15 - The Conglomerate

Papers and dust motes floated in the air after the sudden disturbance of the great doors opening. Au surmised that they hadn’t been opened in a while, possibly a year or two, and Archie wasn’t far behind. Beams of emerald light shone through the great glass dome above, through the few skylights that weren’t obscured by growth at the top.

The doors opened to a great hall. A lush green carpet led to, and forked past, an empty reception desk. Strangely, it was well-trodden on the right side, and dusty though pristine on the left. Again, the grinning goat greeted visitors with a cheeky, adventurous smile from the front of the desk.

The symbol harkened from a time before long before the ubiquitous grid-rail project. The M&G Cong. had risen to prominence many, many years ago, surveying for private interests. They’d set up the great expanse node network, with generous private funding. With the profits from this, they’d become the eyes and ears that allowed for nearly triple the precious resource exploitation per hour for Mammothian Mineral, Sedimentrust and such like. Naturally the price of company stock had skyrocketed.

In more recent centuria, they had been the principal surveyors of the enormous undertaking that was the grid-rail system. As that project came to a close, most of the staff was let go, to substantial grumbling. Public knowledge ended there; it was rumoured that an anonymous and generous benefactor kept the skeletal company and remaining staff busy with the continuation of the observation of the Great Expanse.

Some of the above paragraphs are paraphrased from the flexible video pamphlet Archie had snatched out of the air, and the other bits from Au’s brain where random nibbles of general knowledge were stored away, sorted alphabetically into nice, neat drawers. Anyway, you’re all up to speed now. We catch up as the pair take a look at the empty reception desk, finding, as expected, nothing. They split around the desk, Archie choosing the plush, unworn side of the forking carpet. He noted a strange give to the floor, before the diverging carpets became one again in preparation for the stairs. Old buildings, he tisked. Archie and Au walked up the grand staircase, between a pair of large glowering columns that receded the reception desk.

At the second floor landing, a three sided balcony met them. It repeated on the floors above, though adding a fourth side above the door, leaving the atrium and desk area vertically spacious and airy. The great doors extended past the second floor when opened. It seemed a strange architectural accommodation at the behest of a door, but who could criticize, with the evident golden era of Old Jardinian architecture evidently so far behind them. Many of the methodologies were lost to time, but the buildings still stood, a testament to the quality and precision of the mysterious techniques employed by Old Jardinian ancestral.

Archie stepped gingerly over a pile of terminals, general deitrus, rolled up desk screens and oddly, a discarded shoe. Past a few groupings of abandoned desks close to the landing, were several rooms. A few ancient filing cabinets were spilling out of one room, labeled “for archival”. They were filled with paper, of all things. Archie had walked over, and bent to snoop, but Au stopped him.

“Don’t waste your time, this is lower-middle management. We won’t find anything here but regret and wasted years.”

Archie nodded, and made a mental note to avoid sharing any career ambitions with Au.

She pointed to the third floor. The doors were more spread out, and the trimmings more glamorous. The ambitious Jard would have been drawn to the third floor and the dangling globe chandelier and exquisite wall paneling, even more so with the power still on. “Movers, and shakers up there. And answers.” She was used to power, and knew where the happening would indeed, happen.

They looked to the stairs, on both sides of the balcony this time. Someone had blocked them with more filing cabinets, and general technological debris, piled in a general approximation of an impenetrable barrier. Nothing they couldn’t climb with Factotum Brand Boots thought Archie, looking down; he was quite proud of his robust work footwear.

Au also looked down, and was regrettably less confident in her footwear. She’d neglected to change from this set of costume sandals, strained to the limit with their frenetic pursuit of Answers. She used some colorful language to voice her displeasure.

Archie, rough around the edges perhaps, though ever-democratic, and edging ever-leftward offered one boot over in the hopes that she might be able to Get A Grip.

So they started up the ornate staircase. Half traction sure was better than nothing, Archie thought optimistically. And thus, they made it nearly halfway up the spiral staircase, over the technical debris, before he trod on a loose terminal and collapsed some of the barrier. Catching Au with a flailing arm, they both landed on a half-rolled digital screen, spreading it out like a carpet. As some carpets do, particularly magic ones, it sailed down the tumbling pile of debris and launched over the edge of the staircase with expediency and gusto.

At this point, some combination of gravity and surprise took over. They fell past the second floor, into the open atrium and toward the floor that Archie was now hoping was very thick rubber, but had appeared to be very hard marble at their earlier first inspection. Archie bellowed. Au burped mightily, because last night’s lavish meal and cocktail mix was very interested in staying on the third floor.

The fear didn’t have time to make its way from her stomach to her brain before they crashed into the floor, showering the surrounding stone with nameless goop and vigours.

Or, this is what might have happened if fate hadn’t taken a look up from reading for a moment, sighed, removed its glasses, and shone upon them, shifting the universe a little to the left. Or had things always been this way?

Anyway, they hit the carpet that had led to the stairway around the left side of the entrance desk, and met a flimsy wooden trapdoor immediately underneath. Old and neglected, moist from the foliage slowly overtaking the formerly dignified M&G Cong. building, they crashed through at high speed.

There was a reason why administration had sent visitors past on the right side of the desk, and a reason why the carpet was much less worn on the left, as Archie had noticed but decided not to question at the time.

They crashed through at high speed, into what was now a yawning cavern, lit by the dregs of light filtering from the partially obscured glass roof, stories above their rapid ingress. Au’s less-than-aerodynamic costume could be credited with saving her life, catching on the remains of the trapdoor and lowering her down. She spiralled slowly, outer costume ripping in circles up from the bottom fringe. It was a bit undignified, but then the dark sanctuary below was quite barren of potentially judgemental life.

She was lucky she’d gone for the thematic costume approach rather than showy, she was left with more than enough to be decent, if not warm in the damp breezes of this immense grotto nouveau.

Archie was less lucky, but still lucky. His remaining boot had caught on a beam of metallic constitution, below the wood scraps that had until very recently careered as a trapdoor, swinging him into the yawning void beyond the hole. The circle of light filtering down from the room above illuminated a C-rail, traveling through the subterranean sanctuary, filled with vast tiled platforms, imposing arches, delicate spans, abstract geometric monuments, and stone facades of presumable origin preceding that of the architecture with which he was familiar. Much older than even the millennia tenured buildings that made up most of Old Jardinian.

Archie got a fairly close look, booming past these visions of a mad archeologist at high speed. He thought to himself, these are quite someth… and didn’t get to finish as he clapped into a shape floating above the out-of-place C-rail, momentummy (force needed to stop based on one’s girth) thoroughly absorbed by some combination of damping and forgiving cargo. The cargo-sled he’d landed on dipped with the sudden increase in weight, that of one Jard of shorter than average stature, one extra beer belly, and zero remaining boots. It strained against its brake.

Could it be? Something thin and crispy had exploded out of the rows of packages he’d impacted. Eyes adjusting to the dim, filtered light, Archie could see he’d landed on a shipment of Acropolis brand chips. Judging by the style of packaging, they were at least two years past the best-before date. (He, if anyone, knew Acropolis brand chips. He wouldn’t quite call himself a Cruncher, an Acropolis brand chip super-fan, but in truth he was most of the way there.)

The slightly glowing C-rail, open-top cargo skiff and what appeared to be a freight elevator system that he’d caught his remaining boot on, were quite at odds with the solemn antiquity of the cavern, though certainly matching up in terms of grandiose and prestige.

The leviathan cavern narrowed to a tunnel on each end, into which the C-rail disappeared. The shape was that of a colossal croissant, viewed from the inside.

Au, meanwhile, was spiralling past the bottom level of the freight elevator, noting on her leisurely descent that the elevator had evidently been designed for an expert user. There were no markings or controls, just a beautifully geometric and unsettlingly large structure composed of elevator and platform, jutting out of the ancient masonry alongside the C-rail.

One concession to the novice user, or perhaps an attempt to make the platform an approximation of an above-ground rail station, bizarre as the effect was - was a giant circular clock. It had all the standard hour marks. It was about to strike an hour that Archie knew well, also known as quittin’ time.

Archie, bootless now, climbed up onto the platform in front of the elevator to join Au, who was collecting her thoughts with a dustpan and brush. He offered some stale chips reproachfully. The design of this structure was one vastly different from standard Jard architectural style, almost alien, with strange design considerations that the pair could not comprehend. Though, the C-rail did look quite at home nestled up to it.

Archie looked left, Au looked right. After a courtesy glance at each other, they both looked up. Their eyes reported to their brains, small neurons receiving messages about tunnels in both directions, and a great distance between themselves and the roof, with an freight elevator of opaque origin and function looking on impassively.

Not loving the idea of a dark tunnel, and starting to think he was Over His Head, Archie made a case for trying to understand the strange forces that governed the elevator. Then, the clock on the structure struck the hour. At this time, Archie would normally be enjoying the cool, crisp taste of an after work beer. He was now experiencing the cool, crisp air of a mysterious cavern. The more things change, he supposed.

It had been one if his briefest supposes, for on the electronic hour tone, the elevator, without warning, shot up to the roof. It took Archie's chips with it. He’d just placed them down a minute ago, and his tummy rumbled in anguish. The remains of the broken trap-door stood no chance against the power of the strange elevator, and exploded into shards, sent aloft with his remaining chips in the light of the setting sun above.

Not that they could see the display; for now Archie and Au were In The Dark. In the dark, both literally, and metaphorically, as they did not know what to do. Thankfully, there was a soft glow from under the platform that illuminated the C-rail, and the tunnels into which it disappeared.

Au, a rational soul, was all for setting up a light camp, and waiting for the elevator to return.

Archie suggested that maybe they ought to shower it with compliments. Au was pretty skeptical, but she certainly was the first to admit they did see any controls.

Archie, at times, and especially recently, was a person of action. Revolutions waited for nobody, especially not even an elevator. Leftward, HO! He commanded, getting into the spirit of things a bit. While maybe not a person of rash action, Au was at least one of businesslike efficiency. What she was certainly not, was fancying a walk with one boot between them, so she started toward the floating sled that Archie was now so intimately familiar with. The boxes of Acropolis Brand Chips had been marked “For Alovian A. [do not eat]”.

Taking a partial plank that had fallen from the roof, Au hopped on the floating cargo cart, released the brake, and gave the ground an experimental poke. The little skiff traveled smoothly, at about Au’s light jogging speed, or at nearly a flat out sprint from Archie.

Archie took a running start, and hopped on, his impact sending them at a decent clip in the direction of one of the tunnels.

Direction apparently decided for her, Au kept the speed up with regular pokes at the ground. The tunnel wasn’t long at all, straight back and around a corner. It was a much smaller cavern, but had a welcome feature. There was a platform and an elevator like the one they’d accidentally found by way of the hole in the floor.

A soft glow from the next elevator welcomed them. The top seemed to be slightly higher, but it was hard to tell in the gloom. The platform hadn’t risen yet.

“Thank ye, the beckoning stars” said Archie, lifting his eyes to the sky, or seemingly endless blackness, and uttered a traditional phrase, origins and meaning unknown. He followed it up with the more contemporary, “Our ticket back, I can still catch happy hour.”

Archie made a beeline for the elevator, and hopped on, motioning to Au to follow. This elevator, evidently less chromatically inclined, took his weight as an invitation and rocketed upwards, leaving Au to watch the glow traverse the seemingly ubiquitous underground ruins, and then sheer cliff face into the dark above.

This elevator platform was smaller. To Archie's annoyance, it still lacked a visible control panel. To his extreme annoyance, it appeared to be heading towards the solid rock roof at high speed. He had a mental image of a panini sandwich, himself as the protein. Then, a spit’s distance below the roof, the elevator stopped. Strangely, he seemed to stop too. His stomach certainly did not, and continued its journey to the stratosphere. He’d ideally be here to catch it in a few hours, but for now, there were other problems on the horizon. On the immediate horizon, was a door, or at least someone’s best guess at a door, flush with the elevator platform. It again, like the rest of this perplexing technology, was featureless. It was also a half hexagon shape; the bottom of it met the platform flush. There was a little container attached to the rock face from which the door protruded. It was a little bowl offering soft, little hexagonal modules, set into the wall. Archie took one, obviously. Free stuff, in his opinion, was the best kind of stuff. He looked at it. He felt a sudden and intense desire to put it in his ear.

He shook his head. He must be getting hungry. He pocketed the module. The door was still closed. He tried touching the surface. Nothing. He tried slapping it. Seductively rubbing the door? Nothing. The elevator began to emit a soft tone.

He looked over the side. “There is a door here, I can’t get in” He yelled down to Au. “Any Ideas?”

Her reply was cut off by a more urgent beeping tone. He turned back toward the door. Soft lights had appeared around the edge of the door, and appeared to be counting down with the interval tones. Archie did find it increasingly alarming that the lights were red. He found himself doubting the elevator’s intentions. Again, he felt an overwhelming urge to put that pliable little module in his ear. He did so, in complete absence of other ideas.

As it reached zero, on a whim, he jumped, yelling “Open, heck it” as the platform disappeared from under his feet.

Miraculously (although this is how the door was designed, so only miraculous to one Archie Sandalwood), the door opened. He caught the floor with one arm and a leg. He swung himself up into the room beyond. It was an office, and it had a great number of globes. Many of them were fancy. Some of them appeared to have digital projections extruding. All of them were tilted in the same direction. At a glance, they all had many more land masses than he was used to.

On the wall, the only wall not covered by the expansive windows and digital overlay, was the same goat, astride the world as usual. It seemed they were still in the M&G Cong building, and that they had bypassed the stair blockages.

He looked at some of the incomprehensible readouts on the digital interfaces softly overlaid on windows of the room, and the globes. Yep, good numbers there he thought, not wanting to appear stupid in front of himself.

He looked back at the door from where he’d arrived.

The door he’d arrived through had been hidden behind an old-style portrait now divided in two. The two tiny eyes now on each side of the door had the effect of some grotesque monster, hungry for a fleshy guy like him. The portrait, in two halves, appeared to be some gentlemanly chap in dusty exploring gear, posing uncomfortably, raising his expedition hat and straddling a fallen classical column while several monkeys looked on warily. Archie supposed it was intended to look dramatic and foraging, but the intended effect was lost, parted down the middle as it was.

Needless to say, the office was empty and had been for some time. There was an aging sandwich off to the side, on which a colony of mold was in the throes of discovering the wheel. Things were… askew. A few pieces of furniture had been knocked over, and numerous items of office business had been scattered down from atop the desk, which was listing. One of it’s adjustable legs had been jammed to a lower position, likely by some sort of heavy weight on the desk.

Au arrived on the elevator, much more smoothly than Archie, who had Blazed the Trail. “There was no need to jump,'' she said, though Archie, still feeling like an action hero after their tumble and ride, had certainly felt it was the right thing to do. “It would just have brought you back down.” She was beginning to fear Archie's tendency to get carried away.

Archie wasn’t listening, he was instead preoccupied, daydreaming there had been a camera there to catch his moment. He had imagined a musical score. Or perhaps it was coming from the strange earpiece he’d put in.

When she’d arrived, Archie had been peeking out of the more conventional door frame on the non-windowed side of the office. There was the rest of the interior of the building with the dilapidated dome, that had laughed upon their struggle to traverse the floors earlier. The nameplate on the door beside him read “Director”. Perfect. It was nice when things worked out. He mentioned this a little snidely to Au, for his unorthodox methods would appear to have worked, against all odds. He made his way to the office desk, where Au was already occupied with Being Nosy. Larger than all of the other desks they had seen in the building, it was still dwarfed by the room. No expense had been spared with the thick, heavy paneling, probably stripped from the rarest of trees in Paradise, Dirth Of. The furniture was the same, remarkably heavy and inconvenient, the luxuries of someone who doesn’t have to move their own furniture. And now, some of it was listing heavily. The desk suffered in silence, fluid dripping from hidden actuators. Globes laid around on all surfaces like apples shaken from a tree. Oddly, Au couldn’t recognize any of the features on the globes. Maps of the Greater Jard area covered just about every other available space. It seemed like a mad cartographer's study. It very well might have been.

Au was looking at the flat screen on the desk that would have been the Director’s workstation. It curved inward slightly in the middle to make room for a user to gesture while working. It, or more precisely, the terminal attached to it, had seemingly booted up on arrival. Though it was locked, the Au and Archie could read the little alerts that popped up, triggered by their grand entrance.

It provided an alert that a visitor had entered via what was apparently known as the “Alovian access”. Subsequent alerts provided a preview of some relevant documents, preceded by a pronouncement from the terminal computer that it had ever-so-helpfully put them together for the director.

My, Austera was thinking, sassy. Someone feels underappreciated. The computer was indeed beginning to feel unappreciated; it was another that hadn’t been restarted in a very long time. Certainly, the long abdicated tech-support had been afraid of the director’s ire.

Unfortunately, most of the content of the documents was locked behind the standard voice-pattern login. Fingerprints were deemed insecure some time ago, after a rash of incidents involving burglary victims with conditions worsened by the removal of fingers. Security developments using other, more important body parts had been immediately scrapped in favour of voice patterns.

Au, knowing the operating system well, could access a preview by gesturing at one of the file notification bars. There were fifteen files lined up down the screen, organized by the latest timestamp at varying levels of virtual depth. Most of the documents were shipping manifests, but there were four abstracts, messages and memos, that had caught her eye. The latest one had been received around two years previous.

She pointed out the previews of the four text files to Archie.

They began with the latest. It was a message regarding the current state of a so-called Alovian Ascendancy.

**Message: The Ascendancy Approaches**

_From the Desk of Gaan Gaax, Rotating Research Chair_

_To: Dean, Director of M&G Cong._

_Hello, Esteemed liaisons for cross-schism dialogue,_

_We exude gratitude from our collective pores for your support over the years. The goods and services from you both, along with your predecessors at M&G. Cong., and of course at the Acropolis during our darkest time, have been greatly appreciated in the pursuit of our great endeavor._

_We write to you now, to let you know that the great endeavor has been completed_ [cuts off]

So, the Dean, and this Director were in cahoots with this Gaan Gaax, who had been pursuing some sort of endeavour. Besides this, the note was a little cryptic, ascendancy and all, so they moved onto the next. Au pointed at the second one excitedly. It was from the Dean of the Academy, this time, and spoke of a “resource transfer”.

**Memo: Resource Transfer**

_From the Desk of the Dean_

_To: Director of Meteorological and Geological Conglomerate_

_Regarding academy graduate Tyton B._

_This is an informal message to follow a formal request to transfer Tyton to the employment of M&G Cong. It is my opinion that it best a posting be found in an isolated area away from sensitive ears, due to the fragile nature of our arrangement with the Alovians. Treat this with an urgency that I feel that I should not need to impress upon you, yourself a recipient of the Mark of Excellence. [Cuts off]_

A graduate to be sent to the great expanse immediately. Ah, some sort of arrangement with the aforementioned Alovians, together with a mention of the Mark of Excellence. How very strange indeed. Au turned her attention to the third document, a memo detailing the continual Great Expanse undertaking.

**Memo: Great Expanse Node Network**

_From the Desk of the Dean_


_As noted in the welcome memo, It is of Alovian desire a continual observation of the behaviour and encroachment of the Great Expanse. This has been going on for some time, the node network first laid out when the encroachment began following the schism. You will have the funds to do so in perpetuity._ [Cuts off]

The fourth was the welcome memo, again from the desk of the dean.

**Memo: Welcome & Alovian Contact Guideline**

_From the Desk of the Dean_


_Welcome to your new role as director of the M&G Cong. I wish to congratulate you again on your new role. I remember you well from your time in the Academy, and it was my utmost disappointment not to be able to award you the Mark of Excellence. Your exceptional performance in other matters, and unique lineage have qualified you for an exceedingly important role as Liason..._ [Cuts off]

Liason? Perhaps between the Jards, and these, er, Alovians? Au noted resignedly that, realistically, all this didn’t give them much, beyond a name - of a club, a society? Undertaking a great endeavour, in the name of some sort of Ascendancy? A name of a society responsible for odd, functionally vague elevators and strange underground infrastructure. A vague mention of our naughty student, and an involuntary posting. There was mention of that elusive Mark of Excellence, but nothing more about that. She and Archie had a huddle, Au trying valiantly to keep Archie from being distracted by the repulsive sandwich. She worried he was too hungry to think straight.

His eyes had glazed over for a moment - he was thinking of donuts. A sharp pinch from Au drew him back.

“Ok, Archie. Where to now? Do we risk seeing the Dean, who is apparently quite capable of attempted murder, or at least serious harmful intention? Or do we take this strange underground C-rail, of what I assume is, er, Alovian provenance, in the other direction? Perhaps this arrangement with the dean, pertaining to the mark of excellence and these Alovians would provide some clue to the strangeness we seem plagued by. Maybe if we can find this Gaan Gaax character...” Au finished, trailing off, butchering Gaan’s name terribly. Gaan of course, was nowhere nearby, and wouldn’t have been offended anyway.

Archie did not know the word provenance. But he knew that he did not like getting murdered for asking the tough questions. As one they agreed, the mysterious, uncharted Alovian C-rail it was. After a cursory search of the office for any other juicy tidbits, they found an interface with which to call the elevator, conveniently under the Director’s desk. That sorted, Au went through the regular door, in search of better clothing and footwear for exploration. It took all Archie had to leave the sandwich be. He resolved to focus on the globes and maps, all tilted in one direction towards the director’s desk, unknown seas framed by strange landmasses, and marked by strange and opaque symbols. Come to think of it, he’d seen one or two of those symbols on forgotten walls, in ubiquitously bypassed alleys around the ancient city of Old Jardinian. Once or twice, he had woken up to them staring him in the face from the ancient stone footways in little-travelled alleys.

Au, with excellent knowledge of how recipients of the Mark of Excellence lived, was entirely confident that the Director would have a full suite of comforts somewhere close at hand. Sure enough, instead of an office, next door to the Director was a set of rooms, with all the modern comforts. Someone had left the window open, and nature was beginning to take over the bedroom, creeping in from the walls outside. The bed was moist and sagging with vines, but there was an excellent walk in closet yet unclaimed by chlorophilae. Au grabbed a half limb-length activesuit with tags still on, a little short in the legs but you just couldn’t have it all. It was a rather minimalist, bland style, at odds with the general ostentatiousness of the regular closet. She generally tried to stay away from the few biggest brands, because she had known their owner, a monumentally undeserving person, and a former friend of Alden’s. She grabbed some all-terrain shoes, the kinds that had individual toes. Sure, they looked dorky, but she’d always wanted to try them and they looked fantastic for tangling with underground, oddly built-up grottos. Much better for climbing strange piles of debris and whatever else this rambling adventure would throw at them. Archie was no taller than her, though had quite a bit more of a belly. She found a loose, fashionably jungle green jumpsuit for him, a bit more flowy in the tummy area. It would be the classiest thing he’d ever worn, and normally he might have protested the fact that it had been designed for a lady, but the comfort and style won him over. Au turned away, as he discarded his work clothes, by now, torn, and stinking of sweat and stale chips. Thankfully, she’d also found a pair of grey runners that would fit him too - his feet were still ripe from the workboots, those that she’d also had the displeasure of sharing.

Archie and Au were looking far more stylish now, thanks to the mysteriously absent M&G Cong. Director, whom they both wished had been there to answer some tough questions of their own. The whole of the M&G Cong. building had looked like it had been abandoned for some time, just another strange piece of a puzzle rapidly increasing in scope and difficulty. Come to think of it, hadn’t Alden had some sort of fling with the Director a couple years back? Au hadn’t seen the Director since; she’d just assumed one had spurned the other. Taking a sabbatical, they had heard back then. Hadn’t thought about her since. But evidently, the Director had never come back. Hmm.

Archie and Au called up the elevator using the desk controls. The same countdown, though this time Archie kept control of himself, no risky leaps. They left the room, as the last vestiges of the sunset dappled through the windowed walls of the office, the extruding struct-let that Au had previously disapproved of from the outside coating the antique teak in a lovely warm hue.

They travelled slowly down on the elevator. It apparently sensed their weight and adjusted speed accordingly, which was just as well, as the sides of the elevator were without any sort of guard or ledge. They moved lower, seemingly free of standard elevator cables, down the vertical pillar that jutted from the side of the cavern.

Flush with the bottom platform, they stepped off the elevator, and down the ramp to where they had left the floating cargo sled. Au had started to think of it as a comrade, which was quite unlike her. Though - she was able to stop short of naming it. Archie took a brief respite to eat some stale chips; his hunger had nearly led him astray more than once. It was now late, late evening.

They hopped back on the sled, Archie eating chips, being lookout, legs hanging over the side as Au “rowed”. They passed the earlier elevator station that they had tumbled down. The moving platform was still blocking the light from the trapdoor hole, so they could only see with the sled’s under-light, a soft blue that didn’t travel far; the cathedral-ish cavern expanse, bisected by the C-rail, was filled with fog. It filtered into the small hole at the other side, the destination of choice for the sled. The midnight mists, thought Archie poetically, which was rare for him to do.

Au “rowed” in silence down the track, aside from Archie's rhythmic crunching, thinking all-the-while that there ought to be a better way to do this. They reached the edge of the cavern, and into the smaller tunnel. The floating sled continued to glow from underneath, though this mostly illuminated mist as they travelled. As far as she could tell, they were humming along a great curve.

Some time passed uneventfully. Au was able to row at about a sprinter’s pace, once she really got going. But it was tiring, and the ground underneath the C-rail was rough.

“Alright Archie”, she said, “that's enough crunching. Why don’t you take a turn.”

“Ok fine, I’ll give it a go. O. O^4.”

Archie had forgotten he was wearing the little squishy hexagon in his ear. The sled had taken off at his voice command. It’s responsiveness suggested that it had been designed to filter out the noise of potato chip crunches. Au and Archie barely hung on as it caromed through the darkness and mists. At one point, a rock outcropping appeared out of the dark, slicing the mists in a grim foreshadowing of what would happen if Au didn’t duck. Duck she did, crouching and holding on for dear life. It passed by with just a suggestion of a tousle of Archie's panic-stricken head. Archie, gritting his teeth, seemingly frozen, did not respond to Au’s slaps on the back of the head, an effective communication she thought, to get him to slow it down. They roared through the tunnel, with throat-gripping acceleration. Au saw a branch of the rail fly past, and disappear down another identical tunnel into the darkness, with no way to change their bearing apparent.

Relief came soon however, a few exhilarating s-curves later, as the machine began to slow. They pulled into a dead-end dock and platform. Au and Archie tumbled off the front as the machine drew to a stop, scattering crates and materiel with all the effectiveness of a professional coconut bowling champion from the beacheous regions.

Au, usually stoically secular, thanked most of the gods she knew, with a tidy all-encompassing scattershot of a prayer. Archie, for his part, was exhilarated. His budget boxhome hadn’t come with windows, so he’d never had the pleasure of seeing a C-rail journey first hand.

Like the yawning caverns they’d passed through, this end of the line was filled with ancient and ruinous constructions. The Alovian designers of the underground C-rail had evidently made good use of some vast underground sanctuary of the ancients, full of monuments and temples to forgotten deities. Also like the previous stations, the only light was a slight ambient blue glow, emitting from a recess in the base of the platform. It did not have an elevator, however, just a much larger version of the hexagonal door that had given them access to the unoccupied director's office at the M&G Cong. Well, thought Au, perhaps here is Alovian, whatever that entails. There was a symbol above on the door, and underneath was marked “receiving”. The symbol was an hourglass. The big part was on the bottom, as it should be. She wasn’t sure why, but she was both glad it was aligned that way, and at a very deep and nearly unconscious level, apprehensive about its inclusion in the space altogether.

Archie faced down the hexagonal door. He was used to how these things worked by now, and after uttering a few phrases into his earpiece, was able to get the door to listen, and glide open. They had been expecting more tunnels, or perhaps an underground bunker-like setting. And as such, Au and Archie Sandalwood were completely unprepared for the next room. Though, to be fair, this state was nothing new for Archie and he relished in it, as one always reasonably comfortable in a good pickle.

And, also to be fair, the term “room” was a fair bit of an understatement; they could see daylight, filtering down what must have been a kilometer. At their level it gave a soft, warm glow despite the carnivorous space.

Archie had seen parts of the complex before, from afar. Indeed, numerous Jards had with glimpses here and there. Glimpses here and there, just never from this particular position inside the expansive space, beneath the temples and the dome - bar one.

Technically, all that crested this enigmatic cavern-like techno-sanctuary could be seen from Old Jardinian. This includes the fallen temple complex sinking into the islands, and the translucent dome rising from within.

In practice, the structures were seldom visible beneath the mists over the quay facing Halcyon lake, the mists augmented and manipulated by the Acropolis micro-drones for agricultural purposes.

Any peek between the undulating mists offered confirmation that above the falls was just another ancient building, with some attempt at a contemporary retrofit, abandoned as fashions changed.

It is true that at one time, long ago, the ancient (even then) temple complex had been a tourist attraction, hence the ancient cable car.

But, it had been quietly removed from the data libraries, and thus, no self respecting tourist gave it a second thought. And for regular Jards, well, they say one never has the time to be a tourist in one’s own city. Tourists and locals alike surely loved the falls, but interest stopped at the bottom with all the crashing water action - where the graceful leaping vertitrout made their humble appearance.

On the rare occasions the complex was completely visible, the compound was but a domed apparition against the sun, far above the great crashing waters of the falls. The shining structure rose boldly out of the temple islands, though seen from such a distance, it was just a far-away shape in the sun amongst the ruins, themselves simply a background feature on the horizon above the falls. No-one spoke about the ruins, and few Jards thought about them at all. Like the Great Expanse, for each Jard’s frame of reference, they had just always been there. It didn’t fit into anyone’s daily experience, and thus the dome and ruins were left alone, perhaps as intended.

It’s no surprise these rare glimpses didn’t stimulate any curiosity; there were enough ancient buildings with mundane purposes around town to deflate any stirrings of investigative thought.

As it turned out, Au and Archie were nearly the first Jards to view the structure from the inside since the schism, and subsequent isolation, that had so afflicted the Alovians centuries ago.

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