Quiet meant quiet. Lapis wanted to throttle that into the scientists’ heads, but knew it would do little good. Frightened people never made the best choices.
Scand peeked at her out of the corner of his eye, then pursed his lips in disgust. Of them all, his annoyance rubbed the Meergevens the wrong way. They disliked that a teen had more poise in their current situation than they did, and she hoped no one mentioned that he hailed from the streets. She did not think Velensaans would appreciate his background, and having a way to place him in his correct social order would give them an out for their cowardice.
Good thing they had yet to meet another armed group. The breathless yammering would attract the deafest flies to them.
The scientists’ wariness grew as they scampered through rough-hewn tunnels. They preferred the broad walkways that Caardinva’s people would favor, and which held a higher risk of discovery. At least Vision avoided the ones with taller-than-human dips she and Chiddle suffered through; she did not relish hefting a bunch of people over the humps.
Of course, they might scramble over on their own, after Tia rumbled. Their fear of her nearly eclipsed that of the khentauree, which Lapis did not understand. Nor, she supposed, did she have to; she just had to deal. Peeking over her shoulder, she checked on the terron and Patch, who, accompanied by a couple of locals, brought up the rear. She understood the first gut-punch of uncertainty when confronted with a being typically relegated to frightening stories, but both the terrons and khentauree were so much more than that. After having worked at Ambercaast, why had they not realized it?
She flexed her fingers and drummed the tips back down on the tech weapon in her hands. While she preferred her blades, if they encountered mercs, her best defense would be the unfamiliar firearm. Linz, who held theirs as if they had used one on numerous missions, smiled and winked. She appreciated the support.
“OK, try that.”
Lapis glanced at Jhor, who sat on Sanna’s back as he sought a way to program around the interference’s effects. He had a wire hooked into her ear that originated from a device with a small screen and larger keyboard, a necessity because the interference now hampered even short-range sending of information. He refused to chance a corrupted code—and snapped at the scientists who thought his concern ludicrous.
She buzzed, then shook her head. “That is better, but I still can’t reach Chiddle.”
“Maybe we need to use khentauree as a relay,” he said, then eyed Velensaans, who regarded them with a petulant snarl. “Who tampered with the ubiks?”
Velensaans squinted as Scand fell back to walk next to Sanna. “Ubiks?” the rat asked. Curious as always.
“The devices used to produce the interference. They’re called that because their transmitters look like duck bills. Ubik is ‘duck’ in Meergeven.”
Lapis caught Patch’s scathing glare for the recalcitrant lead scientist. He did not bother to hide his disgust with the man, which upset the older lot, though the younger, including Bellegara, appeared to understand why. Just as well, her partner brought up the rear because she did not want to navigate him seething at them. Keeping between Tuft and the obnoxious scientist was hard enough.
He walked in front of her and Linz, with his head swiveled back to regard those chattering. She bet, if he could express human facial emotions, the glare deposited on the Meergevens would roast them into ashes. They seemed oblivious to the hate.
Vision had taken a further lead, as if placing herself out of beam-crisping range.
“It was Fraze,” Bellegara admitted.
“Fraze?” Jhor asked, as snarly as Patch ever was.
“But I don’t think he came up with the idea himself,” she said. “I think he stole it from Dr. Dagaavis and he ordered Reyanne to implement it. She didn’t want to, but Caardinva threatened her, so she did.”
Jhor blew a disgusted breath between his teeth. “Always taking advantage,” he muttered. “If Dagaavis had this idea, I’m betting it originated with his students. He always demanded they share their brilliant insights so he could take credit for them.”
“He did not,” Velensaans blurted, which only earned him rolled eyes from the others. How many had their interesting thoughts conscripted by the two leads? Whatever promised opportunity, it had broken apart on reality and left them snowed-in on a remote mountain with few options in leaving.
“Most of them survived Ambercaast,” Jhor continued. “Cassa’s working on sending the remaining expedition members back to Meergevenis, and they’re eager to go home. If I were you, I’d be more willing to help us out. The grad students aren’t going to be quiet about their experiences, and the media will run with the stories, especially since a disgraced markweza’s involved. Is your institution going to support you when the shit trickles down to them?”
“I have the backing of the administration,” he snapped. “They approved this research venture.”
“Because Eldekaarsen wanted them to?” Jhor laughed without humor. “And how long will that hold up under scrutiny?”
“The relay worked,” Sanna hummed, snagging their attention. “Chiddle says they are hiding in rooms with other khentauree, near the main camp. Khentauree are gathering information with Tamor, Brander and Dagby, and the rest are planning a rescue.” Her humming turned into an agitated clicking. “There are children.”
Children? If he kidnapped children, the rebels would tread far more carefully, now that they knew innocent youngsters sat amongst the enemy.
“Caardinva used Reyanne’s family to force her to board a ship,” Bellegara said, her voice heavy. “They had arrived a week before Caardinva went rogue, but were staying in Jiy, not at the mines. He sent his personal guard to kidnap them, and now, to keep them safe, she’s doing things she doesn’t want to do.”
That indicated Caardinva planned to evacuate and take specific scientists with him before things went to the Pit at Ambercaast. What prompted him to do that? Had his patron gotten pissy about the lack of Ree-code progress? Or had she a falling out with the markweza?
“How old are they?” Jhor asked.
“Twelve and eight. Her husband’s with them, so they’re not alone, but Caardinva refuses to let Reyanne speak with them. Fraze is having her do a lot of programming based on some notes he has, and he’s said it’s payment towards getting her family back. She’s sequestered, so we’re not certain exactly what she’s doing.”
“If Fraze has something to do with it, it’s nothing good,” Jhor said.
“Where does he have her sequestered?” Lapis asked.
“In a room on the third level above the camp. It has a code needed for entry, but only Fraze’s team seems to know it.”
“Rin isn’t going to like that,” Scand whispered as he hurried to catch up with her and Linz.
“Yeah.” She firmed her resolve to cart her apprentice aside and remind him that, even if he disagreed, to follow orders. “Who are the mercs with the blue deer logo? We saw the same one on crates at Ambercaast.”
“The blue deer is the logo for Kez Mining Ventures,” Bellegara answered when it became clear Velensaans refused to say. “I didn’t realize the markweza and Caardinva were getting supplies from them at Ambercaast. I thought everything came from Anquerette. Anyway, the guards who have it work for Lady Mesaalle but take orders from Caardinva. Anquerette initially hired an outside security company to plan our protection in the field, but now those people seem to work for him as personal guards.”
“And what, exactly, is Anquerette?”
Sanna buzz grated like rough metal on metal. “They are the markweza’s shit-smearing syndicate.”
“They are not!” Bellegara said, outraged. “Anquerette is a legitimate scientific enterprise researching ancient technology.”
Lapis decided not to step in the middle of the argument, but she believed Sanna over the scientist, even if she suspected the khentauree said it to tweak their anger. Jhor did not even groan a protest, so he agreed with the assessment. Funny, how the Dentherions were nosing about the countryside outside Jiy for a syndicate named Anquerette. Had they been correct about that?
“Do you think a rival to Anquerette sent the red tridents?”
“I don’t think so. I’m not aware of another foundation that supports historical tech research.”
Foundation? An interesting spin to justify their harmful study.
Jhor sighed. “When the red tridents showed up at Ambercaast, I thought they were sent by Eldekaarsen’s family to clean up his mess. But now, I’m not sure. I wonder if the Minq have pried anything out of the ones they captured at Ambercaast. I’m under the impression they’re unnaturally silent, especially since the Minq can be very . . . persuasive.”
Lapis nodded, but edgy concern spread through her chest. Because they had shown up at the Shivers, she assumed they had some connection with Caardinva. What if she was wrong? Hoyt had his bully boys, the markweza had Anquerette mercs, Requet had the Black Hats. So who held the red trident’s chain?
She wanted to scream. How many unknown enemies did they have?
The greeting between the freed khentauree and those sequestered in the three rooms made Lapis smile. They all happily welcomed each other and made a production of happily hailing Tuft, too. Velensaans and several scientists frowned at the show, as if they did not believe mechanical beings could behave in such a manner, and attempted to puzzle out the strange conduct. Bellegara studied them, then turned to her.
“They sound happy.”
“They are.” She shrugged. The woman did not have a chance to question her; Caitria hurried up, her interest in the swelling eye.
As an Abastion rebel led them to the restroom, Lapis and the rest of the newly arrived humans got a brief look at the three spacious rooms that made up their hiding place. They reminded her of Jhor’s research lab in Ambercaast, with consoles and screens set on multiple desks and equipment scattered about, but they also had areas she associated with a home, such as the unkempt kitchen. Instead of sofas, large pillows in a rainbow of colors lay in various places, and she guessed the khentauree used them to bed down. Each one had personal items scattered near or on them; books, bright-dyed cloth, pages, drinking glasses with paper flowers among the most obvious.
The tiled floor had cracks repaired, and the walls fresh enough, the khentauree must repaint every so often. One unbroken stretch contained blobs and slashes of paint, as if a painter experimented with color and texture. Bellegara paid close attention to the display, while Velensaans frowned at it.
He liked frowning, this Velensaans.
The bathroom, long neglected, did not improve with the influx of human waste. Lapis grimaced while using it, reluctant to touch anything. She understood that since the khentauree did not use it, they did not need to clean it, but she wished the coders had placed that in their caretaker code.
When she emerged, the scientists had separated themselves from the rebel group and the khentauree, the older ones huddled against a wall in the largest room and regarding all with suspicion, the younger standing in front of them, behaving like guards. Grumpy and grumbly at the distrust, she sought out Rin. Patch and Jhor and Sanna could relate events without her presence, giving her a chance to avoid growling at the ungrateful people.
She wandered up to Mint and Tia, who waited next to a closed portal wide enough for their girth. They had a lively conversation with a blank-faced Scand. Her heart pattered an unhealthy, dread-inspired beat.
“Scand, where’s Rin.”
“Mint says he and Ty had words, and Tearlach put them in different rooms to cool off. They’re both gone.”
She looked at Mint, who sped through his signs.
“He says they were arguing about the children. Ty wanted to immediately go rescue them and said nasty things because Tearlach and Vory told him they needed to plan things. He got mad Rin sided with them.”
She rubbed at her eyes. So Ty, not Rin, decided to defy orders, and her little brother, as averse to tattling as he was, went after him rather than tell someone. “When did you realize they were gone?”
“He says he just checked because you arrived.”
Wondrous. “Thank you, Mint,” she said, though she wanted to rail at him for not keeping Rin close. Of course, that was not his job, either. Brander, Dagby . . . no, they were scouting with local khentauree, gathering information for the group’s next move. They should have planned to keep a watchful eye on a slippery rat, too. Both knew better.
Gritting her teeth, she marched to the tight circle where rebels spoke in hushed tones. She smooshed in next to Patch; he raised his arm and set it against her back as talking ceased.
“I’m going after Ty and Rin,” she told them. “Any idea which exit they might have taken?”
Every eye immediately reverted to the two places where the separated teens should still be sulking. Tearlach’s pissed cursing silenced the room. Patch eyed her, and she held up her hand to forgo his caution. She was in no mood for it.
“They are not gone so long,” Tuft said, his head swiveled towards her. “NZ88301 says the brown-haired one went first, using the small exit.” He pointed at a narrow doorway that Lapis had assumed led into a closet. “The red-haired one went after.”
Rin should have said something rather than sneak out, too. “Thanks, NZ88301,” she said, not knowing which one went by that moniker, and headed for the door.
“Lanth—” Tearlach began. She hoped her glare burnt his ass to cinders. No one attempted to stop her as she whisked through the doorway and stormed down a corridor whose grooved metal sides bulged out in odd places.
It was her fault, for not throttling caution into the rat. She would rectify her mistake.
Racing feet; she whirled. Linz. They caught her step, a half-smile on their face.
“Remind me never to piss you off,” they said with dry amusement. They raised their weapon. “I’m a better shot, so I’m going with you.”
She smacked their upper arm, at once relieved and annoyed. “Shouldn’t you be helping Jhor?”
They shook their head. “Because they’re using a physical connection, there isn’t much I can do. So I might as well be useful and snicker while you tear into them.”
Lapis pursed her lips, then paused and cocked her head. Tuft pranced to a halt and looked down at her.
“You do not know your way,” he told her. “I can scan for them and ask khentauree if they have seen them.”
“Thank you,” she said, uncertain how to take his interest in finding the two. He slipped past and into the lead, helpfully glowing. She met Linz’s eyes; the rebel shrugged. So be it. They followed, weapons ready, alert.
The corridors Tuft took were all grooved-metal, cylindrical passages with non-slip textures on the floor. When Lapis pictured mines, she thought of heavy equipment, rough rock, scattered stone debris, and veins in walls. Both Ambercaast and the Shivers had areas that did not reflect her stereotype, and she wondered how many people lived within them. It seemed so strange to have living arrangements in toxic mines, of all places.
Maybe Kez, with his cultish devotion to the Stars, needed to hide the true nature of his worship as far away from Taangis as possible. Grand photos with prominent members of society would come back to haunt them if word leaked about this sanctuary’s commitment to his conceit.
Tuft seemed to know exactly which way to go, too. She did not have the impression he hunted for the teens, as much as he hurried to catch up. How many khentauree witnessed their escapade and related what they saw when he asked? She needed to thank all of them, if she ever met them. Not one stood in any doorway they passed, or in the tunnel they trotted.
Maybe she should have Rin do something nice for NZ88301, and then something general for all Shivers khentauree, as an apology for endangering them. After all, if Caardinva’s people caught him and Ty, she doubted either could remain silent about why they were in the mines. Telling them where khentauree victims could be found . . .
That explained Tuft’s interest.
So Rin should do something nice for Tuft, too. Or, if the khentauree did not have a job for a helpful street rat, she could nose about, see what she could find in Jiy. Did the community centers need an extra runner? Or perhaps she should ask Maydie and Movique for a task. Next holiday, he could stand guard at the privies, making certain all the drunks made it inside to piss instead of coating their neighbor’s shoes.
Would serve him right, causing them to worry. Too bad she could not plop Ty right next to him.
The corridor sloped up, and the height shocked her. Did they not have to go down to reach the camp? Instead, they neared an opening with enough non-Tuft illumination that she knew other interests produced it.
The khentauree’s glow dwindled and he stopped, then swiveled his head to her. Lapis crept up to him and he pointed.
Two silhouettes pressed into the ground, bumpy heads raised to peer around railing poles, hissing at each other as angrily as any catty confrontation. She wanted to bap them both.
“Are there any other people around?” she mouthed, hoping Tuft heard her. She did not want to lose the opportunity to scare the two into an early grave. He shook his head, and she smiled. Whatever he noticed in her expression concerned him, since he focused on Linz, but they only shrugged.
She tiptoed ahead, reluctantly admitting if they shrieked, it would bring unwanted attention, and planted herself behind them. She stood just inside the doorway, folded her arms, and lifted her boot.
Tap tap tap.
“I think you’re delusional,” Ty muttered.
“Not,” Rin snapped. “But lookie there. See that’n rope tied to the . . . the . . .”
Tap tap tap.
He trailed off and jerked up to look over his shoulder. His eyes widened.
Ty flipped over, banged his head on the bottom rail, and slapped a hand over the hurt spot. He had the decency to pale as his eyes rounded.
“Oh, that is not going to help you, Rin,” she gritted.
“You wantin’ t’ rescue them kids?”
She squatted down, hands dangling between her legs. Linz joined her, though the other rebel’s snickering did not lend to the anger she wanted to portray. This was a breach of trust, and she would smash that into his thick skull if she had to. “I do, but not like this. Caardinva isn’t playing around. He’s here because the woman paying for all this,” and she swirled her index finger through the air, “is a descendant of Maphezet Kez, and she wants the immortality code her ancestor was working on. We’re dealing with delusional, maybe insane, people who don’t care who dies in their search for a warped godhood.”
Both teens looked over her head, and while Ty shrank back, interest flashed through Rin’s gaze.
“You helpin’ too?” he asked the mechanical being.
“I am helping find you,” Tuft said in a low buzz.
“D’ya wanna help us rescue them kids? They’s young n’ scared. I think they’s with them’s dad.”
Lapis nodded. “They’re the family of a scientist. She’s being forced to do things for Caardinva to keep them safe. He isn’t going to let them go easily, and there’s no guarantee their mom will remain unharmed if they leave the camp.”
“Mayhap not, but they’s not guarded right now.”
What did he mean by that?
“I’s bettin’ that when them khentauree went berserk, the guards had other things to worry about. Looks like the dad’s searchin’ fr somethin’ in the packs, not findin’ it. And lookie around. There ain’t many, not like I’d suspect, given the number of tents n’ all.”
Lapis firmed her lips and crawled to the edge, silently icking over the grime, and peeked over. Ty squeaked and Rin sucked in a breath; why so afraid? Oh. Tuft’s transparency made him difficult to perceive in the darkness, and neither had experienced it yet.
The main camp rested within a vertical shaft that had five levels. They were at the top, looking down through dusty air at four others with walkways that circled the entire tier. Each level had two railed airwalks going from one side to the other, intercepting a central platform that surrounded a metal column that ran to the ceiling. Random crates and boxes sat at odd intervals on levels two and three, though parts of four and five had collapsed.
At the well-lit bottom stood house-sized, grungy white tents with tall, thin metal poles scattered between. Red tents curved around the white ones on the far side, blue tents on the nearest. A scant few people clustered among the red ones, waving hands in strained excitement. Five stood at a humongous tunnel entrance, shouting something that echoed off the walls, but remained faint and unintelligible. None appeared armed, so the mercs must be somewhere else.
She did not see any khentauree, either. Had they restrained all the ones they caught in other spaces? That might make quickly freeing them more difficult.
“Rin is right,” the khentauree said. “Many hundred invaded our home. The armed ones are not there, but they should return soon. It is strange, they leave their camp unprotected.”
“I think they have protections,” Linz said. “Look at the wire fence. It has blue sparks, like you’d see in a tech barrier. It’s probably meant to zap khentauree into unconsciousness if they attack.”
“Rin, Ty, have you seen anyone going in and out of the tents? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of people down there,” Lapis asked as she eyed the second tier. White tents lined the walkway between doorways, nearly blocking the path along the railing. She caught glimpses of a jacketed man moving about in one, actions frantic as he dumped stuff and scrounged around. What did he search for? She did not see children with him, so she wondered why Rin thought he was the dad.
“Nah,” Rin said, turning back to the site below. “This here’s how they was, when we arrived.”
She nodded and scanned the levels. Caardinva must have planned on restoring the mine before reaching the Shivers, or else why have modern, unrusted scaffolding? Ropes, pulleys, and five cranes mingled with still-standing but warped ancient equipment. She noted crates and containers of various sizes swinging mid-air or sitting on wooden planks. Cables and chains dangled down, some reaching to the ground below.
“I think they were planning to stay for a while,” she said.
Linz settled their chin on top of their folded hands and peered about. “If they kidnapped the husband and children of a scientist, someone’s going to miss them. That’s sensational enough to attract unwanted attention from Meergevenis and Dentheria. If we tracked them here, so will law enforcement.”
“Maybe that’s why they rushed this,” Lapis hazarded. “Maybe they wanted to get snowed in because they knew others would be coming. Then the scientists would have no other options but to work as Caardinva dictated, because they had no way out. But Stars bad luck, it happened before they got the food supplies they needed.”
“There are others,” Tuft said, pointing. Lapis followed his sight; down on the fourth level, she noticed khentauree crowded in a doorway, Brander and Dagby and Tamor with them. “Revi says to listen.”
She frowned and held her breath; yes. Zippy sounds between crashes reverberated off the walls. The dad heard them, too; he hustled out to the railing and peered over, his hands gripping the top so hard she could see the fingers whiten from her position.
“They passed a reconstruction room. We guard it, for the parts are by Gedaavik’s hand. Our guards say the blue deer fight with the black-clad men against the red tridents. There are scientists with them, but they do nothing but cower. They come here, but I don’t know why. There are no others to help them.”
A beam of light from the entrance struck the side of a white tent. Lapis saw the five rush into the tunnel as more rays burst through.
The Abastion rebels. They were breaking through the snow. Shit.
“Brander says we need to go tell the others,” Rin huffed.
“Tuft, can you do a relay, like Sanna did?” Lapis asked.
“Yes. You will stay here?”
“We need to get someone down there to warn the Abastions who are digging the snow out of the entrance, and we need to help that family get the kids to safety. The rooms we just left. How safe are they?”
“They are safe. When the doors are closed, they are inaccessible from the outside without a passcode.”
“Can we get the family up here to this floor?”
“There is no easy way. There are back hallways and ramps, but you will encounter the enemy.”
“Dagby’s going to warn the diggers,” Rin said as he signed back to Brander.
Lapis nodded, her gaze on the dangling ropes and chains. Some appeared old, most new, and she bet those would bear her weight. “Is there a safe room on the second level?”
“There are many. Luthier’s khentauree prefer to reside there.”
“I don’t want to barge into someone’s home.”
Tuft cocked his head. “Barge into?”
“We’re not exactly guests. Our presence wasn’t asked for.”
“No, but you wish to help young ones,” he said. “Gedaavik told us, young ones are precious, whether khentauree young or human young, because the future is precious.”
Cyan beams lit the ground floor. Screams erupted from the people around the red tents, and they rushed after the five into the tunnel.
“They’s on the second level, too!” Rin popped up, used the top rail as a jumping platform, and leapt for a rope. He swung towards the man, who held his hands up while mercs in black armor pointed tech weapons at him, and slid down fast enough, Lapis did not envy the resulting burns.