Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Secret of Atlantis

Citadel World, book 2
The Secret of Atlantis
by Kir Lukovkin

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Release - February 26, 2018


The cold wind blew swathes of snow into Paul’s face.
He closed his eyes and nearly fell to the ground from the blow he received.
“Where are you going!” someone growled in front of him.
Paul pulled on the reins of his bay horse. The other riders behind him followed suit. They shouted at each other, conveying the command to halt along the chain of riders. Paul rose in his saddle, trying to make out what was going on at the head of the column. Excited voices could be heard, sounding like they were in arguing fiercely. Lanky Pete rode up on his old nag and asked him about what was going on ahead.
“I don’t know,” Paul muttered. “We wait.”
Lanky Pete grimaced unhappily and rode on. Paul stared at his retreating back, dumbly. It was cold and all he wanted to do was to return to their Retreat, stretch his legs in front of the big fireplace and drink some hot ale. The horses snorted, flicking their ears and nervously looking around. Paul turned to see what his bay horse Duchess was looking at and examined the edge of the Canal—a long depression that ran almost as far as the horizon. Nothing, just a gray line that grew misshapen as it stretched out in the haze.  Duchess was clearly getting nervous.

“Now, now,” Paul stroked the horse’s neck.
Lanky Pete returned and rode back towards the tail end of the caravan without stopping. A cry came from the front for everyone to get ready as the caravan was about to continue on its way.  Paul could not wait to get going. This was all because of the accursed cold. Everyone’s hands had already gone blue from the freezing temperature, chilled down to the bone, their bodies barely obeying them. There was no clothing that could save you when you spent more than a day up on the surface.
The caravan crawled on, gradually twisting its way around some unknown obstacle. The reason for the stop became immediately obvious. Paul could not help but shake his head, thanking the Almighty for the fact that he was traveling on an empty stomach. A corpse lay in the middle of the Canal, so disfigured that it was impossible to tell whether it was a man or a woman. As the column moved on past the body, Paul managed to overcome his disgust to have a closer look. The cadaver lay in a fetal position. The flesh had been gnawed all the way down to the bone. It was difficult to tell whether this was a righteous man or one of the possessed. Death is the great equalizer.
Paul stared at the edge of the canal ahead of him again. Everyone in their Retreat new that the Great Canal divided the plain in two. A shallow river flowed along it in the summer, while the bottom was covered with a layer of ice and snow in winter. It was an umbilical cord that carried caravans to the Retreat from the Mainland. If anything was to happen to the Canal, it would be the end of the Retreat.
Paul gloomily considered this every time the latest mission set off on its way. Paul had thought about this the first time he joined one of the missions too...
The horse of the leading rider suddenly reared violently. The rider could not hold on and fell onto the ground, beneath the hooves of the horse behind him. There was a commotion up front for a few instants, with pushing, shoving and shouts of frustration. Paul barely held on to Duchess, when she tried to bolt away at a frantic gallop. He pulled on the reins with all his might and leaned in towards the horses head, patting her on the neck. Duchess' whole body trembled, and it was not because of the cold.
“What's wrong with you?” Paul exclaimed, trying to calm the mare down, but she whinnied loudly.
The other horses in the column replied, as they fidgeted nervously and attempted to rear or bolt. One horse managed to jump up on a cart and knock it onto its side. There was a complete mess up ahead and some sort of serious obstacle.
The caravan stood still. A Captain rushed past Paul, shouting commands and trying to impose order. Duchess finally calmed and that was when Paul looked up. The banks of the Canal were covered with strange mounds under the snow. Duchess nearly stepped on one of these and immediately shied away, neighing wildly again.
Paul took a closer look and understood what the matter was. The horse's hoof had randomly swept some snow from a mound and a human hand appeared. It was as white as a block of salt.
The captain kept shouting, “Order! Order, you idiots! Get back into the column!”
And then Paul noticed them.
A human figure appeared far away upon the left edge of the Canal. It looked so small that it was barely the size of his little finger could cover it. Then, another appeared by its side, as if it came from underground. Then another and another, and then the edges were lined with silent figures.
Paul felt the cold reach its tentacles right into his heart. His hands almost let go of the reins. He thought that he shouted, but only a weak croak emerged from his throat.
The figures did not move, but more and more of them appeared with every passing second. All the while, the people at the bottom of the Canal were too preoccupied with getting everything in order as their horses trampled the frozen corpses underfoot.
Paul looked up at the sky for some reason, as if he was hoping for help from some unknown gods. A thick layer of clouds hung low and silent up above. He directed his gaze back down to look ahead and the figures started to move. It was as if a gray wave rapidly flowed down the edges of the canal in complete silence.
It was only then that a belated cry of “Possessed!” sounded nearby.
The cry was caught up by a multitude of voices along the body of the column, like a sudden convulsion. There was a glint of bared swords. Paul remembered that his blade was also sheathed by his saddle. It seemed to be a pathetic toy compared to the hordes bearing down from above.
“Here comes death,” a thought flickered through his mind. The wave of possessed on the right reached the canal first and smashed into the side of the caravan. The howling, shouts, screams of the horses and the clang of steel got even louder. Barely a moment had passed when the same happened on the left-hand side.
The faces of the closest possessed were so near that it seemed that they could be touched with an outstretched hand. However, attracting their attention had to be avoided at all costs. Standing out among the crowd was also a recipe for disaster, as the possessed were predators that attacked caravans to satisfy the only primitive and primal feeling that they had remaining.
Paul struck Duchess on her haunches and flew along the column at a gallop. The possessed smashed into the caravan behind his back. People screamed in terror as they swung their swords. Paul rode on ahead without looking back. It was obvious what was going on there anyway—the humans were entwined in a bloody battle for their lives against beasts in human form. The waves of attackers rolled down the slopes faster than Duchess could gallop. In a moment or two they would collide, crushing the column in a vice-like grip of death.
He had almost reached the end of the caravan where he could already see Magister Choo and his escort, who had quickly separated themselves from the masses. It looked like the Magister was planning to slip away from the claws of the predators. However, the possessed were already rushing to cut them off from both sides. The first of them leapt with an unbelievable speed and threw one of the Magister’s bodyguards off his horse.
Duchess reared again and there was a loud crunch as her front hooves smashed back into the ground. A braying scream rang out. Paul turned his horse towards the inside of the column, trying to hide from the possessed. Chaos was everywhere, death feasted as madness snorted with laughter. The Brothers of the Order fought back as hard as they could, but their experience as warriors was of no matter, as the enemy overwhelmed them with their numbers. For every possessed that fell, two rushed in to take its place. The monsters were chewing upon still living humans. They were filthy, they looked scrawny, but they were merciless beasts. Their strength was unbelievable. It seemed that they never got tired and that they were ready to engage in endless slaughter just to satisfy their hunger.
And then, Paul felt himself being dragged from the saddle. He hacked away with his blade, but the grasping fingers kept dragging him to the ground even though he continued to desperately fight back. Duchess bolted, kicking through anything in her way. Two or three of the possessed had Paul in their deathly grip. His foot was stuck in the stirrup and he would have been torn apart if his boot had not slid off.
Duchess galloped away. A foul, blood-drenched maw hovered above Paul. He stabbed out with his blade and pierced the throat of the monster. A gushing stream of blood burst upon Paul’s face and chest. The blood suddenly warmed him, giving him a moment of calm so he could look around. It would have been better if he had not—the furious battle had become a massacre, with the victorious possessed feasting on the bodies of their enemies and finishing off the few that still resisted in groups. The horses had all fallen or run away. There were few people left that were still capable of screaming in pain and fear. The possessed growled and squealed. And then, Paul’s shoulder was in agony.
He had no time to even turn his head when he felt another bite sink into his forearm. Paul screamed, trying to unsuccessfully fight back and preparing to meet his death, when something inexplicable happened.
A strange hissing sound rang out, followed by a low drone, as if the air itself became thicker, twisting into a horizontal whirlwind. Paul's ears got blocked. The growls of the possessed changed to howls of terror. The monsters started to run away in a panic.
Paul could not gather the strength to rise so he just looked up again. The gray sky had turned pink. His head spun. It was as if he was starting to fall into the heavens but just could not do it. The possessed ran past, gesticulating and swinging their arms wildly—for some reason, they were engulfed by flames as if they were living torches. Gradually, the screams quietened down and the wind began to howl over the canal again. Paul felt the cold but he did not care, he was not afraid of freezing. He lay there and looked up at the sky and could not understand why he was not dying. Death should have come long ago, as well as a meeting with God, but neither seemed to be happening.
The snow crackled nearby and the sky was suddenly obscured by a face—a wide face, somewhat ungainly, with deep, dark eyes and raven-colored hair, adorned with a scraggly beard. It was very pale. The stranger examined Paul with a calm and uncaring gaze, as if he was an inanimate object.
“Where are you from?” the stranger asked at last.
Paul could not answer. He tried to move his lips, but he was unable to. His strength had completely abandoned him.
“Blink if you want to say “yes”. Do you understand?” the stranger instructed next.
Paul blinked slowly.
“All right. Where are you from? Are you from the west?”
Paul kept staring at the stranger.
“From the east?”
He blinked.
“The outpost at the foot of the mountain?”
Paul used his eyes to say “yes” yet again.
The stranger stood up, looking to the east and adjusted the unusual weapon on his belt—it looked similar to a crossbow, but instead of a bow and string, the stock featured a short tube with some sort of light blinking on the side.
Once he finished with his weapon, the stranger turned to Paul.
“Try not to die before the end of the day.”
And then he vanished.
Paul thought that he would not manage to fulfill his request. However, the stranger returned after some time had passed, pushing a cart. After performing some manipulations, the stranger lifted Paul and placed him inside. There was someone else in the cart but Paul could not see who it was as he could not turn his head.
The stranger left for a second time and he did not come back for a while. But then he brought a horse up to the cart, harnessed it and set off on his way.
Paul lay on the rough planks of the cart and gazed up into the pink clouds. Why were the clouds still pink? Why? He could not think of a coherent answer. Probably because it had got very cold. Paul could not feel his arms and legs and could not stop himself from constantly drifting off to sleep. His mind became cloudy, his thoughts all jumbled up and repeating themselves as his eyelids became heavier with every passing moment.
His consciousness finally sank into the fog in its entirety and then faded to black, as if a candle had been blown out.


When Paul finished telling his tale, the dark-skinned Abbot tenderly topped up his cup with nectar and ordered him to drink it all. Paul obediently did so. The Abbot nodded, with obvious satisfaction.
“Excellent, brother. You have been of great help to me.”
Paul carefully lowered the cup onto a tray—he was slow and clumsy when he moved due to the bandages around his shoulders. It would take a long time until he was healthy again. The wounds and bruises would affect him for a while to come.
The Abbot turned towards the wall, which was covered with a curtain and gestured towards it.
“If you please.” 
Rick was relieved to get out from behind the curtain. The whole idea of hiding made him immediately uneasy, but he did not want to argue with the man in charge of the situation. As soon as Paul saw Rick, his exhausted face went white with fear. The young man's full lips trembled, while his fingers frantically gripped the arms of the chair.
The Abbot smiled, showing his completely control of the situation.
“Do you recognize your savior?”
Paul nodded quickly. Rick carefully examined his face: the young man was thin, like many in the Retreat, with no distinguishing features apart from two. While the first one was a particularly intelligent gaze that could be explained through a natural astuteness, the second was so strikingly unusual that it made him stand out like a white crow. A literal white crow—Paul's hair looked as white as the moonlight. This was not just the hair of someone who went white with age or the pale straw color of a blond, but the milky white and pearly hair of an albino.
Rick had never seen people like that. He quietly lowered himself into an armchair.
“How is your shoulder doing?” the Abbot asked Paul.
“Thank you, Master Kiernan, it's much better.”
Two weeks had passed since Rick had brought Paul and another pair of brother monks to the gates of the dome which they called the Retreat. One of the brothers had died on the way. The other was disabled until the end of his days. For a time, Paul's life had also hung by a thread—the wounds turned out to be very dangerous. But he managed to drag himself out of it. It did come at a great cost, however—he had lost half of his weight, walked with a pronounced limp and had lost a pair of toes to frostbite, according to the healers. Both of his arms were now tightly bandaged from shoulder to elbow. He could barely straighten them.
“That's good. We all prayed for you.”
“Your mercy knows no bounds, my Abbot,” Paul whispered reverently.
“Stop that. You are like a son to me. Glory to the Holy Maus that you are still with us. The Almighty favors you and it was he that sent this good man to you in your time of need.”
Rick glanced at Kiernan with reproach. But the Abbot continued with his line of thought, which smoothly grew into a grandiose speech about the Holy Maus and his teachings. Once he finished so he could wet his throat with a drink, Paul asked, “Abbot, what happened to the caravan?”
He had been isolated from all news while he recovered.
“We managed to save most of the supplies,” Kiernan's eyes darted at Rick. “With a little help from our good friend again...”
Rick moved in his chair, as it was time he broke his silence.
“That's right. This is why there's nothing threatening the Retreat.”
The Abbot smiled with satisfaction. His tanned face had an oily shine to it in the light of the fire. The whites of his eyes stood out against his dusky skin like a pair of fireflies. Rick noticed some movement in the corner, at the edge of his vision. It was a yellow canary in a cage. Rick could have sworn that the bird had shown no sign of life over the course of his lengthy conversation with the Abbot until the boy had arrived.
Paul swallowed and asked, “Did anyone else survive?”
“Unfortunately not,” Kiernan entwined his long fingers. “Had we known that the possessed would attack, this tragedy would never have happened. Accursed beasts! Their behavior is always unpredictable. We will need to look at the mission schedule and reinforce the guard detail.”
The Abbot thought about something for a few moments and then continued, speaking with great conviction.
“It is all the devil's work. It is he that tempts man and turns him into an animal. His power over the possessed is great. We must thank the Almighty for having blessed us with intelligence and stopped us from the temptations of sin. Isn't that right, my good friend Rick?”
“I did not quite understand the last words you said,” Rick replied. “About the devil. Do you consider those creatures to be possessed by evil powers?”
“That is exactly what I meant,” the Abbot nodded with a satisfied air. “You have understood the very gist of it.”
“I see,” Rick paused. “I doubt that it is possession.”
The Abbot's face changed to a strange expression, as if he had misheard something.
“It truly is demonic possession,” he countered.
“All right. Does that mean that a demon can be exorcised?”
“Have you exorcised demons from the possessed?”
“It is extremely difficult to do,” Kiernan began, caging his fingers. “Firstly, it is very difficult to capture one of the possessed and one that is captured dies in captivity very quickly...”
“Of course,” Rick agreed. “But even being behind the walls of the Retreat does not guarantee salvation from the affliction.”
The room sank into awkward silence for a while. Paul was even more afraid—he carefully glanced over at the Abbot. No one dared to doubt his teachings. Rick calmly weathered the grim stare of Kiernan. The Abbot turned to Paul.
“By the way, did you see anything unusual in the way they attacked? Perhaps they behaved in a strange or special way?”
Paul frowned, trying to think hard.
“No. Apart from the fact that there were so many of them.”
“How many?”
“A couple of hundred. Maybe more.”
Kiernan nodded.
“That's what I was discussing with our friend Rick as well. The beasts never gathered in packs of that size before.”
“Maybe it is a migration,” Rick suggested. “Or some other natural cause.”
“That could be. As I already said, it is difficult to understand the ways of demons. Anyhow, Brother Paul, I invited you here to have a different conversation. Are you prepared to help me to resolve a certain issue?”
“Of course, Abbot,” Paul nodded fervently.
“Good. You see, brother mine, while you were recovering me and our friend Rick spoke much about various subjects. I offered him to be a guest at our humble Retreat and our friend Rick acquiesced. It is an honor for us.”
Kiernan paused, staring at Paul.
“Do you know which day it is?”
Paul bit his lip. His eyes suddenly shone with the realization.
“We are serving the Autumn Mass today.”
“Yes. Our friend Rick wanted to see it before setting off to take care of his own business. This is why I would like to ask you to accompany him throughout this evening until its very end. Tell him everything you know, and you know a lot. Answer any questions he may have.”
“I will perform the task you set me,” Paul replied readily.
“Thank you, my young brother,” Kiernan drawled ingratiatingly. “You may go now. My advisor will give you a ticket for a double dinner. Take a while to feed yourself properly.”
Paul bowed clumsily and set off towards the exit. He stumbled a little as he passed through the doorway but kept his balance and confidently left the room.
“He was born under a lucky star,” Kiernan said a minute later. “I would never have thought he'd make it.”
“A young and strong body,” Rick shrugged. “And a thirst for life.”
Kiernan gave him an appraising glance.
“You are also rather young for such dangerous journeys.”
“That's right. I am a victim of circumstance.”
The Abbot nodded. Rick did not want to make his job any easier and waited for the new questions that immediately followed. First came the attempts to find out as much about the outside world as possible. However, Rick was in no hurry to tell him everything and mainly repeated the same things that he shared on his first day in the Retreat. That was obviously not enough for Kiernan—he wanted to know more and never stopped trying to glean just a little more information ever since. It was obvious that it was difficult for him to stop himself from applying pressure directly. Kiernan was a man used to issuing orders, but not in a situation where he was next to an outsider with a weapon who had managed to miraculously send a hundred possessed on the run.
They were both fully cognizant of this fact.
Kiernan kept smiling, showing two rows of magnificent, strong teeth and expressing his goodwill. Rick did so too, whilst keeping his hands on the stock of his blaster.
“You are never away from your weapon even for a minute,” the Abbot noticed.
“This thing saved my life in the wastelands many times.”
“But there is nothing threatening you here,” Kiernan wheedled. “I vouch for every brother in the Retreat. I gave my word to do you no harm from the very beginning.”
“I truly appreciate your concern, Abbot,” Rick nodded. “However, carrying a personal weapon at all times is part of the culture of my people.”
“The Holy Maus takes all of the peoples of the world as they are,” Kiernan agreed. “It is your right to do so. Our teachings are the epitome of tolerance and peacefulness. We stand upon the foundation of several indomitable truths, but we are prepared to accept people as they are...”
Rick barely listened to him.
They conversed for about half an hour more and then Rick left the Abbot's chamber. He came out into the inner courtyard of the Retreat and curled his lip at the sharp smell of paint. The locals were standing on scaffolding and painting some warehouse containers nearby. The stink tickled his nose and Rick could not help but sneeze.
What a vile odor! He tilted his head back, gazing sadly at the twilit sky above through the protective dome and dreaming of a breath of fresh air. The construction was well designed— arcing metallic struts covered a great area, with a clear material occupying the spaces in between them. The ancients truly knew what they were doing. However, this place was as deathly cold as any of the expiring shelters occupied by mankind.
Even though the dome protected those inside from sudden temperature changes, the locals did not have sufficient fuel to heat the whole Retreat. They spoke of technology and generators with hatred, of course, using slaves for heavy labor. According to Kiernan, the people hid in the monastic cells of the temple and descended into the disused mine to sleep so they could find a warm corner.
Rick stood there for a while, looking at the metallic structure leading to the shaft which had been rent asunder by an explosion. Well... What must it be like for the slaves that live in the cages which stand in the yard? No wonder that one of them dies every day.
There were many cages and slaves in the yard. Rick's eyes met those of a dark-haired, brown-eyed youth that stood transfixed by the bars of his cage. They spent a while studying one another, until voices could be heard nearby. Rick turned his head and saw Paul standing nearby and chatting to one of the locals, so he slowly made his way towards them, remaining in the shadow of the Abbot's house. The local stranger quickly finished the conversation and left, while Paul remained with a pained expression on his face, trying to stretch the stiffness from his bandaged arms. Rick stepped out of the shadows and Paul flinched. Rick did not hurry to start talking, as he was interested in seeing Paul's reaction to his appearance. Paul shifted hesitantly, stepping back a little and coughed.
“Have you already had the time to explore the Retreat?”
Paul waited for Rick to continue, but he stayed silent.
“Hmm, in that case, there is no need to lead you around the yard and show you all the buildings, is there?”
Rick nodded.
“That's great, that's excellent,” Paul muttered, obviously avoiding looking straight into Rick's eyes.
Strange behavior Rick gave the yard a quick once-over. It was as if the boy was afraid of something. Or someone.
“The Abbott says that you work as an archivist,” he enquired.
“That's right.”
“Are you literate?”
Rick waited for an answer.
“I know how to add up ancient letters into words. But I don't always understand their meaning. I know how to write and copy.”
“That's sufficient,” Rick concluded.
“For what?” Paul did not understand.
“To explain the meaning of your religion to me.”
“Ah, oh, yes,” Paul agreed and looked at the huge clock hanging from one of the separator struts under the dome. “Midnight approaches. The Mass will begin soon. It's best to come to the temple early.”
He touched his chest with a habitual gesture to feel the item hanging on a string around his neck under his jacket.
“We'll do as you say,” Rick nodded and bent his head forward a little to try to see what was so valuable about the item that Paul was hiding in the folds of his clothing.
“This is the medallion of the Holy Maus,” Paul said when he saw the curiosity in Rick's eyes, reaching inside his jacket to take out a shiny round object, which was actually a universal electronic key of the kind used in Thermopolis. “A gift from the Abbot.”
“Yeah,” was Rick's only reply, as he added to himself that if the boy only knew the true purpose of this gift, he would never ever have shown it to him.
Paul hesitantly started to walk away from the house of the Abbot. Rick walked by his side. They walked around ten paces, when Paul asked, “Where did you come from?”
“Far away,” Rick replied. “From the west.”
“From the domed cities?”
“From far further away.”
“There is nothing there, apart from the Abyss.”
“How do you know?”
“This is what the Revelation of the Holy Maus teaches us.”
Rick chuckled to himself bitterly. It was the same every time. They did a really good job at brainwashing them here.
“That's a lie,” he said.
Paul was so shocked that he froze. His lower lip trembled. Finally, he managed to force himself to speak.
“If that's a joke, it is a very flat one, Master Rick. Otherwise, such words can lead to...”
“I know what such words can lead to,” Rick brushed him aside. “Your Abbot told me. But this does not change the truth. And the truth is that there is no Abyss beyond the domed cities. If you like, I can tell you what is there.”
“No,” Paul cut him off in a hurry.
“As you want,” Rick shrugged. “But remember, that if a man that looks at the sun closes his eyes, the sun will not disappear as a result.”
They continued towards their midnight destination—a gallery of steel pillars that reached deep into the yard from the western side of the temple. The gallery gently arced in the direction of a structure that was roofed with a mesh-like spherical construction with a steeple at the top. The fires were already lit inside. People from the whole Retreat were beginning to congregate at the place of service. Their arrival was completely silent. Before Rick and Paul entered the gallery, Paul asked, “Could you please listen to me now? It is forbidden to speak during Mass, because it is but the one and only Great Maus that speaks through his medium, the Abbot. You must stand, listen and obey everything that the priest orders.”
“I understand.”
“Your consciousness must be open for the sacred spirit of Maus. Do you understand?”
“Well, let's go then.”
They ascended the stairs and entered a long rectangular hall. The congregation slowly progressed through the hall, removing their clothing and footwear on the way.
“It is customary to remove everything apart from your underwear,” Paul whispered and started to take off his boots, to set an example.
Rick watched him in confusion for a while, looked around and walked over to the wall. Paul was waiting for him with his boots in his hand. Rick thought it over for a moment or two and then made his decision. He skillfully removed his robe, revealing his old jumpsuit underneath.
They undressed.
“No one will touch your things,” Paul told him.
“You will have to leave the weapon as well,” Paul pointed out.
Rick looked around. It seemed that everyone was completely occupied with the preparations for the service. No one paid attention to him. Paul had already put some distance between them. Rick still gripped the barrel of the blaster. He hesitated, but then wrapped the weapon in his robe and put everything down by the wall next to his bag and hurriedly followed Paul.
The people were thin and scrawny to a man. It would be hard to call even the toughest of them healthy—their pale and filthy skin was covered with scars and abscesses. It seemed that the brotherhood rarely took care of its personal hygiene—there was a strong smell of sweat and unwashed bodies in the air. Life was harsh here.
Rick thought this over as they passed through the hall and entered a spacious room covered with a mesh-like dome. Everything was already prepared for the ceremony here. They walked to a free space behind the backs of the congregation so that everything that was going on could be seen. Paul silently pointed at the altar and the wide table. Rick greedily took in the decorations—he was incredibly interested in who or what exactly was the Holy Maus.
A thick drapery hung behind the altar. The drapery concealed some sort of image on the wall. The altar itself was a stone plinth that was carved with glyphs and writings. Kiernan was already here—the Abbot had changed into a long shirt made out of rough wool. It was called a “hair-shirt”, Rick suddenly remembered.
And suddenly, his temples felt as if he had been struck. Rick closed his eyes and shook his head—the seizure came right at the wrong time. His mind burned with pain, overloaded with the knowledge he gained through the Thermopolis rapid learning program, as dozens of fireflies danced in front of his eyes and as he heard distant voices. That had not happened for quite a long time. It seems that interaction with other people was having an impact as it was far easier in the wastelands and the pain only overcame him when he was reading the books he found among the ruins.
Rick exhaled slowly, calming himself, and cast a sidelong glance at Paul. He was fearfully ogling Rick, unable to understand what was going on. Rick looked ahead and saw Kiernan standing in front of the table with his eyes closed. At least that one did not notice anything.
Everything went silent.
Nothing happened for a couple of minutes. Kiernan slowly swayed from side to side. Then, he upraised his hands and started to chant prayers. His voice carried itself up to the vaulted ceiling, reflecting off the walls. It was a high-pitched, somewhat gravelly voice dripping with mystical ecstasy. Kiernan started the service with a traditional prayer for cognition to be granted to humans from on high. He asked the Almighty to preserve the minds of men, so they could understand all of the grandeur of the designs of the divine and follow all the commandments that were given to the people. He also asked for the lives of his order to be prolonged, because it was the only fragile thing of value that remained after the dark centuries of chaos and ruin. Kiernan asked for many different things, for mercy, for justice, for protection, but every time his prayers somehow gravitated towards one thing—the desire to live a virtuous and intelligent life that was worthy of a human, not an animal. This was because an animal in human form that was possessed by the devil prowled the earth, consuming the weak and tempting the strong. And this was the very reason that every commandment of the Holy Maus must be followed.
Kiernan climbed on top of the table and started to perform a dance with complex, jerky movements. His mass had reached its second stage. Now he did not just ask, he thanked and praised God for all of the good things he did. The Abbot clapped his hand and his speech became rhythmical and terse, gradually turning into shamanic song. The smell of burning torches intermingled with the smell of sweat.
“Let us praise the Holy Maus!” Kiernan called out and the crowd that had hitherto quietly observed the mass immediately reacted. The people started to clap together with the Abbot and sing along. Rick carefully observed what was going on, feeling the gaze of Paul upon himself.
An assistant gave the Abbot a large vessel full of a yellowish fluid and a brush. Kiernan lowered his brush inside and used the liquid to asperse those present, swinging his arms wide. There was a spicy smell in the air. People gladly put their bodies under this rain. They rubbed the elixir all over their skin, licked the drops from their fingers and jerked their bodies as part of a rhythmic dance. Kiernan moved around the circle organized by the congregation, making occasional exclamations.
“Hail the Holy Maus! Let's praise the Holy Maus!”
“Let us praise him!” chorused the congregation.
Once the elixir had run out, Kiernan was unsteady on his feet and made another pronouncement.
“Holy Maus, protect us! Save us from the machinations of the dark powers!”
“Save us!” the congregation chorused in return.
“Keep your righteous sons safe from the evil eye, the evil word and the clouding of their minds!”
“Yes!” a chorus of voices answered him.
Kiernan accepted a new chalice of the liquid from his assistant.
“The mark of the Holy Maus!”
With these words, he started to dip his brush in the fluid and anointing the forehead of everyone, moving along the rows of the congregation. The paint flowed down along people's brows and chins and the faces of the people soon became yellow. It was Paul's turn. The hand anointed his brow and dripped upon his clothing, as the youth closed his eyes in a fit of transcendent languor. Kiernan continued to mark the flock, moving in Rick's direction.
When they came face to face, Rick firmly told him, “Don't do it, Abbot.”
He wanted to step back, but then felt strong arms grip him on both sides. Kiernan hurriedly swung his hand, aiming for Rick's forehead, but Rick tilted his head back and pushed the Abbot back by kicking out his leg. Kiernan gasped and found himself landing on his posterior on the ground. The chalice rolled along the floor, splashing the spicy smelling viscous fluid.
For a second, everything stood still.
Everyone rushed towards the Abbot from all sides, helping him to get up. Someone picked up the chalice and the brush. Kiernan passed his clouded gaze over all that were present until it stopped at Rick.
“Let him go,” he ordered in a hoarse voice.
The order was immediately followed.
“The Mass is over.”
“I warned you,” Rick told him.
Kiernan looked at him with an expression of stubborn righteousness. He needed to get out of here as soon as he could. The din of unhappy voices could be heard behind him.
When Rick reached the hall where he had left his possessions, there were three strangers busily looking around there. Rick found his clothing among the piles of rags and started to get dressed. After he put on his jumpsuit, he suddenly stood still, as if he was struck by lightning
His weapon and his travel bag had disappeared.
He looked around. The three strangers looked back at him, silently. One of them walked right up to Rick, scuffing his feet on the floor and spoke, revealing a mouth full of crooked teeth and empty gaps.
“Lost something?”
“Yes. My weapon.”
“None may come to the temple bearing weapons!” exclaimed the crook-toothed man.
“Return my things to me,” Rick forced out.
“Better go and air out your brain, pagan,” the stranger answered with contempt.
He smirked again. Rick noticed one of the three strangers quickly slide out into the street with a bundle in his arms with the corner of his eye. That settled everything. Rick rushed after him, but the crook-tooth grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Let me go!”
The crook-tooth did not listen to him. Rick smashed him in the ear with his right hand, knocking him off his feet. However, other men who filled the hall blocked the way to the exit. Rick found himself surrounded. He managed to knock down another three, but still never managed to fight his way to the exit as the crowd that poured out into the hall after the mass completely cut off all escape routes. Rick ended up on the floor in the ensuing melee, his legs and arms held tight against the stone floor. The crowd parted and Kiernan stood above him.
“What happened here?” he exclaimed.
“This pagan maimed Brother Jeremy, knocked Simon's teeth out and broke Blaze's jaw!”
Kiernan passed his cloudy gaze over the crowd and then stared at Rick.
“Take him away,” he ordered.
Rick tried to break free, shouting that it was all a lie, but none listened to him. The crowd carried him out of the hall like a tidal wave.


The sound of steps rang out in the darkness of the corridor. Rick warily sat up on the bunk. His hearing was well developed, as it was a vital quality in the gloom of the world that birthed him. So, there were two people approaching the cell. One had a heavy step, while the other stepped lightly, limping along. The steps fell silent by the door to his cell.
Rick imagined how these two followed the path that he did on the day of the Mass. While they dragged him to this place, he carefully memorized the way. He was lowered into the shaft which was under the explosion-ravaged structure. The shaft was twenty levels deep—a huge well, with walls comprised of residential blocks and places that had once been industrial unites. Rick was taken down along a spiral corridor that encircled the well down to the lowest levels. Once they reached level five, the convoy dragged him along a narrow corridor and threw him into a damp cell which was full of boxes.
There was a clang as the bolt slid open. The light of a lantern dazzled Rick's eyes and he saw the squat outline of a man in the doorway. The stranger waited for a moment before entering, as if he was afraid of taking a step.
“Shout if anything happens,” someone grumbled in the corridor.
There was some rustling noise, the bolt clanged again and retreating steps could be heard.
Rick blinked after the bright light and glanced back at the door. Paul stood there. He looked around helplessly, getting used to the half-light. At last, he noticed Rick sitting on a bunk made out of a row of boxes.
“Come in,” offered Rick, pushing an empty box towards him.
He actually knew that Paul would arrive ahead of time—he had requested the meeting himself.
Paul took a faltering step forward and stood stock still, staring at the box. Rick could not resist smiling—Paul was even more afraid of him now.
“I'm in no hurry,” Rick told him. “I can wait.”
Paul swallowed and got his breath back. He frowned, trying to make his face assume a severe expression, but the way he looked amused Rick even more. Paul carefully lowered himself onto the box, squinting in the gloom.
“A little dark, is it?” Rick smiled again. “I know what darkness is.”
“I have no doubt,” Paul blurted angrily. “What do you want from me?”
“What sort of information?”
“What is in the east?”
Confusion rippled across Paul's face. He was so tense that his fingers contracted into fists. Of course, the Abbot had given him detailed instructions before his visit, so Paul was going through the guidance of his mentor—be harsh and strict and aggressively provocative.
“Why do you want to know?”
“You're careful,” Rick complimented him. “It's a good quality. A useful one. I observed you on that day. You were the only one that took your horse out of the column, while the rest were still trying to work things out. You were the first to notice the possessed.”
Paul tensed up again, trying to look even more severe.
“I could stop interacting with you,” he replied.
“Was that what Kiernan ordered you to do?” Rick enquired, leaning back against the wall. “That Abbot of yours is a cunning guy. He did a good job there.”
“What job?”
“The Mass and all the rest. He used you as bait. He took advantage of my trust and sent his men to look at my possessions while we were listening to his howlings.”
“That's not how it was...” Paul started to reply.
“I don't want to talk about it,” Rick cut him off, suddenly leaning forward. “Tell me about the east. If you don't want to, leave.”
There was a hard glint in Paul's eye for the first time. He jumped up, closing and opening his fists and breathed heavily as he looked for an insulting reply. But it was Rick who spoke.
“Hey, man, I did not want to offend you. I just spoke straight. Hard times require honest words and actions.”
Paul calmed down somewhat, but did not sit back down on the box.
“A ruined canal leads to the east and there are the Tombs beyond that.”
Some facts at last. Rick carefully pulled on the yarn to unravel the ball.
“And further along?”
“I don't know. None of the brothers ever went that far, of those that returned.”
“So there were some expeditions?”
“Yes. Borislav, who was our previous Abbott, left with three dozen men and vanished without a trace. That was almost twenty years ago. We have been wary of the east since then.”
“I see. What about the north and south?”
“Mountains to the north, wastelands to the south.”
“Did anyone come to visit you from those directions?”
Paul thought on it for a moment.
“Some sort of nomads,” he tentatively ventured. “I think they were wild tribesmen. Pagans. Those that live at the edge of the Abyss.”
“Did they try to attack you?”
“Some did, but many of them just went away.”
Now it was Rick's turn to think of what he heard. It seemed that his way lay in the direction of the Tombs. The Canal was the main point of reference that he should not depart from. The canals were dug by the ancients to connect the domes and the big cities. Over his weeks of wandering, Rick could count the number of domes inhabited by people on his fingers. Most of the settlements were more like sepulchers Coming across the caravan from the Retreat gave him a new hope.
“How long has the Retreat existed?” he asked.
“No one knows for sure. Ever since the first adepts escaped here from the nearby cities.”
“So the dome already existed,” Rick muttered to himself. “Then everything matches... Was there anything left of those who inhabited the dome before?”
“Nearly nothing. The Abbot might keep some important things, but no one knows what exactly they are. Only the Abbot's successor is initiated into all of the mysteries.”
Rick thoughtfully scratched his chin through his scraggly beard.
“Do you know why you are going to help me?” he asked Paul.
Paul kept quiet.
“You are driven by curiosity. An inquisitive man can never calm down until they get to the bottom of things.”
“You can say whatever you want,” Paul looked past Rick into empty space with complete indifference, as if he did not even notice him.
“Fine. Then remember this: Kiernan is lying to you to maintain control of the Retreat and keep me here. It is all about my weapon. Did you see it in action at the Canal?”
“No,” Paul admitted.
“Well, the second survivor saw it all. He told Kiernan everything in detail. A sword can be used to kill one, two or three enemies, while my blaster can cut down dozens of enemies when it is set to wide beam dispersal. I see you don't understand some of the words I'm using?”
Paul was frowning, trying to pretend that he did.
“A blaster is a weapon created by the ancients,” Rick began to explain. “It was made in the ages when man could command machines and change this world. A blaster radiates energy similar to sunlight that has been intensified several thousand times. Do you understand what I am talking about?”
Paul ground his teeth. It seemed that he understood.
“When you own such a weapon, you can destroy the possessed and also make all of your enemies and all who disagree with you bow before you. It is absolute power.” Rick accentuated the last word. “Have you ever thought about who built your Retreat and why people suddenly go insane?”
Paul's lips twitched, so Rick continued, having caught the initiative.
“Let me guess—the people of the Retreat are forbidden to go outside it when they wish to without escort. Because none of you has ever seen the outside world and gone beyond the domed cities. The majority of you are illiterate. The orders of the Abbot must be obeyed to the letter. No initiative, only discipline and obedience. They indoctrinate you by saying that this is a way to get closer to God. Is that right? Touching ancient mechanisms and learning to read signs is forbidden under pain of death. Am I correct? You live in isolation, thinking that the universe is limited by the horizon, and that everything beyond is just emptiness.”
“Do you have any more questions?” Paul almost shouted.
“You suffer from the cold,” Rick concluded. “I know how to bring the heat back.”
“Questions! Ask me questions!” Paul demanded.
“I can make it so that you will not have to travel along the canal to get supplies and risk your lives. You will no longer suffer from hunger and you will have a normal life.”
“But to do this, you will have to take a risk and get rid of your cult.”
Paul staggered away, trying to hold his ears shut with his hands. He swayed towards the wall.
“I know that you regularly attend all of the Masses and services, Paul,” Rick told him harshly. “But it isn't because you believe in your Maus so much.”
Paul stared at him in horror.
“It's only because you need the holy elixir. You only feel well when you receive it.”
“You are the spawn of hell,” Paul whispered.
“I know,” Rick laughed. “I have one last question.”
Paul contracted, as if he was expecting to be struck.
“What does the Abbot intend to do to me?”
“I have no idea,” Paul exhaled.
Rick tried to catch his wandering eye for a second. He failed.
“Then be on your way.”
Paul glanced at Rick with distrust. Then, he backed towards the door.
“You should not have done that,” he mumbled sadly. “You should have obeyed him.”
“Obedience is the death of will,” Rick replied with disgust. “Subservience is a sign of weakness. That is not my path.”
“I must go. Unlike you, I have many matters to attend to.” Paul turned towards the door and knocked, calling the guard. Unhurried steps rang out from the corridor again and Paul kept completely still as the guard approached. He just stood there, hunched over in silence.
“Paul,” Rick called out. “The world is not the way you imagine it. Think about it.”
There was no reply. Paul darted out of the cell and hurried back up above. Rick imagined the boy climbing up the stairs, constantly stopping to catch his breath like a wizened old man. Rick saw how he gradually returned to the world of light from the kingdom of darkness, but the pale light was but the shine of a cold November day that provided no warmth. A bleak and drab world spread out above.
That world had given someone a serious slap in the face today.
Rick turned to his side and fell asleep, feeling proud of himself.


The day was coming to its end, according to Rick's internal clock. Like the rest of the feelings enhanced by the darkness of his home, this one was rarely wrong. A bell rang somewhere far above. One peal, a second and a third...
The bell continued to ring—it was a special sign. When six men burst into the cell, Rick was already up and waiting for them.
“Hi!” he smiled at them.
They trussed him up and dragged him above. As soon as they reached the surface, they took him to the chapel where the local brotherhood had already begun to gather. By the time that his escorts led him up to it, there were many people packed inside. The doors of the chapel were left wide open, to allow the light and frosty breeze from outside to air it. The convoy escorted Rick past the rows of congregants towards the pulpit without stopping. Kiernan towered over it, dressed in a bright red robe with yellow sashes crossing over on his chest and a fur collar. The abbot clutched a paper scroll in his hands. His pale face showed a resolution to complete what he had started.
The bell finally fell silent, but the echo of its peals resonated through the chapel, reflected off the walls for a short while. Once the sound dissolved below the roof, a wave of whispers rolled through the crowd. Kiernan nodded curtly.
“My brethren!” he exclaimed, raising his hand up high.
Silence fell. The faces of the congregation turned towards the Abbot.
“My brothers in faith! We have gathered here today to resolve an important issue. It concerns a man named Rick, who recently arrived in out Retreat after a terrible battle at the Canal. This man saved two of our people from death—Brother Paul and Brother Peter. He also helped to deliver the food supplies to our Retreat, which saved us from starving to death.”
Kiernan took a deep breath and continued.
“We welcomed our friend Rick with great hospitality. We accepted him as our brother, gave him a roof over his head, a fire to warm him and out humble provender. Nothing was refused to him and he could freely move around the Retreat and do what he will. That is the proper way to treat a man that helped us. Our gratitude towards you for not leaving us in peril knows no bounds, friend Rick.” The Abbot paused again, slowly passing his long gaze over those present and continued. “However, an incident has occurred that still confuses and saddens me. Because our friend Rick was really interested in our holy faith, I could never refuse his request and allowed him to attend the Autumn Mass, so he could fully understand the teachings and perhaps join our faith. I was leading the Mass and all was going as well as it could, until our friend Rick interrupted the ceremony in the most crude way possible. Many of you were here and saw everything with your own eyes. You know what happened. The Mass had never ever been interrupted like that throughout the history of the retreat. Any of you would suffer a harsh punishment for such a deed. But because we are good people by our very nature, I decided that this was a simple misunderstanding. If that was all, we would not be standing here now.”
Kiernan flourished with his hand, pointing at Rick, and started shouting.
“But this man did not stop there!” His voice got louder. “This man had the arrogance to accuse us of a foul, insidious and base crime—he accused us of theft! Yes, you heard that right! Theft! He dared to declare that one of us, brothers, one of us had stolen his weapons, supplies and his bag. Just stop and think a moment how badly he thinks of us. Think of how much one must despise people to throw such accusations in their faces. And again, these aren't just words, many of you were there when it happened. This outsider felt so arrogant here that he decided that he will push and order us around! Only the darkest, most ignorant and pagan peoples are capable of such things. Only barbarians! Brutes! Savages!”
The Abbot shook his fists as he finished. His cry rose up to the top of the vaulted ceiling and dissipated. The people held their breaths, frozen in place.
“But this was not enough for this barbarian!” Kiernan started again. “When we tried to talk some sense into him, he injured one of our brothers so badly that the poor man is still in the medical chambers. I had to lock up our friend Rick in the interest of safety so he would not harm any of you, my dear brothers. What happened that day was this.” Kiernan started to count on his fingers. “The interruption of a ceremony, defamation of character and bodily injury. Even one of these deeds is sufficient to punish any of our flock to the full extent of the law. But we have a savage before us, so our laws do not apply to him. By the way, his things have been found. Here, look. They were lying around somewhere behind the temple. None of the brothers had laid a finger on them.”
Kiernan nodded. His assistant placed the bandoleer and the battle blaster on the table before the crowd. He put the travel bag by their side.
The Abbot declared, “Brothers, I have thought about what to do for a long time. And I have reached a decision.”
Rick chuckled loudly. Kiernan flinched as if he had been slapped in the face. The watching crowd showed signs of confusion.
The Abbot continued, “Crimes must be punished. However, because there is nothing he can offer us apart from his lost soul and considering his help as a mitigating factor, I have decided to take his bandoleer and weapon away. You accused us of the vile act of theft. You thought that you had lost your possessions because of us. Well, now we shall confiscate it from you!”
Kiernan's assistant threw Rick's bag on the floor.
“Take your belongings and begone from our holy land,” Kiernan ordered, with a disgusted expression on his face. “Enough of you desecrating it with your presence!”
Rick clapped his hands and stepped forward.
“Bravo! What a beautiful speech,” he slowly turned in his place. “I understand that there is no point to explain myself and prove you wrong. You need to know how to hear so you can understand, but your ears are full of cotton wool.” He shook his head. “All right then, I'm leaving.”
Rick hooked the strap of the bag with the point of his boot, kicked it upwards and skilfully caught it, putting it over his shoulder. He quickly put his hand inside and suddenly looked grim. Silence fell.
“Now this, this is going too far,” Rick growled between his teeth.
He glanced over at Kiernan, who raised an eyebrow in pretend surprise.
“What are you talking about?”
Anger engulfed Rick. Did the Abbot think that he was an idiot? What arrogance!
He shouted, “You know full well, Kiernan! The map! Where is it the map?”
“What map?”
“There was a map of the world in my bag. It's no longer there!”
“Are you trying to say that it was our fault it disappeared,” Kiernan hissed, stepping forward.
Rick heard some noise behind his back, but did not show that he noticed.
“Come on then, say it,” Kiernan offered. “Maybe you will also dare to declare that we are trying to cheat you here and now? Maybe you want to accuse us of lying again?”
Rick was taking his time. It was their home, so it was their rules. And the cunning Abbot obviously counted on provoking aggression. Rick took a deep breath and laughed, sadly.
“I have nothing to say. When lies are fanatically believed, they become the truth. I am leaving.”
He made a move to turn around, but the Abbot's assistant grabbed him by the shoulder. Rick's escorts suddenly appeared by his side.
“We haven't finished yet!” Kiernan shouted. The fire of revenge smoldered in his eyes. “Did you think you will get away with it so easily? Did you think that you can insult the sacred Retreat and its flock and go unpunished?”
Rick tried to move, but his escorts held him fast. They had fed him almost nothing over the last few days, so he had no strength to fight back.
“I immediately saw your devilish nature,” the Abbot shook his finger, “as soon as you entered the gates of the Retreat. I observed you. I saw how you mocked our faith. No one may laugh at us without punishment! You had a chance to leave hale and hearty, but you missed it, friend Rick! Look at him, brothers!” Kiernan raised his hands in exultation. “The beast has been trapped.”
“I am a barbarian,” Rick replied. “You cannot judge me.”
“That's right. But we can convert you to our faith.” Kiernan stretched out his hand and a brush covered with paint was placed in it. “I induct you in the name of the Holy Maus.”
The guards threw Rick down onto his knees. He tried to fight back, but their strength was too much for him. Kiernan painted his forehead and cheeks yellow. Then, he unfurled the scroll and started to read the ancient prayer of initiation. Rick thrashed around in a rage, spitting and swearing.
“You are now one of us! We can now exorcise the corruption from you!”
The congregation became noisy.
“Fire!” the Abbot exclaimed.
“Fire!” the crowd echoed as they made their religious gestures. “Cleansing fire!”
Rick went cold. If it was what he thought, it would have been better to die of cold and starvation like the slaves in the cages...
Suddenly, a burning torch flew through the window of the chapel. A desperate scream sounded from outside. A member of the congregation burst inside through the open door. His face was covered in blood.
“Fire!” he shouted. “Over there! There's a fire! They started a fire!”
Everyone immediately started to rush outside. Noise was everywhere. Another burning torch flew inside the chapel and landed right in the middle of the crowd. Someone cried out in pain. The congregation panicked. People were running to and fro, knocking each other over while trying to put out the torches, but the fire quickly spread to the draperies hanging on the walls. The smell of smoke was in the air.
“Settle down!” Kiernan shouted, but there were few who heeded his order.
The majority rushed towards the exit in a panic, knocking over the prison guards and the armed bodyguards of the Abbot. Rick did not waste time. While his escorts were looking around, he knocked out one of them and grabbed his blaster and bandoleer from the table. The others tried to stop him from escaping, but Rick managed to get away from them and rushed towards the exit, pushing through the crowd.
“Get him!” Kiernan screamed, his spittle flying in his fury.
The inside of the chapel was filled with thick smoke. The partitions and the wooden furnishings were already on fire.
“It's the slaves! They have started a fire in the Retreat!” came the shouts from outside.
The chapel was rapidly becoming empty. When Rick went outside, he saw terrible sight. Several dozen slaves were fighting to the death with the followers of Maus. Some of the cages in the yard had been broken open, but the others still held prisoners that the free were trying to release. The majority were women and old men, but they fought with such ferocity that the grown men of the congregation retreated before their furious onslaught.
Rick ran around the corner and then moved to an empty cart by the building on the opposite side, sitting down to check his blaster—the weapon was in full working order and ready for battle. But he would always have time to use the blaster. Rick raised his head to watch the yard and soon understood that there was a certain order to the actions of the slaves, which meant that they had a plan and their rebellion was prepared in advance. He watched a woman run up to the stables with a torch at the far end of the yard. She paused for a moment, looked around, grinned nastily and threw the torch inside.
Screams of pain and anger, the clang of steel, muffled thumping sounds and the crackle of burning beams came from all sides. There was a strong smell of burning in the air. More than half of the buildings in the Retreat were on fire. The greedy, long tongues of flame howled as they consumed the fresh paint on the sides of warehouse containers, trying to reach the food supplies. This black smoke rose upwards, to the edge of the dome so it could sneak through the air ducts.
The ferocious battle in the yard continued. Humans were fighting other humans.
The world never changed—Rick remembered similar battles where there was no place for mercy or compassion that happened in his Thermopolis homeland many times.
Once they gathered themselves together after the sudden attack, the Mausites started to push the slaves back towards the containers. Rick angrily spat on the frozen ground and understood that he could not stay there anymore—the Mausites would take care of the slaves sooner or later and the fire would even reach his hiding place before the fight in the yard would stop. He had to go through the yard as it was the only way to get out of there!
Rick darted forward and this was the moment when Paul stumbled out of the doorway of the Chapel, rubbing soot and tears across his face as he could see nothing ahead of him as he coughed loudly because of the smoke he inhaled. A brown-eyed youth jumped towards Paul, brandishing a sickle. The gaze of the dark haired slave burned with hatred. The young man raised his weapon, but Rick got there just in time. He grabbed the youth's arm and tore the sickle out of it. The young man hissed like a rat, twisted himself out of Rick's grip and ran away. Rick stepped towards Paul and put the sickle in his hand.
“Take it!”
“What for?” he moaned in reply.
By the great Expanse! Rick shook Paul by the shoulders.
“Wake up!” he shouted straight into Paul's face. “Take the weapon! If you want to live, follow me!”
Then, he ran towards the building which had been gutted by the explosion and which hid the entrance to the mine. Paul was breathing heavily and coughing behind his back, trying to keep pace. Rick kept looking around so that he would not miss a sudden attack from the slaves or the Mausites. However, no one attacked him and Paul anymore.
The sounds of fighting and the howl of the fire were left behind them when Rick and Paul found themselves by the entrance to a stairway which spiraled around the mineshaft. They could not help but freeze for a moment—a guard and one of the women who started the fires were fighting at the edge of the platform in complete silence, as a torch which had been forced out of her hands lay burning beneath her feet. The guard was squeezing the woman's neck with his hands, while she was trying to break his deadly grip.
Rick wanted to intervene, but he was not fast enough. The woman desperately thrust her fingers into the face of the guard, aiming for his eyes—there was a splash of blood, the guard howled in pain and flinched, but he never broke his hold as they fell upon the barrier. They kept fighting for a few moments longer but it was already too late once they realized what was happening—they both fell over the railings and disappeared in the mouth of the mineshaft.
Rick was used to seeing death—while he was not completely untouched by them, it was a long time that they made him dumbstruck the way Paul was now, so that he had to be shaken and directed where to go. Rick gathered the torch from the floor, grabbed hold of Paul's hand and dragged him down the stairway.
They went past several levels this way until Rick stopped. His eyes feverishly searched the walls, floor and ceiling for a certain symbol. An airlock was bound to be somewhere here!
Paul sniffled loudly and shivered by his side. Rick stared at him.
“Are there any passages here?”
“D-do you mean the corridor on this floor? Th-there are four of them, one for each point on the compass.”
“Expanse take it, no! I need a corridor that will take us away from here!”
“I... I'm not sure th-that...”
Rick came close to Paul, looking into his eyes.
“Get your act together and answer. Do you know the way or not?”
Paul suddenly stopped shaking, with composure coming back to his gaze and silently pointed to a place on the wall where  ledges covered in a thick lair of rust and moss could be seen. Rick touched the wall, brushed away the growths and smiled as he saw a symbol that marked the exit with an “A (III)” label in the dim light of the torch. Then, he stepped back, passed the torch to Paul, moved the intensity switch on his blaster, aimed it at the symbol and held his breath.
Rick's finger found and pressed the firing button on the grip of the weapon. The blaster spat out a ball of fire and a large hole with rough edges appeared in the wall. There was no time to wait for the smoke to clear, so Rick stepped through the opening and found himself in a tunnel.
He turned around and asked, “Did you think about what I said after we spoke in the cell?”
Paul was looking at him with a mixture of horror and awe. Valuable time was being lost, but Rick waited patiently.
“Thoughts cause pain,” Paul said eventually.
“No one said that it would be easy.”
The sounds of fighting at the top suddenly fell silent. There was a distant rumble. The roof of one of the buildings had probably collapsed. Rick stepped out of the opening and glanced upwards—it looked like there was not time to waste as the revolt had been crushed and the Mausites could appear in the mine shaft any minute.
“I want to defeat the cold,” Paul declared.
“Then get a move on,” Rick replied.
Rick dove into the tunnel. Paul followed and they both set off at a run.
The torch soon burned out and they spent a while moving in complete darkness, feeling along the walls until Rick got used to the gloom. The smell of damp earth and rotting plants came from the direction they were moving in. They could feel hard stone under their feet. Rick noticed a panel on the wall, which he then tried to open, hoping to find some switches, but his efforts were in vain. It wasn't too much of a problem, they would get lucky eventually.
“Master Rick...” Paul called out fearfully.
Rick decided to wait before answering. Paul stood three steps away from him, but saw nothing, while Rick had no problems orienting himself. It was amazing how blind people from the surface were whenever they found themselves in a dark place. Finally, Rick took pity on Paul and glanced back at him.
“Be quiet and make no sound until I tell you to. Do you understand?”
They moved on ahead. The floor started to gradually slope downwards. After a while, the gloom started to clear and a weak light could be seen ahead. Paul sighed in relief. They continued on their way. Rick tried to roughly determine the direction that they were moving in and decided that the corridor was leading them somewhere to the north-west. His guess was soon confirmed as he could see part of the dome and the glinting reflections of the rays of sunlight that shone through the faraway clouds.
Rick decided that this was good and walked faster, as the tunnel was obviously leading in the right direction which would take them outside the Retreat. He really did not want to end up in the place where the Canal began, as they could come across the possessed. They soon had to stop as they found themselves at a fork in the tunnel. Rick was looked at the tunnel openings, stretching away into the darkness and trying to decide which one he should enter. The platform in front of him was incredibly clean—no sign of moss, spider webs, mold or rust. Paul crouched and slid his finger along the floor, coming away with a layer of gray dust.
“What are you looking at over there?”
“Nothing, Master Rick.”
“We need to choose which way to go,” Rick concluded. “What do you think?”
Paul shrugged. He saw no great difference between the corridors. This world was alien to him and it scared him. Rick understood that very well and carefully looked over the walls to look for signs. Nothing.
“Mother Darkness,” he grumbled “We'll have to trust fate. Let's go down the right one.”
They turned into the right-hand corridor which turned out to be taller and wider than the previous one.
“Ah-ha! The direction signs should be here somewhere. I think we've got into a maintenance section. That means that the power and water stations are nearby. Just as I thought!”
They stopped in front of a small square projection from the wall that had some writing on it.
“Energy distributor,” Paul read out.
There were also some letters and numbers that had been rubbed out by time there. Rick opened the hatch and flicked some of the switches.
“No power. Just as I thought,” he turned to Paul. “The energy that provides heat and light goes through this box. The energy itself is produced at a station which is called a generator. Do you understand?”
“Is it something like a hearth?” Paul asked tentatively.
“Well done, you catch on to things immediately,” Paul nodded and strode off down the corridor at a brisk pace.
Paul followed him.
“The space near the domes is full of corridors and levels,” Rick explained, “where all the most important machines for human life are hidden. These devices were created a very long time ago. But many of them are out of power now, because people moved to the surface or died. But the machines are still here, and they work. All we need to do is to supply them with energy and start them up again!”
“What for?”
“Don't you understand?”
“No,” Paul confessed.
“What do you even know about this place?”
“The Scriptures of the Holy Maus state that the underground kingdom is the world of malevolent daemons that drag down the souls of sinners and consume them alive for all eternity.”
Rick shook his head. The religions of all these small peoples were so different to each other, but they were always strikingly similar regarding the existence of hell.
“Right. In time, everything will be put in its place.”
“Do you want to start up the ancient machines?” Paul asked with notes of fear in his voice.
Rick stared at him for a moment, but made no answer. Paul lowered his eyes.
“I'm sorry, Master Rick, it's hard for me to get used to things when everything is happening so fast and...”
“Can we agree that you will stop calling me Master? Just call me Rick.”
They kept going.
“As you wish,” Paul nodded obediently.
“You are driving me up the wall with your ceremonies,” Rick grimaced. “Remember, that while you bow and say your pleases and thank yous, someone will take your head off and put it on a pike in the outside world.”
Paul looked like he was in deep thought.
“Mast... Rick, may I ask you a question?”
“You're going to do that a lot in the near future, so go for it.”
“Who are you?”
Rick did not give an immediate answer. It was a simple question, but... It was so hard to answer the simplest questions sometimes!
“Just another person, moving towards his goals. Satisfied?”
“Not really,” Paul continued. “I mean, I understand that you are doing something extremely important, but what's the purpose of your journey?”
“It's a long story. Remind me to come back to it when things are calmer around us, if we survive that long.”
They walked along the corridor until they found themselves in a hall which was two levels tall. Part of the hall was occupied by a pool of water, which was refilled from an inclined pipe. The water left the pool by way of another pipe that disappeared into the wall. Rick climbed up onto the edge, got a handful of water, sniffed it and poured the remainder into his mouth.
“I think it'll do,” he declared.
They drank their fill. The water turned out to be a little salty, with a metallic aftertaste. Paul noted that it was a lot lighter where they were, even though he did not notice any light source, which he informed Rick about. It seemed like the dissipated light was coming from the ceiling.
“Well noticed,” Rick confirmed, as he filled his flask with water. “That's the mold fluorescing. It's a shame that your Abbot stole my papers. I had a map, a guide to universal codes, a dictionary and a list of computer passwords. It's all probably turned to ashes now. It would have been so useful now.”
He punched his hand in frustration.
“You are so sure about this...” Paul began, but cut himself short as soon as he met Rick's eye.
“You're as naive as a newborn! Haven't you understood anything yet?”
Paul kept silent.
“Kiernan played with you like a puppet, a doll that the Ancients used where they could tug on strings to make its arms, legs and head move around. He wanted to use you to find out everything I know. When that didn't work out for him, he just tried to get rid of me.”
“Kiernan told me otherwise,” Paul replied, looking hurt.
“Oh, really? So what did he tell you?”
“That you eyes are as dark as the guts of the devil and that it was impossible to look into them without a shudder. That you are the get of dark forces, created especially to deceive the righteous. First, you will help us to gain our trust and then, when we finally accept you, you will deliver a crushing blow. He also said that the disappearance of your belonging from the temple was a trick that you had set up. Another thing he told me is to be very careful and wary if you decide to speak to me. He warned me that you would try to lead me to temptation and ordered me to remember everything you said and report it to him word for word. And that we could only defeat you together.”
Rick snorted.
“See, you were a puppet. I'm not even going to discuss it. Think of yourself and make your own conclusions.”
“I have already concluded that Kiernan was mistaken,” Paul admitted. “So what are those codes? Incantations or prayers?”
“Something like that. They help to control mechanisms and find out their purpose. There's a lot more you will find out about machines. Oh, take a look over there.” Rick jumped off the railing around the pool and approached the doorway through which they entered the hall to point to a barely noticeable A (III) symbol. “We're on the right way.”
They decided to take a short break. Paul was looking around the hall when Rick suddenly looked concerned and signed to him to get his back to the wall by the doorway with the symbol. Rick stood on the other side, keeping completely still. Paul got noticeably tense as he listened out for any disturbances.
The minutes of waiting passed. Paul sent a questioning look towards Rick. And suddenly, someone stepped into the hall quietly. It was that dark haired youth who had tried to attack Paul in the Retreat. As soon as he noticed the others, the teenager tried to escape as fast as he could. However, Rick managed to get in his way, push him back and level the blaster at him.
“Freeze or you die!”
The former slave stood stock still. His dark eyes glinted with anger and his gaze was full of resolve.
“Are you alone?” Rick asked. “Tell me the truth.”
The dark eyed youth nodded.
“Good.” Rick stepped up to him and patted his clothes down, looking for weapons and then took a step back. “What do you want?”
The youth kept staring at him. Then, he noticed Paul and frowned, resting his eyes on each of them in turn.
Rick continued to question him.
“What is your name?”
“Can you talk?”
Stubborn silence.
“Don't you have a tongue?” Rick started to lose his patience. He roughly grabbed the youth by the chin, forcing his mouth open. “Oh, you really don't. Who did this?”
The youth pointed at Paul. The teenager's face became a grimace of hatred.
“It wasn't me, it was the guards! The Abbot said that this was protection from possession,” Paul mumbled rapidly.
“I see.” Paul lowered his weapon and turned to the newcomer, “Thank their Holy Maus for this gift.”
“I'm really sorry,” Paul looked away from the youth.
He spat on the floor in disgust.
“Is anyone following us or tracking us?” Rick asked him.
The youth shook his head and made a noise in his throat. Then, he slunk over to the pool and spent a long time greedily drinking the water.
“We still need to keep moving,” Rick concluded. “Let's go. Are you with us?”
He waved at the youth and stepped into the corridor. After they walked through a short connecting passage they reached a tunnel that was four levels high. Rick noted to himself that the underground spaces were becoming ever larger and more spacious. They stood upon the balcony and looked at the monorail strip that ran along the bottom of the tunnel. Walkways stretched out from the balcony along the walls on both sides and led to adjacent corridors. The ends of the tunnel disappeared into the darkness. Rick still cheered up.
The youth made a noise and pointed in the direction that Rick had supposed to be the north. Without waiting for an answer, the youth confidently strode off towards it. Rick had the same opinion, so he followed the youth.
“You're going to follow him?” Paul asked in surprise.
“Why not?” Paul shrugged as he walked.
“We don't have any other options anyway. And it seems that this guy knows his way around well.” Rick still glanced behind his shoulder. “What're you standing around for? Come on and catch up with us.”
Paul had no choice, so he hurried along after them.


A long strip of sharpened steel pressed into Rick's side. If the makeshift weapon entered even an inch further, the scratch would have become a deep wound and Rick would bleed out. Not daring to move, he looked at the bearded man who stood in front of him, dressed in orange rags, with narrow shoulders and thin arms, similar to those of the other new people that they met. Only the bearded man had a lot of different chains around his neck. Judging by the smell, these people had not washed for a long time. Rick wanted to take a sidelong glance, but the shiv pressed deeper into his side and the bearded man growled threateningly. The brown-eyed youth was looking at him from behind the man's back with great interest, shamelessly picking his nose all the while.
So what did it all mean? They obviously knew each other. Only a few minutes ago, the youth quickly strode along the corridor ahead of them, when shiv wielding men suddenly jumped out from somewhere and surrounded them. Rick immediately realized that resistance was futile, calmly lowered his blaster and raised his hands. Paul started to shake and quietly pray to his Maus for a merciful death.
The bearded man finally shifted his attention from Rick and stroked the brown-eyed youth on the shoulder, saying a few words to him quietly. The teenager demonstrated his open mouth to him. The injury made a great impression on the stranger. He glanced at Rick and Paul with complete hatred, hugging the youth and forgetting about the prisoners for a moment. Then he turned back and bared his teeth, about to make an order. But the youth stopped him and used sign language to indicate that Paul and Rick had come with him. The bearded man looked over them with suspicion for a while.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“We come from far away,” Rick replied.
“From the surface?” Rick understood that the bearded man was in charge here. “Don't jackals in the skins of men prowl up there?”
Rick guessed that he was talking about the possessed.
“They passed us by,” he said, patting the blaster that hung on the strap on his shoulder. “Thanks to this.”
The bearded man narrowed his eyes and ordered the others to lower their shivs.
“I am White Worm. And this is my son, Black Ant.”
Rick and Paul said their names.
“Let us go to the lair of the White Worm,” the bearded man commanded, and everyone followed him. No one uttered a word along the way.
White Worm's people let them through a web of corridors and split up, encircling them again once they reached a hall that had a similar setup to the central part of the temple in the Retreat, apart from being several times larger and more spacious. Lamps burned with orange light, pulsating like the embers in a bonfire. A myriad shadows danced upon the walls, which had numerous walkways and pipes stretching along them, as well as hanging bridges with ladders attached to them and masses of ugly constructions that were stuck together in the most unbelievable combinations. The prisoners were led to the platform in the center. The residents of this strange place stepped outside their dwellings, looking at the newcomers curiously. White Worm led the prisoners to an iron pillar, which was the height of two dozen men and had a huge chalice at the top of it. Metallic nets and protruding spikes of various lengths could be seen under the bottom of the chalice.
White Worm approached the pillar, opened the lid on the instrument panel, grabbed hold of a handle that had slid out of the panel.
“We are upon the line again,” he intoned.
“Upon the line,” the men escorting the newcomers chorused.
White Worm pointed towards the handle.
“Connect to the great Network.”
Paul stumbled back, but Rick grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and dragged him towards the panel, whispering, “Don't even think about it, they will cut our throats if we won't do this.”
Both of them took hold of the handle. Rick heard a noise in his ears and he prepared for another fit with dozens of voices in his head, but nothing happened and the headache and feeling of nausea receded.
“I am upon the line,” he quickly declared.
White Worm nodded and looked at Paul.
“I am... On the line,” he wheezed, his voice atremble.
“Now you are with us!” White Worm announced and clapped his hands.
An approving hubbub arose among the people who had gathered around to watch the proceedings. White Worm raised his hand, ordering silence.
“People of the Network, my son, Black Ant, has returned. The ones above took away his tongue, but my son has regained his mind.”
“How can this be?” someone shouted from the crowd. “Didn't you banish him when he was turning into a jackal?”
“So I did. He and my wife became jackals and I banished them. But now he is one of us again!” White Worm declared and then turned to his son. “Show them.”
The youth took a spear from the closest warrior and started to spin it around, Black Ant made shapes in the air with great skill. Shouts of approval came from the gathering. He stuck the spear into the corrugated floor.
“Good,” White Worm continued. “These people came with him. My son's people are my people. My people are your people.”
Rick could not quite understand what the chief was talking about. He was very perplexed now he knew about the possession of his son. Rick could not get his mind around the fact that Black Ant had somehow regained his mental faculties after being possessed. Was that really possible? Could it have been that Kiernan had taken the boy's tongue and cured him of possession that way? Unbelievable!
He felt eyes studying him and looked around. The newcomers were being carefully examined in silence, as if they were exotic trinkets. A large woman with missing patches of hair stepped forward.
“Have Black Ant's people come here forever?” she enquired.
White Worm turned towards Rick.
“No. We will go,” Rick replied.
“To the east.”
This was not understood. The people started to whisper among themselves, trying to make sense of what they had just heard.
“What is the east?” White Worm asked.
Rick cursed himself inside his mind. How would they even know what that is anyway? These people only understand where above and below is.
Paul quickly answered in his stead.
“Above and even further.”
White Worm mulled over what he heard for a moment or two and then burst out in wild laughter, joined by everyone else.
“The ones above will catch you and put you on a chain,” White Worm guffawed. “They will make you pick at the dirt or drag around stones until you die. Even if you run away from them, the jackals will tear you to pieces. This is foolish. Let's eat.”
Everything immediately burst into movement. The residents of the underground city left for their decrepit hovels with surprising speed. The large and balding woman led Rick, Paul and the chief into a room, which was probably the home of White Worm and doubled as a place where all the important issues facing the tribe were resolved. Black Ant followed them inside. They were offered seats on a floor mat and gave them a bowl of steaming broth each. It smelled delicious. White Worm did not hesitate and started to eat, loudly smacking his lips and shoveling the food into his mouth with his bare hands. His son followed his example, and Rick decided to keep up. While Paul was sniffing at his portions, the rest of them quickly consumed their dinner. The woman was busy with the hearth, which emitted clouds of steam without a visible fire. Paul finally tasted the soup and quickly got stuck into the food. Rick asked for another portion without a moment of shyness.
Once he was full, White Worm lay back on the bed and started to watch the way Rick and Paul finished off the remains of the dinner. Meanwhile, the fat cook collected the empty bowl.
“If you are going, let us trade,” White Worm declared.
He took off one of his many chains and gave it to Rick. The chain consisted of small parts of ancient machines on a metallic string. Paul received a sharpened piece of graphite, carefully shaped like a human figure at its base. Rick took a folding knife from his bag. He showed White Worm how the blade was released using a button, which caused a great impression on him. White Worm happily accepted the gift and then stared at Paul, who suddenly remembered that a gift was also expected from him. He looked around and then approached the light colored wall of the room and started to draw lines on the gray surface with the piece of graphite he had been gifted. Everyone looked on in silence. When Paul stepped back from the wall, there was an incredibly detailed picture of White Worm together with his son. The chief sprung up, and approached the wall, bending down with a furrowed brow, and stared at the drawing. He suddenly straightened and stepped really close to Paul.
Rick slowly got up, ready for any surprises. Black Ant stood frozen with an open mouth, his eyes fixed on his portrait. White Worm took Paul's hand and started to examine his palm, squeezing his fingers, opening and closing them. Then he put his own palm to Paul's and compared them.
“Who are you?” he asked eventually.
“I...” Paul looked confused.
White Worm repeated his question and added, “Don't lie to me.”
“I am a man from the surface. I was one of them, one of the ones above, but I have left them now. Rick isn't from their tribe, he came form far away. He saved me from the possessed... I mean, from those that you call jackals.”
White Worm looked grim. Rick moved over to him.
“We are not going to do any harm,” he assured.
“What do you think we do to the ones above?” The chief bared his teeth balefully. “Better you don't know.”
“We respect your people and your laws.”
White Worm looked deep in thought. Then, he headed for the exit.
“Follow me.”
Rick and Paul looked at each other. There was no choice. Rick tried to look calm—there was no need for emotions now and Paul should not get too nervous, let him think that the situation is under control.
White Worm led them to the far corner of the encampment, where there was a pavilion assembled from steel poles covered with cloth. A leg stuck out from under the canopy in the front, which the chief kicked as hard as he could. The leg immediately disappeared, the canopy was opened and an old man stuck his head outside, which was covered in deep wrinkles and framed by long gray hair, arranged in dozens of tiny braids.
“Hello,” White Worm greeted him.
“What'd you want?” the old man grumbled.
“I have brought the one who had to come.” White Worm pointed at Paul.
The old man looked him over with a measured glance and vanished into the hut. They could hear some rustling and coughing and soon the old man came outside again, leaning upon a stick. He had no leg, with a metal bar that had a horizontal movable plate and a rubber sole on the end. The old man silently hobbled towards a wide opening that continued into a tunnel on the opposite wall.
White Worm beckoned his companions and followed the old man. Rick shrugged his shoulders and nodded at Paul—they needed to keep going. They passed through the tunnel, which led them to a hall with several pools of water. Rick was curiously looking around, trying to understand how and why did the Ancients built these installations. His temples started to throb unpleasantly and his head began to spun a little. There it was again! He had downloaded so much knowledge in Thermopolis that as soon as he tried to apply it his mind started to boil. It would not be good to collapse from exhaustion here—he fixed his eyes on the old man walking ahead of him, forcing himself to stop thinking about the hall full of pools. Otherwise he might fall, like he did in the wastelands once, twitching in the throes of his fit as he foamed at the mouth, so that everyone would think that he is possessed and beat him to death...
The group followed the old man onto a walkway that was suspended above the pools, which were constantly supplied with water by inclined pipes. Rick walked onwards, as if on autopilot, looking at his reflection on the rippled surface. They passed the bridge and turned into a corridor between the pipes, finding themselves on a spacious balcony that hung over a black chasm.
The old man sat down on the edge, his leg and metallic prosthesis hanging down into the chasm and tiredly shut his eyes. White Worm tried to offer him some water, but the old man refused.
Everyone waited respectfully. It seemed that the old man had fallen asleep. But then he finally opened his eyes and turned to his companions.
“This is Book of Faces,” White Worm said, introducing the old man. “He is the eldest of all of us. He remembers all the people that he saw in his life and he has seen much because he was born up above.”
White Worm nodded and thrust his finger upwards.
“Why him?” the old man asked the chief, pointing at Paul.
“Because he created a copy of me and Black Ant on the wall, looking like we were alive.”
The mask of indifference slid off the old man's face and his eyes showed a genuine interest and amazement.
“You know how to draw?”
“A bit,” Paul admitted.
“Where did you learn to do this?”
“I never learned. It just happens by itself.”
“So it does,” the old man agreed. “You can't even understand how it happens. It comes from nowhere and seems to come alive. It wasn't there before and now it exists.”
“Do you draw as well?”
“Now I don't. The Worm is right. I have many faces in my head and I can recognize any of them at first sight. I inherited this ability long ago...”
Rick was carefully listening to their conversation, hoping that the old man would continue. But Book of Faces fell silent, sinking into deep thought. A splash could be heard somewhere far down. Rick turned his head, trying to understand whether the splash had come from the chasm or somewhere from the corridor behind his back...
“They can smell us,” Book of Faces laughed, “but they can't get us.”
He turned to Rick and kept his eyes on him for a while.
“You! I have seen your face many times, more often than others,” he suddenly exclaimed.
“Is that good or bad?” Rick asked.
“It is inevitable. And your face,” the old man turned to Paul, “does not belong to you.”
Chuckling, he moved his gaze from Rick to Paul, watching their reactions. While this was going on, White Worm frowned a lot, but did not interrupt the conversation.
“I don't understand,” Paul admitted. “What do you mean?”
“You will not understand until you find out what the Network is.”
“How can I find out?” Paul breathed out.
“Here.” The old man brushed his gray hair away from his temple to reveal a metallic socket which was implanted under the skin. “This is a very primitive method. You sit down in a machine and everything in the world goes right into your head. Everything that humans found out throughout their history. I have already forgotten half of it. But the faces stay with me to the very end.”
Rick suddenly felt a chill in his very bones. The old man had been through the teaching program the same as him once upon a time. But it looked like it all ended badly—Book of Faces had forgotten a lot.
Rick rubbed at his temple. His thoughts were mixed up in his head. Was this what awaited him too? Was there a difference whether he had gone through the teaching program mentally or by using a microprocessor implanted into his head?
“Worm!” the old man called out suddenly.
The chief rose.
White Worm obeyed without complaint and disappeared down the corridor.
“So why did White Worm bring us here?” Rick decided to ask.
“Didn't you understand, man from the Citadel?”
“How do you know about...” Rick cut himself short.
There was no point in asking about it, Book of Faces knew what he was talking about.
“I am tortured by dreams of the future,” the old man used his dirty nails to scratch his scrawny shoulder, which was covered in tattoos of red squares. “You are in those dreams. I had a dream about this conversation. Haven't you ever been visited by one of those visions?”
“No. But what I had was...” Rick glanced at Paul, but continued, “I have had pangs of pain.”
“Oh,” Book of Faces intoned. “You suffer from migraines more and more often. You had tremors yet? Have you had the cramps yet? Did you foam at the mouth?”
“Once,” Rick nodded, “in the wastelands”.
The old man smiled with sympathy and returned to their previous subject.
“Haven't you worked out why you are here?”
“I can only suppose. And ask questions.” Rick glanced at Paul again.
“That's right.” The old man sighed, and added, “There is no Network of any kind here because we are disconnected from the main server. The Canal was destroyed a long time ago. However, human memory is a resilient thing. If you want to find everything out, you need to go beyond the canal, further down there.” The old man waved his hand in the direction of the chasm. “This is why I ordered him to bring you. If people that know how to draw come here from afar, they must be shown the way.”
“Is the whole world really covered with a network of caves like this?” Paul asked with surprise.
“Of course not.” The old man looked at Rick. “Haven't you told him?”
“I didn't have time.”
“Then tell him, before it's too late.”
Rick turned to Paul. It was time for some revelations.
“There are underground cities around the world which were built in carefully selected locations. Our ancestors lived in them once upon a time. The underground chambers in which we are now, the domes on the surface and your Retreat are but a small part of one large city, part of which can stretch out over many kilo... Many distances. We are standing at its very edge. I am looking for a path to the center of the city.”
“What for?”
“The people that live on the surface are afraid of the underground, because it is full of ancient machines and mechanisms, the purpose of which they don't understand. You know this.”
“Have you ever thought about the reasons that knowledge and communication were lost?”
“It was the will of...” Paul started and halted abruptly.
Rick waited.
“Everything was different. Is that right?” Paul looked at him with hope and then turned to Book of Faces, who smiled sadly and returned to staring into the chasm.
“It all started with the possessed,” Rick explained. “The disease of possession appeared a long time ago and took many away. Those who survived hid from the diseased and waited for the disease to run its course, but it turned out to be stronger. People gradually lost their ancient knowledge and new generations started to be afraid of the past. That is how it happened.”
“You want to resurrect the ancient knowledge,” Paul concluded.
Rick nodded. Paul kept watching him carefully.
“Then how do you explain what happened to Black Ant? Does that mean that the disease is curable?”
“I don't know why that happened and I was just as surprised as you. We need to find the cause.”
“Jackals turn back into humans?” Book of Faces joined the conversation. “How curious!” he grunted in surprise.
“Have you had some sort of dream about this, old man?” Rick enquired.
Book of Faces shook his head.
“What do you remember about your past? If you tell us, it will help.”
“Very little, young man,” the old man canted his head to one side and swung his legs, as if he was sitting on a tall stair, as opposed to an endless chasm. “Everything has mixed together into one large picture, where there are many people, lines of people walking from one hall to another, transporter belts moving packages of cargo and huge lamps hanging over all of this, as bright as the sun. Oh, it's been so long since I last saw sunlight! I was born a slave and labored in a greenhouse farm for most of my life. Scrabbling around in the shit and the greenery from dawn till dusk. They kept assuring us that it wouldn't last long and we just needed to put up with it. Every year was supposed to be the last and it went on like this, harvest upon harvest, season upon season. They assured us that we will soon live under the open skies, with everyone in a house of their own, but we rarely saw the surface, while we lived in steel container-coffins that barely had enough space for everyone. And then people were struck by madness. People were turning into jackals in front of my own eyes. It was terrible! A man could start screaming with pain among the vegetable patches and swing their hoe at his fellow workers nearby. So we revolted, as we wanted to get out onto the surface. We wanted to speak to the government, but it turned out that they had run away long ago. And that is when the true insanity began. The jackals were destroying machinery and killing able-bodied men. Everyone tried to escape however they could. One scientist persuaded me to download human memory into myself from a machine. He was torn apart right before my eyes. I collected the remaining survivors and we ran down here.”
“How did you manage to get in here? The Canal is in ruins.”
Book of Faces lowered his gaze. A minute passed, until he spoke again.
“Through the catacombs. Some never made it. Those that did live here now. People from the domed cities think that we are infected and that the disease can spread, so they sealed the entrances that led below. We are lower than slime to them.”
Paul and Rick nodded simultaneously.
People are stupid,” Book of Faces sighed.  “But I believe that there is one person among a hundred idiots that is intelligent enough to think and ask the right questions and have them answered.”
“Do you have a plan of the levels in this zone?”
“No. What are you talking about? We have nothing. Look at us. The people of the Network can't read or write and can barely count. Only I have some crumbs of knowledge left, but the children can't learn them, no matter how much I try to teach them. If you want to find a path, just follow the corridor with this sign.” The old man drew a circle divided into four segments with dots in two of them.
“That looks like a highway sign,” Rick suggested.
“Yes. Have you been to underground cities before?”
“I saw the remains of a city of this kind. Far to the west. But I never had the chance to investigate it, the radiation was too high.”
“That's a familiar word,” the old man's face twisted in a tortured grimace of pain as he tried to remember the word's meaning. “No. No, I can't.”
“The product of the splitting of atoms during a chain reaction. Nuclear power,” Rick reminded him. “A special ore serves as the fuel. And this ore...”
“Oh yes, that's right!” the old man exclaimed. “What were we talking about again?”
Paul stared blankly, as he understood nothing of what they said.
“About the map of the city,” Rick reminded him. “I had a map copied from an ancient bas-relief, but I don't have it anymore.”
He gave Paul a grim look, making him cringe as if he was about to be struck.
“If you studied the architecture of ancient cities, you probably know that everything is based on a circular shape. It is a very elegant system. There is a dome above and a well below. Ring corridors circle the well at various depths with separate blocks. There is a corridor from one of these zones to another and lots of utility installations. The zones are clustered together with a large dome surrounded by smaller ones. Highway tunnels connect them below ground and canal connect them on the surface. Altogether, it is like a conical frustum turned upside down, with a tough outer layer that is impervious to earthquakes and waters.”
“What is this?”, Paul asked, pointing to the red tattoos on the shoulder of the old man.
Book of Faces stared at the tattoos as if he had seen them for the first time.
“This... This is my passport. It identifies who I am.”
Rick did not let Paul speak, motioning for him to be silent. They all listened carefully—muffled shouts and screams could be heard through the whisper of the water pipes behind their backs. The noise gradually became louder—something unusual was definitely happening in White Worm's settlement. There was a loud bang. Then another. Rick anxiously grabbed his blaster and stepped into the corridor, looking into the gloom with concentration. Paul tried to walk ahead but Rick stopped him/
“So, it's happened know,” said Book of Faces, as he examined the chasm. “They have come. They have become brave enough.”
“What is he talking about?”
“Your Mausists decided to catch us, and they have come down here,” Rick replied. “Time to make ourselves scarce.”
“But aren't we going to help White Worm's people?” Paul asked.
“Go,” the old man commanded harshly. “You must reach your destination!”
“What about the people?” Paul exclaimed. “They won't manage to beat them!”
“Are you so sure?” The old man stood up and held his stick tighter.
Paul could not think of anything to say.
“Book of Faces, are you with us?” Rick asked. “Will you fight or run?”
The old man glanced at him ironically.
“I will accept my end.”
“Thank you.”
“Follow the sign, man from the Citadel,” Book of Faces instructed. Looking at Paul, he added, “And you should draw this world. Create it again. Give it a chance to be reborn.”

They parted ways with Book of Faces at the crossroads before the entrance to the hall of pools. They hurried to get away. Paul kept looking back, but he was unable to see anything in the darkness of the corridor. After a while, they heard the old man angrily exclaim something and other voices shouting back at him, then they heard a bang, a splash and then everything fell silent.

Release - February 26, 2018

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