Access Error”, apparently.

“So much for the perfect society,” said Emily with a wry smile.

Avalon, it turned out, was far from ‘perfect’. As Emily predicted, the further they delved into the island’s inner workings, the more they ran across the maintenance robots, rushing from one malfunction to another. Although they had the skills to avoid flying into the trespassers, however, they did not appear to have the skills to actually repair anything. That task fell into the hands of an entirely different machine, and one that left Emily trembling with fear and revulsion the moment she set eyes upon it.

A casual observer, or one who didn’t know better, would have thought it human, perhaps thirteen years or age, its gender androgynous. Its skin was an unhealthy shade of pale, its hair short tufts of greyish metal, and it wore a simple, one-piece uniform. Dante’s visor called it a ‘homunculus’. Focused on repairing a fault in the waste disposal facilities, it paid the trespassers no heed.

Emily had to turn her back on it. She was shaking so violently that Dante feared she had come down with a sudden bout of influenza. “D—did you see her eyes?” she asked.

If you want a real life example of these sorts of tunnels, look into Disney World.