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. Hopefully Ms Thorbjorn and the rest of the Torsten troupe would deal with things topside while he and Emily made their escape underground.

Dante fell into pace a step behind his housemate as she scouted out a path with her instinctual second sight. 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 path from another. Dante had to estimate their position using a map of the surface he’d scrawled on a piece of paper—technology would not help them here.

As they reached their fifth 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 map 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 silver orb shot past them, left to right, its underside casting a rainbow light of levitation across the walls. That Emily didn’t jump in fright was a 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. 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.

Indeed, beneath its surface Avalon was anything but the flawless paradise it paraded itself as being. The further they delved into the island’s inner workings, the more drones they came across, and it soon became apparent that the spherical robots were not the only machines the Fortunate Isles employed to keep their illusion alive. For all the nanomachine swarms and scuttling arachnids, however, it was the most innocuous of models that left Emily clutching Dante’s arm 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 of age, and of ambiguous gender. Its skin was an unhealthy shade of pale, its hair short tufts of greyish metal, and it wore a simple, one-piece uniform. 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 Dante feared she might have caught a sudden fever. “D—did you see her eyes?” she asked.

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