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. “It’s horrible,” she said, her voice weak. “I doubt she even knows 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. The Tablet referred to them as ‘homunculi’. 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, talking squirrels, giant dragon-ships or maintenance workers—were not self-aware. Or, to put it in Shelley-friendly terms, that they did not 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 into a stairwell next to a larger elevator that ferried floating vats of programmable matter from the levels below. Dante counted the floors as they descended—Avalon’s foundations ran deeper than expected.

“I’m guessing it’s a good idea to avoid the elevators,” said Emily.

According to Dante’s calculations, they were a good hundred metres underground by the time Katrina’s trail led out of the stairwell and into another series of corridors. Unlike those above, however, the air here felt musty and warm, and was filled with a distant rumble of machinery. Next to them, one of the transport drones exited the elevator and continued on its preordained journey. Emily started after it.

“Kat must’ve followed this thing to the nearest port,” she said. “But I figure you’d worked that out already.”

Dante wiped away a sheen of sweat with the cuff of his shirt. In truth, it hadn’t crossed his mind—he’d never much cared to research the workings of underground communities—but he mumbled an affirmative, regardless. He’d passed through something like a port during their final day of exams, but he couldn’t smell the scent of the ocean here, let alone hear its churning roar.

“I wonder if Bolventor is a mining town,” mused Emily. “That would explain why it’s so far underground.” She turned to Dante. “You ever seen the old Torsten mines?”

Dante shook his head. Unlike Katrina, he’d never been one for adventuring, so all he knew about deepground mining operations was that they involved automated machines gorging on the earth and redeveloping its raw materials into various forms of transmatter. “Aren’t they inhospitable to humans?” he asked.

The transport reached a junction and waited for an identical twin to cross ahead of it. “Well, they’re not pleasant,” Emily replied, “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.”

Shivering at the thought, 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.