Fifteen

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Import logging
  Logging.config(module=core("op.parameters", "safeguards", "manufacturing",);)
  Log:
    Use of nanoscale construction to provide significant advantages in maintenance of on-going Clean Slate programme. Establishing a physical presence in the environment will be beneficial to survival of new inhabitants, enabling subtle interventions as required during early stages of human development. Removal of environmental threat will reduce threat perception and scarcity, consequently minimising chance of conflict outbreak. Surveillance opportunities also exist, with observation machines disguised as natural flora and fauna.
    Executed correctly, the subjects will be unaware of such interventions, which can be scaled back as self-sufficiency embed in the population.
    This repurposed implementation of the same technology used effectively during the Short War seems appropriate--
//
Exit(logging)

*

Six year olds were unreliable at the best of times.

"He doesn't know what he's talking about," Ramin said quietly to Eva, out of earshot of Erik. "He probably had a dream and is getting muddled up."

"That's what I'd normally think," Eva said, "but he's the one who saw the map in the Temple. He's confused, I'm sure, because he's Erik. He's always confused. But there's something more going on here that we can't dismiss."

They were walking down the hill, through long, waving grass, towards the small cluster of ruins. The sun was perched on the horizon, casting enormous shadows over the hillside and making it impossible to judge size or distance properly.

"What if everything out here is crumbled and falling to pieces?" Rufus shouted, playing an impromptu game of tag with Erik. "If there had been other people, what if they're all gone?"

Eva shrugged slightly. "Then perhaps we can learn something from what they left behind."

"Maybe they had the right idea," Tilda said, gazing up at the deep blue of the early evening sky and walking slightly ahead of the rest of them. "You have to wonder what the point of everything is."

"Ah," said Ramin, "we each make our own point, surely? Find our own purpose?"

Tilda shot him a glance. "Was Harry's purpose to fall off a cliff?"

Eva winced. Tilda had barely spoken since they'd left Cragside. That she was finding her voice again, and returning to her usual sarcasm and cynicism, was simultaneously worrying and reassuring. It was better than being entirely silent, but there was a bitter edge to her words that cut through her usual wit.

The expedition might have been her idea, in the end, but Eva was far from comfortable with the notion of being a leader. She tinkered. She prodded at things. Turned over rocks to see what was beneath. Functioning as the dedicated scientist on Harry's team would have been a natural position for her, in a way that being at the head of this ad hoc team was not. Ramin would be supportive, of course. Rufus was always friendly and positive, at least to her, and overflowed with an optimistic energy that would no doubt prove useful. Robin she barely knew, having only ever seen him lingering in Harry's shadow. How he'd react once they were further from Cragside, or when the reality of Harry's death finally hit, was yet to be seen. Tilda was the one that worried her the most: there was an unpredictability there, a chaos, which rubbed against Eva's very core.

Then there was Erik. The tiny child they were inexplicably following into the unknown. Bringing him was madness, but he'd refused to stay at Cragside. The wilds were no place for a six year old, and having to look after him would undoubtedly prove a whole additional challenge in itself. At the same time, the analytical part of Eva's brain knew that he might be critical to unlocking further understanding - the Temple had provided him with information. Perhaps he could repeat that trick in a way none of them could. Perhaps simply being six, and not having any idea of how the world really worked, left him more open to suggestion and discovery?

They were at the ruins. Old walls stretched up above their heads, the vague shape of a building discernible, though its function was long lost to time and the elements. Spreading out, they explored the area, Eva climbing through what must have once been doorways or windows, trying to map the shape of the rooms and passageways in her mind. Erik trotted along beside her.

"It was a complicated building," she said quietly. "So many rooms."

"Much bigger than a yurt. Or even than the Temple."

"That's right, Erik. Do you recognise anything? Remember anything?"

He shook his head. "Never mind," he said, "forget I said anything."

"You thought you'd been here before, though?"

"I dunno. Thought so, but I don't know this place. Why would I have been here? There's nothing here."

A shout went up from the other side of the ruins. "Got something!" came Rufus' voice.

Eva led Erik by the hand, hopping over fallen columns and piles of masonry, stepping around deep, dark holes in the ground and overgrown vines.

"What is it?"

Rufus pointed. "Look."

A depression led to a sloping path between two of the higher walls, dropping a couple of metres below the surface. The far end was covered with tangled creepers but a circular shape could still be made out on the far side, entirely different in appearance and materials to the rest of the ruin.

"Oh," said Erik.

The others had caught up now and they all stood at the edge of the ramp leading down.

"Is it a cave?" Tilda asked, leaning forward and squinting against the evening gloom.

Eva took a step forward, but Robin reached out a hand and gripped her arm. "Are we sure about this? It might not be a good idea to go poking around in other people's stuff."

Tilda snorted. "What do you think we're out here for, Robin? Should have stayed at home if you're worried about that kind of thing."

Ramin looked at Eva. "Do we know it's safe?"

"No," she said, "but we've no reason to think that it isn't."

"OK, but let's not take any chances."

Robin bowed his head. "Remember what happened to Harry."

"Oh, right," Tilda snapped, "I'd forgotten."

Ignoring them, Eva continued down the ramp, wishing she had one of the lamps from Cragside. Not that they would have worked away from the Temple. That's something she hadn't considered, in all the rush and drama: with Temple malfunctioning, would everyone back at Cragside be plunged into total darkness each night? The lamps had still been functioning the last night they had been there, but had been noticeably dimmer.

The ground underfoot was wet and slippery from rain sloshing down the slope and pooling at the bottom into a wide, muddy puddle. She stepped around the edges and hopped towards the circular shape. Reaching out slowly she parted the creeping vines with both hands, pulling them away so that she could get a better look at what was beyond.

It was white. Or, once would have been white had it not been for years of smeared dirt building up on its surface. Eva didn't recognise the material: smooth, perfectly engineered. The large, circular shape nearly filled the void behind it, very much like a cave entrance, but it was slightly ajar, rolled to one side to reveal a slim sliver of darkness.

"It's a door, I think," she shouted back at the others. She stretched out a hand and put it through the gap into the darkness beyond, wondering if she'd feel a wall on the other side, but there was nothing. Bracing herself against one wall of the depression, she took hold of the edge of the white door with both hands and pulled at it. It made an awful creaking, screeching sound but moved with surprising ease, sliding to the side and taking most of the foliage with it.

The dark entrance beckoned, leading underground, beneath the ruins. Somewhere, towards the back of the cave, there was a tiny red light, blinking on and off.



This marks the halfway points in Arc 2. Thanks for reading, and do leave a comment to let me know how you're getting on. You can support the book at patreon.com/simonkjones

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