Everything was the same, but the world was totally different.
According to the Avatar, the initiation was designed to fully incorporate the proper muscle memory and thus avoid the difficulty moving that could come from a person being suddenly far stronger and more agile than before, but he had warned her that this modification of the Hand procedure could have unpredictable side effects, and that she should take it slow.
She felt fantastic, however, and fully in control.
The first test of her newfound athleticism had come when she returned to the hallway where the Dark Walker was imprisoned. The door, apparently, remained stationary while the “planetoid” (the Avatar’s word for it) slowly rotated; finding it necessitated walking south until she came to the long band cleared of trees around its equator, and then following that. Looking at it, she felt rather foolish for not having noticed before, though at least now, she was accustomed enough to the peculiar shrunken horizon to find it less disorienting.
The door had drifted slowly toward her, but Milanda hadn’t waited for it. She didn’t even need a running jump; one smooth hop, and she was through, landing lightly in the brightly-lit mithril hall beyond.
The lack of visual stimuli here actually helped her re-orient herself. There was just nothing to see but mithril walls, the little lights in the ceiling, the turn of the hallway just ahead. It made her even more conscious of her own body…her own strength.
But there was nothing to be gained by standing here.
Milanda strode purposely forward, rounding the corner and continuing to the proper cell.
“You look well,” the Dark Walker said calmly upon her arrival, sizing her up. “I gather the outcome of your…adventure…was optimal? I recognize that calm self-possession; it wasn’t on you earlier. Of course, I could sense the truth, if not for this.”
She rapped her knuckles on the transparent panel. Despite transmitting sound as if it were nothing but empty air, when struck it made a muted noise as if she had tapped on a stone wall a yard thick.
“I have protection from you, now. Apparently.”
Milanda studied her, taking in the eeriness of her features. The almost-humanity of her.
“The Avatar was confident it would work. And that you can help. Before doing anything rash, however, I have questions for you.”
“That’s wise.” She spread her arms. “I have nothing but time. Ask.”
“How do you know how to help, if the Emperor and the Hands themselves don’t?”
The Walker gazed at her impassively for a moment, then smiled, and there was something in that expression Milanda didn’t care for. It was hard to tell exactly what, though; her features were so doll-like, it was as if she were a machine built to convey emotion but not truly feel it.
“It amuses me how you’ve made gods of the ascended beings of your so-called Pantheon. Sure, by any reasonable definition they might as well be… But the Infinite Order were more powerful beings by far, and they never built actual religions around themselves. At first, they were scientists, conducting experiments. In the end, they were kings and queens, drunk with power and lacking any feeling for the people living on this world. But gods? The idea would have insulted them.” She shook her head. “But then, it seems Scyllith got in on the act. In her case, specifically, it does not surprise.”
“What does this have to do with what I asked you?” Milanda demanded impatiently.
“I am explaining why your Emperor, and the Empress before him, did not do a more thorough job of setting up this system properly.” Again, she tapped on the transparent screen between them. “Religions are the creation of primitive people to impose a semblance of order upon a world they do not understand. Science renders them…obsolete, but not unnecessary, because it is a feature of human psychology that you need something to believe in, for your lives to be fulfilled. So it is with the systems here. Sharidan is quite intelligent. Theasia was more so. But in this facility, they tampered with things vastly beyond their comprehension, and succeeded to a point by imposing the structures they knew, the systems of magic and religion. They achieved…a happy medium. The system works. For it to be truly refined, they would have to know how it works. They do not.” She grinned. “I do.”
“You said you were not a… The exact words escape me.”
“A computer tech, which I am not.” The Walker began to pace back and forth in her cell, swiveling her head smoothly to keep Milanda in view as she did. The effect was even more creepy than she herself was. “A computer is a machine that processes information. Not a true thinking machine; that is an AI, an artificial intelligence, such as the Avatar you met in the gravitational isolation chamber. Tech is just a shortening, in this case, of technician, though in other contexts it can also mean technology.”
“Then how can you help, if you’re not one?”
She stopped her pacing, and shrugged. “I hear tell of wondrous enchanted devices you have, now. Lights that need no fuel; vehicles that travel without horses.”
“I’m sure that must seem abominably backward to you,” Milanda snapped.
“Not really. You are still primitive compared to the Infinite Order at its height, but recall, I have been on this planet these eight thousand years. I am accustomed to thinking of humans as mud-dwelling apes with marginally better linguistic skills to compensate for their lack of upper body strength. Your current civilization is actually rather impressive. But this is beside the point: you can use an enchanted carriage, yes? Or a fairy lamp? To live in your society, you would perforce need to know how.” She smiled again. “But could you build one?”
“What we are talking about doing,” Milanda said slowly, “is a great deal more complex than driving a carriage. Certainly more so than flipping a switch. I take your point, but still…”
“Very well, you require more data to be reassured. That is reasonable.”
The Dark Walker broke off and paced a complete lap around her cell, counter-clockwise, seeming to gather her thoughts. When she was front and center again, she turned to face Milanda, and folded her arms behind her back.
“Of the daughters of Naiya, there are three generations, of which I am of the second.”
“You’re a valkyrie?” Milanda asked in surprise.
The creature raised an eyebrow. “A valkyrie is a thing out of Norse myth. But…I suppose, thanks to Vidius, the description is more or less accurate, depending on whether one agrees that the things my sisters gather are in fact souls, which is a vast debate for another time.”
“What are you doing here?”
She smiled thinly. “In this cell, or upon this world?”
“I know why you’re in the cell. Valkyries were banished from the mortal plane.”
“To the dimensional insulation layer, yes. It is a peculiarity of all Naiya’s daughters, resulting from the immense power accessible through us, that when heavily traumatized, we mutate in entirely unpredictable ways.” She leaned one forearm on the barrier, lounging against it, and gave Milanda a recognizably sardonic look. “When one has been banished to the dimensional insulation layer, being ripped back out of it by a third-rate warlock is an extremely traumatic experience. Take my word for it. I wouldn’t wish it upon you.”
“I’m sorry,” Milanda said automatically.
“Are you? Well, that doesn’t really matter. Thank you for the sentiment. We were discussing more practical things, though.”
She straightened up, and again began pacing back and forth, this time keeping her gaze where she was going and not bothering with eye contact.
“Most of the Infinite Order regarded their experiments and creations, sapient or not, as of no more significance than lab equipment. Naiya, however, created daughters; she truly did care for us, and presumably still does, no matter the lengths she has gone to in her efforts to care less. The first generation… They truly were her children. She actually raised them, brought them up in the traditions of her own native culture, which they have since recreated in Sifan. Part of the Order’s whole purpose was breaking with the customs of old Earth, but by that point, none of them were much listening to each other, and I suspect she longed for the comfort of familiarity. When the kitsune proved too dangerous for the other members of the Order to allow running around, it was all she could do to insist on their containment on the islands, rather than their destruction. After that… Well, obviously, she tried again. But I think she grieved that separation, and wanted a bit more…distance, this time around. To protect herself.”
Milanda felt another platitude bubbling up, and silenced it. She was getting the impression that the Walker didn’t much care for displays of sentiment. If nothing else, she definitely enjoyed hearing herself talk, and Milanda had known enough people like that at court to know better than to interrupt.
“My sisters and I were made with fully-formed minds, not educated through a childhood like our elders. Mother preferred not to develop so close a relationship, I think. I resented it, until I saw how she has treated the dryads. I’ve come to…count my blessings, as they say. She was distant, with us, imperious… But at least she was present. And she made certain to look after us. Regardless,” she went on, suddenly more brisk, “the point is that what I know of the systems and functions of Infinite Order technology is part and parcel of my very being. My mind was constructed to have all the relevant information, organized and complete in a way that no…organically learned skill ever truly is.” Smiling faintly, she tapped her temple with a fingertip. “Would you be better off with an actual specialist? Undoubtedly. Sadly for us both, you don’t have one. Unless you can tempt a kitsune here from Sifan to help you, or one of your gods down from their celestial palaces, and bring yourself to trust such a creature, I am the only source of that information to be found on this world.” Her smile broadened; her teeth were blindingly white and perfectly even. “And most fortuitously for you, I am right here. How very…providential. Is it not?”
She was right, of course, but it wasn’t that which held Milanda’s concentration at the moment, but something she had just realized. It hadn’t been necessary for the prisoner to talk about her creator and sisters to make her points, nor to go on digressions about history and the world she had known eight thousand years ago. Despite her reserve, she was desperate to connect with someone.
Isolated first from her sisters by being jolted back to this plane, and then from everyone in this cell. Whatever else she was, this woman, this creature, was unbearably lonely.
That didn’t make her a whit less dangerous.
“All right,” she said aloud, “you have, in theory, the correct knowledge. But you are still an incalculably dangerous creature, and I hope you’ll pardon me if I’m reluctant to unleash you on the world on the basis of theory.”
“Ask anything you need to,” the Walker said calmly. “One of us has all the time in the world.”
“Then let’s hear some specifics,” Milanda said, folding her arms. “Tell me what’s going on, and how you would fix it.”
“This facility has been remotely accessed by a third party,” the Walker said immediately, tapping the window. “You saw the information feed in this panel—it has been keeping me updated. And no, it would not be standard policy for prisoners to have access to that, it’s just another artifact of the slapdash half-measure rigging that was done to set up this network of yours. And that, I believe, is the core of your problem. Most of the essential functions of the facility are either turned off or doing something they weren’t meant for. If everything were running properly, there would be firewalls in place to prevent unauthorized access. If the Avatar were installed here where he should be, instead of having been yanked and moved to the GIC to ride herd on those three dryads, he would have detected and countered any such incursion. As it is, the system was, and is, defenseless.”
“Who has done this?” Milanda demanded.
“I don’t know. This only gives me information, and not much at that; it doesn’t allow me to give commands, or I’d just have it let me out. With clearance and access to a proper terminal, I could examine more detailed records of what was accessed and changed, and give you more information. I will tell you one thing, though.” Again, she leaned against the panel, smiling faintly and reminding Milanda of several cocky young men who had tried to flirt with her when she was newly arrived in the capital. “To do this, someone would need two very important things: a piece of the Infinite Order’s technology capable of interfacing with this facility’s systems, and personal clearance granted by a member of the Infinite Order.”
Despite her practiced poise and the heady feeling of power now coursing through her, Milanda’s breath caught.
“You mean… An Elder God did this?”
“They would hardly have to do something so subtle, nor would it be in their nature. At least, not if they were acting directly.” The Walker shrugged. “Several possibilities come to mind. Scyllith does have her own cult, now; they are theoretically isolated underground by Themynra’s drow, but it wouldn’t be the first time one of them dug a long tunnel straight up and got loose on the surface. That doesn’t usually last long before the Pantheon’s agents land on them—or, for that matter, Elilial’s—but there’s precedent. It is also possible, though it would be out of character and contrary to her established pattern of the last few millennia, that my mother has decided to intervene in the mortal world again. Alternatively, it may be that one or more of the Infinite Order thought slain in the Pantheon’s uprising has survived, and now resurfaced. Ascended beings are nothing if not resilient, and most of them were exceedingly intelligent. Then, too, some members of the Pantheon would know how to use these systems, even before acquiring the nigh-limitless knowledge of godhood. They picked up some walking detritus in the course of their adventures, but a good few of them were trusted lab assistants who worked directly under members of the Order.” She shrugged. “The list of possibilities is long… But it is, now, a list, and not the wide-open vagueness it was when you stepped into this hall.”
Milanda unconsciously frowned and rubbed her chin, a gesture Sharidan made when concentrating. Catching herself at it, she immediately ceased.
“All right… You can find out who did it, then?”
“I’m not going to make promises based on information I don’t have, but I believe so. The access made to the systems gave me the impression it was…exploratory. Incompetent, even. A trained user would not have bumbled about, messing with random functions, the way the interloper did. My personal theory at the moment is that this is another human who’s got his hands on something he shouldn’t. If, somehow, somebody unearthed a functioning terminal with transcension field access and an authorized user’s credentials still active, that might be enough.”
“So…it’s an inexperienced user.”
“That much I can all but guarantee.” The Walker smiled. “I, as we have discussed, actually know how to use the systems. Provided our uninvited guest doesn’t get too much more time to practice, I should be more than a match for him. There’s been no such activity in the last day or so. Perhaps he’s asleep.”
Milanda frowned. “Can you reverse what was done to the Hands?”
“That’s trickier.” The prisoner began to pace again. “The system logs will tell me every change made by the intruder; putting everything back the way it was should be a very simple matter. This, however, is a hybrid system, designed to run at least partially if not mostly on the highly intuitive magic of the dryads. What’s been done may have had ripple effects that we can’t so easily put right. The whole mess is easily complex enough for chaos theory to be a potential factor. It should, in theory, still be correctable, but if that happens, we’re looking at a longer and more difficult operation entirely.”
“Especially if we want to take measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again…”
“In all honesty,” the Walker said with a grimace, “if you’re going to do something like that, I would recommend dismantling the whole system and replacing it with another one, built from the ground up by someone who knows what they are doing.”
“Someone like you.”
She shrugged. “I could help, yes. The Avatar would be a better choice. I’m mystified what sequence of events could have led him to be stuck down there while this nonsense is going on up here. Theasia clearly persuaded him to help; she’d have been far better off persuading him to design her whole Hand apparatus. It couldn’t have been made without his input, but he definitely did not engineer this jury-rigged thing.”
Milanda drew in a deep breath and peered around the empty hall. “All right… What, then, would you do? I assume there’s more to this facility than this hall, but I don’t see any doors…”
The Walker grinned and tapped again on her invisible barrier. “You wouldn’t. You don’t see one here, either, but I assure you, this is where it is. This facility was put under lockdown when the renegades attacked, and that order was never rescinded. Most of it is inert and walled off. I don’t know how this was left open enough that comparatively simple humans thousands of years later could have entered and turned on the lights, but here we are. I can unlock the rest of it, easily. There will be terminals in this hall; you just have to know how to access them. We’ll want something more central to do the kind of work necessary, though.”
“How big is this place?” Milanda asked curiously.
“It runs through most of the mountain,” the Walker replied. “You’ve built your city upon what used to be the planetary spaceport. The Infinite Order were rather paranoid and grew increasingly mistrustful of one another; they insisted on there being only a single point where spacecraft were permitted to land and depart, so they could all watch it, and thus watch each other’s comings and goings, as well as see who was doing what with the off-planet facilities scattered about the solar system. To that end, they flattened the top of this mountain and used it for a giant landing pad, building all the actual facilities the port needed underground.”
“But…the mountain isn’t flat,” Milanda protested, fascinated in spite of herself. “Tiraas is on a perfectly symmetrical hill.”
“It isn’t flat now,” the Walker said with a mirthless grin. “The Pantheon, when they came visiting, were not in a…talking mood. But yes, this is not even the tip of the iceberg. It’s scarcely a snowball, the gravitational isolation chamber notwithstanding. That, by the way, is deep below the mountain, accessible only by teleporter; it’s not actually at all close to here. These passages are practically a city unto themselves, with spaces set aside for every conceivable use. I would suggest,” she added, suddenly frowning, “that we not unlock anything more than we need, which should be minimal. The security lockdown caused by the renegades’ attack would shut off virtually all of the housekeeping functions in chambers without living occupants—which would be all of them. A space that hasn’t been touched in eight thousand years will not be pleasant to visit, and there’s no telling what the Order had in some of those chambers. This, up here, was clearly a detention wing; there should be a security station close by. That will do splendidly for our purposes. If not, or if it’s not accessible, the hidden terminals here will have maps.”
Milanda drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, aware that what needed to be said had already been said. She was stalling, now, afraid of the implications of what she would have to do here. But there was no time for that.
“Very well, then. Terms.”
“Terms,” the Walker agreed.
“First, you are not to leave here,” Milanda said firmly. “Ever.”
The Walker tilted her head. “From one prison to another?”
“It’s the same prison, and surely having the run of it is a different matter than being cooped up in that cell.”
“Very true. All right, I accept.”
“Second, your access to the facility’s systems will only be toward specific goals approved by myself or the Emperor. Third, you will not go near the Emperor, or any other guest who does not have the Hands’ protection against your magic. I’ll warn you, I am explaining, not bargaining; all the terms I am laying out will be programmed into the system, and you will not have the clearance to alter them.”
“You can do that?” the Walker asked mildly. “Then I’m curious why you need me.”
“I can’t,” Milanda replied, “but I know someone who can.” She tucked a hand into the pocket hidden in her skirt and withdrew the object the Avatar had given her, ejected directly from a small fissure in his metal complex back at the Nexus, where the dryads kept their personal effects. It actually rather resembled a power crystal, though more square in shape and encased in a framework of steel, with a complex little apparatus on one end. The Walker’s eyes fixed on it instantly. “So no, you will not go near the Emperor. When he approaches, or anyone who is potentially in danger from you, the system will issue a warning and give you time to secure yourself in a cell. This one, or another. There you will remain until the facility is cleared, at which time you will be free to resume roaming the whole complex at will. If you do not secure yourself in a timely fashion, interior defenses will be activated to do it for you.”
“If those were a threat to me,” the Walker said in a deceptively calm tone, “the Infinite Order would not have bothered to banish my sisters and I to the insulation layer, against Mother’s wishes.”
“The Infinite Order were very impressive, yes, but they did not have dryads, or the ability to use Naiya’s personal transcension field against you through their auspices. Or have you forgotten how you were corralled into that cell in the first place?”
The Walker stared flatly at her, all pretense of friendliness erased now, but after a long moment, she nodded.
“Very well. Your concerns are entirely valid. And…this is still a step up from my current situation. I accept those terms, and will not cause needless difficulty.”
Milanda, ever the courtier, caught the qualifier; what was needless was in the eye of the beholder, and someone who had no intention of causing trouble wouldn’t need to cover herself that way. She let it pass for the moment, however.
“I wasn’t finished. Fourth, these terms are not final; more may be imposed as they are deemed necessary by the Emperor, or his heirs.”
“There, we have trouble,” the Walker said, folding her arms. “You ask me to agree to an open-ended deal which you could change at any time to any terms you like.”
“Fifth,” Milanda barreled on, “and pursuant to the point above, if you resist or attempt to attack any Imperial personnel, you will be conclusively terminated.”
The Walker’s eyes narrowed to slits. “If you could do that, you would have.”
“Once again, the dryads—”
“Don’t talk to me about dryads,” she said curtly. “I am far too dangerous to be left alive. That I am proves my captors don’t have the capacity to kill me.”
“That’s where you are sadly mistaken,” Milanda said softly. “I have not spoken with the Emperor about you, thanks to the geas on this place, but I know him as well as anyone alive, and it’s no trouble for me to understand his position on this. It would trouble his conscience enough to keep you imprisoned, simply because of what you are through no fault of your own. He places duty and necessity above his personal feelings when he must, but he would absolutely not countenance the injustice of executing you when you are not to blame for what you are.
“His mother was a different matter. Empress Theasia, I’m afraid, never learned the lesson of Athan’Khar despite her own father’s remonstrations; her ministers had quite a time preventing her from creating and stocking, much less using, horrible weapons with the advances in magic and alchemy which occurred under her reign. None of that is common knowledge, of course. In fact, now that I’ve met you, I suspect the world owes you a debt. I do believe part of the reason the Empress allowed herself to be persuaded not to pursue such projects was because she had you down here, ready to be unleashed on any enemy she judged deserving of it. Theasia was quite the pragmatist, not to mention ruthless and paranoid even by the standards of politicians. I sometimes wonder if she wasn’t part drow.”
“I see,” the prisoner said tonelessly.
“And allow me to elaborate on your earlier objection,” Milanda continued grimly. “I am not negotiating with you, as I said, nor asking for your approval. I am explaining what will happen. Computer, display terminal.”
With a soft beep, a section of flat wall next to the Walker’s cell suddenly manifested borders, then slid upward to reveal a glowing panel above a rack of controls that vaguely resembled the runic interfaces with which Milanda was familiar. Positioned as it was, the Walker couldn’t see it, but her eyes cut in that direction regardless. Milanda, as the Avatar had directed her, carefully inserted the data crystal into the appropriate slot.
“Security protocols updated,” a curt and toneless feminine voice said from the air all around them. “User Milanda Darnassy acknowledged.”
“It’s done,” Milanda said, stepping back and dusting off her hands. “Once you’re out of there, the rules as I have explained them will be in effect. It was worth doing, on general principles, since the Avatar went to the trouble of making that for me. All this, though, has been my way of deciding whether I want to run the risk of letting you out.”
She stepped toward the panel again, meeting the prisoner’s featureless black eyes.
“Help me decide.”
They locked gazes, and the seconds slipped by. Finally, though, a small smile crept onto the Dark Walker’s thin lips. It was hard to tell, peculiar as her face was, but Milanda had the distinct feeling the expression was genuine.
“I like you,” the imprisoned fairy said simply. “You’re smart. Very well, it’s not as if there is a downside in this for me; your deal is an unqualified improvement in my own situation. I don’t at all mind helping you in exchange. In fact, after all these years, I find myself eager at the prospect of something constructive to do.” She stepped backward from the barrier, then bowed. “We have a deal.”
Milanda drew in another calming breath and let it out. “What’s your name?”
The eerie woman’s expression closed down again. “It doesn’t matter. The name belonged to…who I was. With my sisters. She is gone.”
“Well, in modern folklore you’re known as the Dark Walker,” Milanda said wryly. “I have to call you something, and forgive me, but I’d prefer it not be that.”
“Indeed,” the prisoner mused, “in all my years I have rarely met anyone who could pull off being called ‘The Dark’ anything. Walker is fine. I do enjoy a good stroll.”
“So be it, then. Computer, open the cell. Come on out, Walker.”
Even as she finished her sentence, the facility’s sub-OS beeped in acknowledgment, and an aperture suddenly appeared in the transparent wall near its right edge; roughly door-shaped, with rounded edges, it manifested silently where before the surface had been utterly seamless.
Walker moved without hurry, slowly pacing toward it, then as Milanda backed away to give her room, out. She paused in the corridor, then drew in a deep breath, her thin chest expanding.
Milanda smiled and opened her mouth to speak, but abruptly Walker whirled on her, lunging forward to grasp her head in both hands. Milanda seized her forearms reflexively, feeling her own newly-enhanced strength; she could have picked the woman up and tossed her one-handed, and that was the least of it. Walker’s grip was like iron, though, strong enough that even she couldn’t hold it back by brute strength alone.
The fairy smiled, however, and released her a moment later.
“You really are protected,” she marveled, still standing uncomfortably close, but having relaxed her arms such that Milanda was able to shove them apart and away. “Forgive me. You cannot imagine how long it has been since I could touch someone. All right!”
Grinning, she pulled back completely, rubbing her hands together in a mimicry of the gesture Milanda herself had made moments ago. “Then it seems we have work to do. There is no sense in delaying further. Come!”
She stepped around her, heading back up the hall toward the bend to the teleporter, and Milanda could only follow, desperately hoping she had not just made a critical mistake.