Climbing the steps

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Ascending to the surface should have brought some relief but Tranton found himself confronted only with a deeper understanding of the unfolding disaster. As they stepped from the disc, he could already see the oil-mottled sky through the destroyed roof of the prison, undulating and shimmering, casting an oddly rainbow-streaked glow over everything. The sky reminded him of a time when he had encountered the aftermath of a pirate attack off the western coast of Safast, a half-sunken ship's cargo scattered to the waves and leaking huge quantities of olive oil into the water. He remembered thinking of the waste of produce and how he could have made a small fortune from it had it remained intact; or at the very least enjoyed an above average meal. There had been no survivors of that wreck, only bodies in the water and others captured and taken away to be sold as slaves.

While Kirya spoke to the Bruckin soldiers and Avii wizards, he'd taken a walk away from the edge of the prison pit to the corridor and doors which led outside. The mesas were under the control of their combined forces, with the conspicuous exception of the palace, which stood in the far corner of the northern mesa, isolated and capped by a dazzling light show. Tarn was up there. He set his jaw grimly, grinding his teeth. They needed to find a way up and help.

"Still alive, then, Seldon?" Captain Holst noted, approaching. The Mountain Breaker hovered beneath its swollen envelopes, angled with its guns facing towards the palace.

"Apparently," Tranton grunted. He lifted his chin in the direction of the palace. "They up there, then?" As he watched, an Avii disc circled around the top of the palace, then darted in closer towards the roof before a swirl of rock and glass snaked up towards it like a tornado, knocking it away. It spiralled out of control, before stabilising a quarter of a mile away.

"None of them can get close," Holst said. "We haven't tried with the Mountain Breaker. Those Avii discs can take a pounding and zip away. We'd be cut to pieces."

Tranton sighed. One bad turn after another. "So nobody has been able to get up there?"

"That's our job," said Kirya, emerging from the prison. She strode with a purpose, somehow commanding Fenris Silt's determination and belief with the energy of someone who was not yet old and decrepit. Tranton smiled at the sight: a shame she had not been ruling the valley when he'd arrived, instead of her fool of a father. "They're setting up a chain of discs to get people out of the machine rooms and the prison complex. It's going to take a while, but we'll ferry them up here, then they can go on foot down the mesa.

"That's a lot of people," Tranton said. A part of him knew it was a distraction, an unwise splitting of their forces. Most of him didn't care, having quite plainly noticed the appearance of the workers in the machine rooms, who beneath their filthy and malnourished appearance displayed a more vibrant and mixed population than anything he'd seen in the valley. It was all the more grim that Lagonia had not simply wiped an entire race of people from existence but had instead hidden them below ground, out of sight, where they'd put them to work for centuries. It was ideological cleansing with an unpleasantly utilitarian and practical edge. He'd seen the former more times than he'd like on his travels, but never the latter. It required a level of cynicism even he couldn't have mustered in his darkest dreams.

"That's why it has to be done."

Holst held up a hand. "I'm glad to see you alive," she said, "but what is this new plan? We're not here to empty the prison."

"Whatever Kraisa has planned, it's being driven by the machines underneath our feet," Kirya said. "We think we might be able to contain it, but anybody left down there isn't going to make it out alive."

There was a moment as Holst processed what Kirya was saying when Tranton thought she might perhaps protest, or refuse to assist. He could sense her Bruckin pride conflicting with the notion of taking orders from the Princess of Treydolain; then it passed, and she nodded. "I can oversee the process," she confirmed. "These Avii beginners don't know the first thing about getting a job done efficiently. What about you?"

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