Orphic Phantasia

34: Beneath the Surface

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Dante nodded. They were like the eyes of a doll, unchanging, caught in a single, lifeless focus.

Emily glanced over her shoulder. It was still there, working away without a care for the grease and dirt on its hands. The perfect machine. The perfect slave. “It’s horrible,” she said, her voice weak. “I doubt she even knows that there’s a world outside these tunnels.”

Dante didn’t see the problem; it was just a machine, a tool modelled in the shape of a person. Technology, sufficiently advanced. “Machines don’t have sentience,” he said. “Even when they think they do, it’s just a program. They’re not people.”

Emily shot him the most vicious glare he had ever seen. “And what about when they are?” she asked through clenched teeth.

Dante didn’t have an answer. A week ago, he would have quoted the words of the Saptamatrikas at her. Today, he didn’t know what to believe. All he knew was that machines — be they robots or automatons or homunculi — were not self-aware. That they didn’t have a soul.

Emily shook her head. “Let’s get out of here,” she said. “This place is giving me a headache.”

Katrina’s trail led them to a stairwell next to a larger elevator that ferried floating vats of Ambrosia and Alchemium between floors. Avalon’s foundations, it turned out, ran deep. Dante counted half a dozen floors before the stairwell burrowed into the earth and then, after another twenty flights of stairs, they passed by a half dozen more. Unlike those above, however, with their swarms of maintenance machines, these looked abandoned, almost forgotten, and the air had turned musty and warm.

Finally, about a hundred metres into the earth, the stairwell reached its end. As Dante stepped out into the tunnel beyond, he felt the ground rumble. As he turned to find the source, he almost fell backwards in surprise: right next to them, a shuttle as large as a house was depositing a thick stream of liquid alchemium into some waiting vats. Once it was finished, the vats drifted onto the cargo elevator and began their journey to the facilities above. With a low rumble, the shuttle then started on its way, like some behemoth beast hungry for food.

“You never seen the old Torsten mines?” asked Emily.

Dante shook his head. He’d never been one for adventuring like Katrina. That she’d come all the way didn’t surprise him in the least. “I thought they were inhospitable for humans,” he said.

“Well, they’re not pleasant,” Emily replied, as another of the shuttles floated past them. “But they make a good hiding place if you run a creepy cult and like to throw people down five-mile shafts that end in molten rock.”

Dante shivered at the thought. Mining machines gorged on the earth and left it a smouldering pit of raw materials that further machines would sift through and redevelop. In centuries past, they would have transferred those materials to automated factories for conversion into transmatter. These days, they took those materials and turned them into Alchemium. Torsten’s mines, however, were very much dead. The Saptamatrikas had shut them down long before the Alchemium revolution. A society that could produce its own Alchemium, its own means of synthesising anything and everything it could need bar food, would inevitably collapse under its the weight of its own greed and self-entitlement. Or, at least, that was what the Tablet had told him and, if Avalon was anything to go by, it wasn’t a lie.

Dante checked his map. They were beneath the island’s Residential District and heading out towards the beach. He wondered if the tunnels might take him further than the sea allowed.

You’d be dead long before you hit the bottom, obvs.