State Tower was the largest of the five super towers that formed a pinnacle rising black and majestic toward the sky. Round in design, State Tower was a mile wide at ground level, and, at staggered intervals, reached upward another mile. The executive conference rooms were at the top, and below them offices, and below those, endless tiers of administration for the senate. As the highest tower in the City of Serenity, its topmost floors had the unrivaled advantage of a clear, uninterrupted view in any direction, and it was this view that now provided a dramatic backdrop to the Aterran president himself.
“You want me to go into Shadowland? To the station?” repeated Hannah Duval for the second time. She stood without movement, her face blank. The emotions she knew she should be feeling were unable to find purchase in the numbness of her mind.
Bill’s office was light, spacious, and too graceful for a room designed with function in mind. The smooth, simple lines of the rosewood desk at which Bill sat drew Hannah’s eyes. She loved the flowing grain of the wood, the contrast in the colors, and the endless, billowing pattern it created. Like the rest of the room, it seemed to her to be the height of good taste. Everything was harmonious and in perfect proportion, from the soft neutrals of the walls and flooring to the beautiful natural wood of the desk and beyond to the lush green landscape stretching as far as the eye could see.
“Yes,” Bill said, leaning back into his chair. “I want you to go into Shadowland.”
The world beyond the window drew her eye. It had always appeared as a living picture to her, and nothing more. People went there, she knew, but like most Aterrans she had never held even vague interest in it herself. She had met someone once; he claimed to be a field scientist and to have traveled in Shadowland. She was skeptical and had only half believed him; it was more likely to meet a professional sword-swallower than a person who had traveled in Shadowland.
“Shadowland?” Her mind emptied—it refused to accept what she was hearing.
She didn’t often think about the other part of the planet, or the strange, isolated symbiosis that existed between those inside and those outside the wall. Few people thought of the Shadowlanders, but the events surrounding the transport and the station had brought that other part of their world back into focus. Many did not agree with the violation of the decree forbidding the transport to fly into those lands. Talk shows had been rife with differing opinions. A few overzealous Aterran citizens even felt the station failure somehow signified the beginning of the end; that it was something to do with the native sympathizers and part of an elaborate master plan.
The scaremongering was not something she would ordinarily care for, but it made popular news and so was reported in disproportionate detail. It felt like the whole world had been caught up in this saga, like a stagnant pond excited by a downpour.
And now I am caught up in it too.
“Yes!” He spoke tersely this time, and rose from his chair to pace over to the windowed wall, through which he stared at the verdant land. The lofty vantage of this office showed only the very tops of the endless forest canopy—all else was hidden, its secrets unknown.
“You know Station 54 is still inoperative. Well, it will remain so unless we can send another technology expert out there,” he said. “We’ve been playing a game against the linking stations shutdown procedure for weeks now, and we can’t keep it up indefinitely. Ancient technology is not an area we have many specialists in. Why would we need them? Maintenance is all automated except for a damn safety shutdown.” He spoke with his back to her as he pressed the fingers of one hand lightly against the window.
Hannah stood in silence, staring at his back as the information sunk in; she was confused about why they needed another technology expert. Surely she could offer nothing that Daren or Joshua would not already know?
She had been watching the news reports—everyone had—but the request still did not make sense. The transport had left weeks ago, and the news reported the repair team as out of communication for most of this time. The public had been told this was unavoidable, something to do with magnetics near the station. She was not an expert in the field, but it still sounded contrived. The coverage surrounding the launch had been intensive, and she could not blame the authorities for seeking a way to cut it off. The whole matter had been one of limited concern to Hannah, based solely on the inconvenience of not being able to talk to Joshua and Daren once they arrived at the station.
Yet deep down she had suspected there was something more, something worse, an awful premonition she had not been able to put aside.
Bill turned back to face her. “As for people with relevant passable experience who can travel, we had three—and now two of them are missing in action, presumed dead.”
Her vision started to turn gray, and she blinked rapidly and forced the real world back into an unpleasant focus.
The “presumed dead” statement hung between them. Her last visit with Bill came to mind, and she wondered if he had known at the time that she would be the last viable candidate should anything happen to those men.
Her earlier considerations about the progress of the repairs and the lack of communications with the experts felt woefully naïve. She had assumed the people who had left on the transport had been—or were still—busy fixing the station.
“What exactly has happened?” Her trembling voice sounded like a stranger’s.
The lack of a safe landing site nearby meant a full day’s trek through those native lands. Had wild animals attacked? Had the natives, in some sort of bloody massacre, killed the transport crew?
Tomorrow was her birthday—she would be twenty-five. She had plans for her rise to majority, none of which involved native forests, ancient technology, or a potential for death.
Was he serious in his intent to send her out to face the same dire fate?
Bill walked back to his desk to sit and regarded her with a steady gaze. It revealed little, yet somehow had a weight. “We don’t know what happened. All I can tell you is the transport never arrived at its destination. The senate is still demanding action now. Someone needs to go and fix the station, and we cannot wait for the tunnel—they have barely begun assessing it, what with our dear Regulation Authority whining on about the possible contamination of the native environment.”
The opinions of the senate had never interested Hannah. However, being asked to leave Aterra as a direct consequence of those opinions cast them into a new and unfavorable light.
“You did say presumed dead?” she asked, hoping she had misheard.
He nodded, his face solemn, and she took a moment to compose herself.
“This is crazy,” she muttered, hardly able to form coherent thoughts as Bill met her gaze with his own, and a cold, sinking sensation formed in the pit of her stomach.
“The barriers are down, Hannah.” The seriousness in his voice reinforced the severity of the situation. “We are unprotected, and I’m sure you don’t need me to spell it out any plainer.”
The barriers were down? Why hadn’t she considered this before? With this new piece of information, she found something else to focus on other than her potential death. The barriers—their protection from the world outside—were gone. The wall and the sea-shifters, vital technology enforcing the neutral zones and separating Aterra from the natives were gone. Hannah stared out the room’s windowed wall and swallowed hard.
“I can’t do this, Bill.”
“Of course you can, Hannah.”
His words were brusque, and they hit her with the force of a slap. Her cheeks heated in confusion. She did not know how to respond, and her ineptitude emphasized how completely out of her depth she was. Their age difference became a vast gulf that placed every advantage with Bill. How did a prize-winning technology expert, still a minor, hope to compete in such a fraught conversation? Is it even legal? she wondered.
She gave her head a little shake, still gripped by the shock of denial. Their personal relationship made the whole situation impossibly worse.
“It’s not as if you are going alone,” he said. “I’ve arranged a group to take you to the station. All I need from you is your knowledge of ancient technology. No repeats this time, you have my word you will have armed soldiers as an escort. Really, would I let you go into danger?”
She had no answer. Bill was a master politician—making things sound reasonable and acceptable was part of his DNA. Delivering bad news persuasively would be a key, secondary skill. If they had been discussing anything else, she would have already capitulated. It wasn’t simple, though; they were talking about sending her out into Shadowland, into the unknown. Getting onto the transport was bad enough. Getting out at the other end and walking for a solid day in the dark, terrifying world was infinitely worse.
Joshua and Daren were presumed dead. She had known both men personally, and the concept of them being gone was surreal.
“We can book the opera again and have a belated celebration for your rise to majority on your return. It won’t be so long. A few weeks, a few months maybe at the most.”
The blood drained from her face, and she felt light-headed at the thought of spending months in Shadowland. “That seems a long time.”
“Given the situation with the last transport, we must presume the natives are now hostile and may be in possession of Aterran technology. The damage to the station could be severe. It may take time to fix.” Her mind scrambled to digest the “now hostile” phrase.
Bill paused for a moment and shifted his gaze away, which immediately heightened her concern, and she braced herself for what was coming next.
“The committee believes we cannot risk using another transport. You’ll be traveling to the station by land.”
Those final words were a cold douse of water. Too many shocks had arrived too close together, and she could not decide which one should take precedence.
“By land, as in on a horse?” She stifled a sudden urge to laugh.
Bill nodded solemnly, which did nothing to ease her mounting sense of hysteria. His earlier comment about the transport not arriving held new meaning in light of this clarification. Her assumption of a possible technical failure felt better than the occupants being eaten or slaughtered, but now the natives were hostile, had Aterran technology, and she would be expected to spend weeks traveling on a horse.
She couldn’t even ride a horse!
Softly, she asked, “This is actually happening, I am actually going into Shadowland?” It wasn’t a real question, but he nodded anyway. “And it’s already approved?”
His smile was professional and plastic. “It is, and you will be fine. I know you can do this.”
She let her breath out in a shaky sigh, lost as to how this could have happened, how she should now find herself so irrevocably trapped. “Fixing the station? I guess it would be a pointless discussion. As for getting there alive, well, I hope I don’t end up as your next statistic.” Her retort held quiet anger; the whole conversation had drained her.
“You are leaving tomorrow, Hannah. A legal technicality means you must be twenty-five. Make sure you are familiar with the design of the station and what to expect. Theo will get in touch with you about the details tomorrow.”
His brisk, business-like tone was dismissive and hurtful. For a shocked moment, she feared she might lose the tenuous grasp she had on her self-control and would cry, or scream, or rant like a wild thing, but she didn’t. She stood a while longer before turning to leave, overwhelmed by a situation she had no skills to manage and no power to control.
She had reached the door, and she paused without looking back.
“Do not tell anyone where you are going; Theo and I are all who need to know.”
She offered a stiff nod of her head before letting herself out.
John Tanis dreams of killing the man responsible for his exile.
Once loyal to the civilized Aterra, Tanis now fights for Shadowland. But the mysterious arrival of technology outside the wall heralds change.
With the dividing wall failing his new loyalties will be tested, and he must choose between revenge and saving the people he once loved.