3: Torsten Underground
They started exploring the area for signs of the ruins. Mr al-Hakim had supplied them with coordinates, but every passage they thought might lead to their goal either ended in a wall or looped back on itself. Dante wondered what the machines must have been thinking when they made these tunnels. Some people said they had spent so long underground that their original programming had corrupted, and some tales even spoke of rudimentary sentience, hungry clouds that devoured all in their path. The Tablet, which explained so much, said nothing.
Maybe that was what had awaited them in the tunnels, six years ago? Or perhaps something worse. The machines had dug deep, after all…
The familiar click of Oscar Whittlesey’s snakeskin boots alerted Dante to his fellow initiate’s approach long before his beaming smile turned the corner ahead of them. “Ah, gentlemen, a pleasure to see you down here,” he said, clapping his hands in front of him — Oscar had a way with melodrama to match even Byron, and the fashion sense to go with it. Even down here in the catacombs, he looked ready to greet royalty. “I presume you seek the ruins too? Or have you come here for some sight-seeing?”
“I, myself, am finding these tunnels a treasure trove of tantalisations,” replied Byron, “though I fear my companions here are blind to the wonders.”
So it had started, the duel of wits, one verbose blade against another: Byron d’Arcadie, the vagrant from the shadows of Malkuth, and Oscar Whittlesey, whose light copper skin and piercing eyes suggested a Donaran ancestry, much like Dante’s own.
“Have you perchance crossed any hazardous terrain to make it this far?” he asked.
“Hazardous indeed, though not nearly enough to dissuade our enthusiasm. Yourself?”
“A tunnel torn by claws greater in length than we are height, my friend. I fear there are some wicked fiends deep inside these darkened depths, more than even the esteemed al-Hakim brothers might be able to handle. Perhaps we should make haste to our destination? My cellular informs me it is over yonder, yet all I perceive is a dead end.”
“I myself have found this mystery most perplexing. However, perhaps the answer is simple one, and what we believe a wall is nothing of the sort.”
Oscar held up his cellular. His jovial face scrunched up in confusion. “I will think you’ll find it is.”
Byron strode up to the wall, placed his hand on it. “Certainly, and, to the touch, irrefutably, but our touch can deceive us as easily as our eyes. Observe.”
He stepped forward — and through the wall, as if it were nothing but an immaterial projection. Dante reached for his visor; if the wall was nothing but a trick of the light, like the avatar he met that morning, it would fail to register.
Instead, his visor reaffirmed what their cellulars had already told them: it was a solid wall of transmatter.
Byron returned a moment later, a victorious grin on his face.
My brain automatically wired itself to hear Matt Berry whenever Oscar speaks.