Retirement is for the dead

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"Have you ever been down here before?" Michels asked, his gaze drawn away from the walkway as they crossed over the chasm between two machine chambers.

Stryke shook his head. He'd never expected to go any higher in the King's Eyes, precisely because Fenris had never quite trusted him. He'd pieced together enough to make his own educated guesses, but his business had been elsewhere. He'd been a sword sent to the fringes of the valley to restore order; latterly, he'd been the bodyguard for blocks of ice deemed essential by the whims of a king. He'd counted Fenris Silt as a friend and had understood the feeling to be mutual, but he'd never been under any illusions as to his importance professionally. Fenris knew what everyone was good at and had made use of those skills.

In all his wondering about what really happened below the palace, he'd never fully imagined this. The scale of it was hard to comprehend, given that it was only possible to see one tunnel at a time, one collection of semi-automatic machinery. But he'd seen the fault lines open up when it activated; he'd heard the mutterings over the years of the mines being dug too far and too deep. That it had been happening for decades, for centuries, all under the guise of providing punishment for the wicked and luxury for the chosen, left him conflicted as to whether Lagonia was truly worth fighting for. If its people were so easily enamoured by the promises of a better life and so effortlessly persuaded to loathe and fear, then why, really, did they deserve saving?

The little girl, Erin, back in the village of Lagnin: she hadn't committed any sins. Stryke himself, now that was another matter. He'd done bad things, all in aid of a greater good, of course. Nobody got to his age without regrets. That's why he wasn't fighting for himself, or for his generation. The mistakes and atrocities that had come before had no place hanging over the heads of those who followed, not if they chose another path. First, though, they had to be given that chance.

"Ah, here we are," Michels said, as they emerged into an enormous chamber with a building-sized spherical contraption in its centre. He began issuing orders to the team, each of them equipped with enough explosive to bring down the roof of a tunnel.

A prickling sensation spread over Stryke's skin, as if he was aware of being watched.

The chamber was glowing with light from the beams, each of them spiralling away from the sphere like spokes on a wheel. "Do we have enough to cut them all off?"

Michels nodded. "If my calculations are correct, which they are, we will have more than enough. All we need is time to set up the charges." He handed Stryke a package and pointed. "Here is yours. Take the fifth tunnel there. Layer it all the way down."

Following the instruction, Stryke ran to the tunnel and began scaling his way up the rocky side wall, aiming to get as close to the roof as possible before planting his charge. They had no real idea what would happen or how the energy from the sphere would react to being interrupted - it was entirely possible that it would all blow up in their faces. The beam hummed in his ears as he fixed his charge to the tunnel wall.

Dropping back down, charge placed, he bent over and put his hands on his knees, for a moment overcome with an unexpected and severe nausea. He'd been thinking it for months: saving the world was a young man's game. Straightening up and taking as deep a breath as the dust-filled air would permit, he took out the next charge and walked further into the tunnel, counting out the specified distance. Michels had provided strict orders on their way through the chambers about placement, based on his observations of the density and type of rock surrounding them.

It took longer than he liked to get it all positioned correctly, linked sequentially to maximise the capacity for destruction. They had no more explosive and there would be no second attempt.

He started unwinding the ignition cable, walking backwards and tracing it towards the sphere. As it spooled out his thoughts flickered over the myriad of ways the plan could fail. He never liked to get into a fight without knowing how to finish it, yet had been improvising for months. So much had gone appallingly wrong, yet still he lived. Considering only himself, he was the wielder of remarkable luck; factoring in the bigger picture and it felt like each of his escapes and successes had been at too great a cost.

His stomach cramped and he winced at the acute and momentary pain.

"Are you feeling it too?" Michels asked, approaching from another tunnel and meeting him in the centre of the chamber, below the thrumming sphere.

"Feeling what?"

"A sickness. A tension."

Stryke looked at the other man, whose face was gaunt in the harsh, unrelenting light of the sphere's beams. "I'm not sure when it started."

"And your skin," Michels continued, "is it sensitive? Reddening?"

Glancing at his armoured and covered arms, Stryke shrugged. "I don't know about reddening, but I wish I could scratch my arms."

Michels grunted. "I suspect," he said, his voice quite calm and unemotional, as ever, "that this unconstrained energy, whatever it may be, is quite bad for our health."

"How bad?"

Shrugging again, Michels made a noncommittal sound. "Nobody in the world has ever seen anything like this. We'll make for good case studies."

Stryke shivered. "I'm not having anyone dissect me." He looked around the chamber, counting how many of the squad had returned. "How are we looking?"

"We're a couple hundred feet underground in the belly of a weapon which appears to be built on science that breaks every known law of physics, we're now fighting for the enemy that I spent two decades spying on, the King is captured, the Queen is an ancient god, Fenris Silt is dead, the valley is about to be destroyed or transmuted, earthquakes are pulling Lagonia apart, there's an invading force from the north which we're also now allied with, and we're surrounded by high explosive." Using pliers, Michels pulled the protective casing from a pair of ignition wicks and held them up to the light, then he looked at Stryke, face as impassive as ever. "So we're looking pretty good."

The last of the King's Eyes, beneath the mesas, about to blow half of it to pieces. Not a scenario Stryke had ever considered. He'd never been one for outlandish tales, full of exaggeration and hyperbole, even as a child always preferring something more grounded and real. So much for that.

"Sooner do this the better," he said, raising his voice so the others could hear above the endless whirring and clanking of the machinery. "The others are keeping Kraisa occupied but we don't know for how long. She could come storming down that tunnel any moment now, and from what I've heard we don't want that."

Michels swung an arm around the curve of the chamber. "It's too big a space to sequence it all from a single ignition. Each of the tunnels has a timed fuse, so if we light them all simultaneously they should go off more-or-less at the same time."

The evacuation had been underway for some time, though it was impossible for them to know from the central chamber how far it had progressed. "When these tunnels come down, what's the extent of the damage we should be expecting?"

Michels stroked his chin, considering his response. "Best case scenario, it buries this machine and cuts off the beams. Worst case, it triggers a chain reaction of aftershocks which brings down the other chambers as well, before we can get out." He paused, frowned, then nodded as another thought occurred to him. "Actually," he continued, "the worst case scenario is that these beams simply slice straight through the rock and keep going."

It wasn't a result that Stryke had considered. He'd never been one for optimism, but the consequences of failure were so huge that he hadn't allowed himself to dwell on it. "You think that's likely?"

"I'm not an expert of magical beams of energy, Stryke," Michels said with a shrug. "But they built these tunnels for a reason. My guess would be that the machine needs the tunnels. That the beams need the air as a conduit. Rock and earth are hopefully less effective."

Stryke heaved a long, heavy sigh. "We've done enough yapping," he said. "Let's make some things go bang."


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