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Stories from the Verse
Old Verses New
Chapter 62: Hastings 64
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By midday they had rendezvoused with Starson's other companions. Lauren found these particularly interesting. Qualick was the obvious enigma; he had four arms, but was clearly of human ancestry. Dorelle Timbata, on the other hand, was human, a black girl probably a few years younger than Starson. Spire was somewhere between the two, looking more like an elf-maid than a woman; there was something about her which made Lauren nervous, but she took it in stride. Introductions were brief, almost perfunctory, and the group continued on its journey. They talked about their plans as they walked.
"Is it really there?" Starson asked.
Qualick answered. "Indeed it is. It's a big building, but not a high one."
"What are our chances?"
"Pretty good, I'd say," said Dorelle. "Spire and I have our key plaques, and we were actually able to get pretty close to the building without anything reacting."
"All right. But remember, it's supposed to be tough, and I don't want us to get sloppy." Starson shot a glance at Qualick. "It's not worth getting killed. Front door?" This question seemed to be addressed to Spire, who answered.
"Yes, front; didn't see back. Might have garage, probably more trouble, won't go where we want."
"I'd agree," Dorelle offered. "The front door seemed the best way inside."
"Once we're in–in fact, when we're close–we keep alert. Qualick will take point, and have all three weapons drawn; but save the power on the buzzer until we actually get into a fight. Grarg and I will flank him, and Spire and Lauren will cover the rear. Chicker and Dorelle are in the center."
"You know, I can fight," Dorelle said.
"Yes, but you're more important for what you do with the ancient machines. Spire can do a lot, but some of them won't recognize her. I expect we'll have a lot of security systems to pass, and we'll need you to do it. Any questions?"
There seemed to be no questions, so the troop marched on in silence.
It was in less than an hour that they reached their destination, which was indeed what Lauren would have called a large one-story modern building probably abandoned and badly overgrown, but with windows and doors still intact. There was no sign as to what might be inside, and every indication that it had been undisturbed for uncounted years.
The others fell into place as if they had done it many times before; Lauren found herself in the rear position beside Spire. The group approached slowly and cautiously. There had been a chain link fence, most of it pulled down by the encroaching forest. Curiously, the gate remained across the road. Qualick stopped about ten feet from it.
"The gate?" he asked.
Starson seemed to be surveying the scene; Dorelle began giving advice. "There's enough of a path to the right, and the fence is collapsed about ten meters in. That's how we got through."
Starson nodded. The group moved that direction, and passed through the brush in single file. Spire indicated for Lauren to go ahead of her, so she was following Dorelle as they wormed their way into the undergrowth, over the collapsed fence, and back to the road. The group reformed, and continued toward the building.
As they reached the steps, they again halted. Chicker and Spire moved forward to check the area, and then the party advanced to the door.
"All right, Spire, Dorelle, do what you can."
The two ladies produced from their packs what appeared to be stacks of credit cards, all different types, all different colors, with stripes and bars and patterns too numerous to mention. Taking turns, they plugged these into a slot by the door and waited a moment. Each time the card came back out, they put it away and tried another. It took about fifteen seconds for each card, and seeing the stack of cards available Lauren decided it was time to rest. She sat on the step. Qualick sat next to her.
"This is why we have some hope of getting inside when others failed," he said. "We have these ancient keys; we have collected many of them. The ancients used these to control most of their machines."
Lauren reflected on them. Obviously they weren't keys; they were probably some kind of identification card, probably with type codes or something. If you had a police card you could get inside certain buildings; if you had a military card, you could enter others. Civilians would probably have cards of different kinds, too, although exactly how that would work she wasn't sure. You wouldn't really want every plumber in the state to be able to enter your house to check pipes whenever he wanted. But probably most of the places that were still around after whatever it was that destroyed this civilization were either military or high industry. Military cards probably opened a lot of them, and law enforcement cards would open most of the rest.
Suddenly there was a sound behind them, and Starson spoke. "Great work, ladies. I knew you could do it."
Lauren turned to see the open door; Spire spoke. "Did nothing. Door opened."
"Well," Qualick said, "let's not question our good fortune. Let's get inside before the door closes." And being on point, he walked inside as if he expected everyone else to fall in rank around him.
Surprisingly, they did. Lauren scrambled to her feet, grabbed her wagon, and with a telekinetic lift to clear the few steps pulled it inside behind them. She wondered whether a door which unexpectedly opened led to a trap, but decided she should just be wary and watch their backs rather than question their good fortune. Perhaps one of the cards triggered something in the system, but didn't open it immediately.
Inside was a corridor running straight back into the building, with doors and crossing hallways to either side. The team moved slowly down the hall, systematically checking each door. This was again time consuming, as once again the key cards had to be tried; but Starson said not to waste too much time on any one door, rather to stick with the cards that had been most useful in the past. Once they had surveyed the entire building generally, they would come back and tackle particular doors. None of the doors opened.
There was one door already open, at the top of a flight of stairs. Starson said they should finish surveying the floor first, and then go deeper. The others agreed; it seemed that Starson was the strongest voice in an ostensible democracy: he told the others what they should do, and they generally did it not because he was in charge but because it didn't seem necessary to argue. Lauren asked Qualick why they would continue fruitlessly on this level when the way was open to descend to the next.
"Oh, there are several reasons," he said. "We don't know that we're alone here, and so we want to be as sure as we can that there's nothing behind us if we have to run. And usually the deeper you get into these places, the stranger and more dangerous things become, so it's best to become familiar with the basic ideas of a place while you're still close to the exit."
"I see," Lauren said.
"And the top floor here is likely to have the most light, because there are some windows and maybe some skylights, while the next floor will have at most little windows at the tops of the walls, and below that, if there is more below that, we have to either rely on the strange lights of the ancients or bring our own."
"That makes sense."
"Also," Qualick seemed the sort of person who, when he said there were many reasons for something, had to prove he was right.
"That's all right," Lauren interrupted. "There are good reasons."
But there weren't any other doors which they were able to open, nor anything of interest in the halls. So they rested at the top of the stairs, checked their gear again, and descended to the next floor. Lauren easily used her telekinesis to lift the cart behind her as she pulled it forward and down to the next landing. Here they ended up seated on the steps for about twenty minutes while Spire and Dorelle attempted to open the doors into the floor. They were not successful, and so the descent continued to the next floor, and eventually the next.
On the fourth floor below ground, the doors were closed but not locked, and the group stepped into a corridor lit by flickering fluorescents. Bracing the doors open, they quickly fell back into their routine, moving through the halls and trying each door. Still they produced nothing.
"Maybe we should give up," Qualick said. "Maybe that's why no one's ever really raided this place–there's nothing here to take, or if there is no one can get to it."
"We're not beaten yet," Starson said, and they continued checking doors.
As they rounded a corner Lauren realized that they were headed back toward the stairs, not having opened a single room in the building. There were still several doors between them and the staircase, and she wondered whether they would go deeper or return to the upper levels and attempt to force some of the doors. They stopped by the second door in this hallway, and Dorelle prepared to insert her first card into the slot. As she turned it over in her hand, the door slid open; apparently they were being invited to see what was in this room.
You know, Grarg's thoughts came into everyone's mind, if they close this door behind us we might be hard-pressed to get out again.
Qualick hesitated only a moment before passing through the frame, and Starson followed him, and each of the others, with Lauren last entering the room, her cart behind her. She parked the cart in the doorway, hoping that the incredibly strong polymer of which it was constructed would withstand the pressure if the door closed.
A child, probably about the age of her middle child Tiffany when she last saw her, sat in a chair by a table covered with television-like screens. He looked up at Starson Coombrick, and said, "You're like me, aren't you?"
The others stared at him, but Lauren remembered that sensation she'd had when she arrived. "No," she said, stepping around to the side of the group. "I am."
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with eight other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #94: Novel Meetings. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: