At the bottom of the elevator shaft we found the lift car, smashed. Jeremiah helped me over the debris and we came out into a long corridor dimly lit by little yellow lamps. At intervals their light was aided by white orbs on metal stands, connected to the thick cylinder of cabling laid by engineers of the Citadel of the Recovery. Jeremiah strode down the silent corridor and I followed him, still chilled by his latest revelation about the untamed galactic wilderness beyond the borders of the Panstellar Neighbourhood.
The corridor ended in a large chamber with a high-domed ceiling, with floors of intricate tiling forming a pattern that swirled from the walls into the centre, ultimately rising into a stepped fountain which babbled and splashed with brown, silty water. In the middle of the fountain was a statue of a man with children and dogs playing at his feet, and sparrows alighted on his shoulders. He wore a long cape and a serious but not unkind expression on his long face. He bore a simple crown in the shape of interlocking leaves. "Terron Volmash, I presume."
"Yes," confirmed Jeremiah.
Inset in the walls along the sides of the chamber were blank rectangular screens, their faces dusty and dark -- dozens upon dozens of them, aligned in neat rows. "Dataplates?" I wondered aloud.
"Televisions," corrected Jeremiah. "Dataplates dedicated to videographic and holographic streams of images and sound."
"The images and sounds of what?" I scratched my head, thinking of the televisual programs I had seen in the hospital on Samundra: nature documentaries, pharmaceutical informationals, and a series of odd little cartoons about an anthropomorphisized comet who had a penchant for finding trouble among a pack of bullying asteroids.
"The human fascination with visual narrative is universal. Televisual streams cover all facets of life, from the banal to the fantastic. There were televisions at Castle Misne. Did you never watch?"
I shrugged. "I found it confusing. It seemed to me that whatever was going on on television was over my head, so I figured it wasn't really any of my business."
"Interesting," said Jeremiah. He gestured to the rows of blank screens. "Televisual streams were the front lines of the hegemony's spread, for the life they depicted was vital, luxuriant and proud. Kamari Star developed a new mythology for itself, a vision powerful enough to dazzle both near and far. This televisually broadcast feeling of shared experience formed the basis for the standardizing of Kamari's intrastellar cultures."
"And, presumably, Kamari's interstellar ventures."
"Yes," said Jeremiah. "Life finds a way. Even corporate life. And the politicians of Metra were not blind to this, which is why they parasited their government upon the back of their cultural exports. In this way they believed they could control the worlds of a foreign star without breaking the Panstellar Covenant."
I wandered past him. The furthest wall beyond the statue of Volmash was covered in open stone cells, and in each cell sat a stone figurine carved in the shape of a bird. I recognized the layout immediately from the image I had been shown by Crushed Head Faeda. The bird whose features had seemed familiar to me was missing, its former perch reduced to a broken edge around a gaping hole through which the Citadelite cabling ran. "The puzzle," I sighed. "And already correctly penetrated."
"Then we are too late."
Jeremiah shook his head curtly. "The Citadelite expedition is still inside. If this is the hiding place of the Nightmare Cannon, it remains within these walls as we speak."
I walked past the fountain and touched the edges of the hole as I peered into the inscrutable darkness inside. Citadelite tools lay on the grit-covered floor. "They had to force their way in. They just wanted to know where to cut."
I turned around to face Jeremiah. "Lucky thing I knew."
Jeremiah walked up to me, his eyes on the rows of stone birds. "What would you have me say?"
"You know who I was."
"And I was not Volmash's engineer, was I? Nor his aide."
We stared at each other for a long moment. "I just want to hear you say it," I said.
Jeremiah ducked his head and crawled through the hole in the middle of the matrix of raptors, his carapace glowing feebly in the pitch. My eyes burned. I closed them, but that darkness was worse. Feeling the hungry stares of the stone birds upon me I quickly bent down and followed him.
We emerged at the mouth of a maze, three corridors of featureless grey slate branching off in three directions, each dimly lit by widely spaced yellow lamps separated by long isles of shadow.
Jeremiah turned to me. "Lead on," he said.
I swallowed. "I haven't the foggiest..."
I trailed off as he simply continued to gaze at me patiently, so I walked past him with an irritated snort and proceeded down the left fork, on a whim. I could hear his smooth footfalls keeping pace behind. At the next junction I chose again at random, nursing some childish hope that I could demonstrate the futility of my lead. Surely I had no special knowledge of this maze. Surely not I.
The walls seemed to absorb sound, so that our steps and even our voices sounded muffled and distant. The silence was disarming in its surreality. Nightmarish half-memories dabbed at my consciousness: a flight with rubber legs through dark halls, yearning to make it around the next turn, the beast's hot breath on the nape of my neck...
We came to a dead-end and were forced to double-back. I gave Jeremiah a defiant smirk as I passed him. But then I stopped up short for the way we'd come was blocked by a wall. "What kind of a maze is this? Nobody could memorize the layout -- it's moving." I shrugged lamely. "I don't think I can help you here, robot."
I took a swig of water from my flask and muscled past him roughly, striding quickly down toward the dead-end -- which was now open, and presented us with three new choices of corridor. I chose the right branch, and then purposefully second-guessed myself at the last moment and plunged straight down the middle recklessly.
Time passed. We meandered left and right, came to dead-ends and turned around, right and left again. The slippery phantoms of sleep imagery continued to push up at my brain, fogging my vision and giving me difficulty discerning reality from imagination. The muscles in my neck knotted, but it wasn't hot breath behind me -- just Jeremiah.
At one point I peed in the corner, and a long while later we found ourselves standing at that same spot. "We're going in circles," I said, shaking my head sadly. "We'll be trapped here forever."
"Continue," said Jeremiah.
"It's pointless!" I shouted. "The Citadelites are probably in the same position we're in -- hopelessly lost!"
"I can't keep doing this, walking forever -- have mercy!" I cried, rounding on the impassive machine with wild eyes and clenched fists.
Jeremiah did not flinch. After an interval he crisply pronounced, "Do not speak of mercy to me. Not you. Not ever."
I wanted to shout something back but my throat was dry and constricted. I dropped my hands to my sides and sagged. Jeremiah waited briefly and then indicated the path ahead. "Continue," he said.
We continued. After three more hours I pushed my shoulder into a corner and allowed myself to slide down the grey walls, landing in an exhausted heap upon the cold, dusty floor. "I can't go on," I declared, my breath heaving.
Jeremiah stood at my feet quietly. I heard a distant grinding, and then a thump. Jeremiah cocked his head, listening. "That is the first time the walls have moved without reference to our actions," he said in a hush. "I believe the process is complete."
"What process?" I breathed, eyes closed.
"I believe this maze is an authentication device. It has been testing you."
"You're saying the maze is intelligent?"
"I believe it has been designed to qualify and compare the problem solving strategies of whomsoever should attempt to navigate it. No two beings approach puzzles in quite the same way. Thus, it queries us with shifting walls until our pattern of solution matches a problem solving signature in its database." There was another rumbling boom, and the smell of a new air drifted down the corridor. Jeremiah pointed to where a bluish light was shining weakly around the next corner. "In this case I believe it has been keyed to...you, and you have now been positively identified by the maze."
He held out his hand. After a pause I took it, and allowed him to haul me to my feet. We both passed through the end of the corridor, turned the corner and emerged into a large, dark gallery full of statues with lurid blue lights shining upward from their pedestals. As we stepped into the gallery the door slid closed behind us, its boom decaying away quickly.
At the far end of the gallery was a second door, now grinding ponderously open. Over the door was a script I did not recognize. The glyphs almost looked like letters but were canted and looped in unfamiliar ways. "Late Hengrishe," observed Jeremiah solemnly. "It says: Beware the Minotaur."
"What's a Minotaur?" I asked.
Just then we were knocked off our feet by a shuddering blast, the floor quaking beneath us. A second later the door we had just come through was shredded by a second explosion, followed by a blossom of dirty smoke. Coughing, I rolled over and got to my feet, kicking back the side of my red leather longcoat and drawing the Smith-Shurtook from its holster.
Two grey-cassocked monks with hard eyes came through the wrecked door first, followed by a willowy, almond-eyed girl in white robes who bore an unmistakable resemblance to Crushed Head Faeda. She could not have been older than fifteen. Her brown eyes were fixed on me, lip curling menacingly. "Murderer!" she hissed. "Guards!"
A platoon of grey uniformed soldiers jogged into the gallery and leveled their weapons at Jeremiah and I. "Drop your weapons!" one of them commanded.
"No!" I said.
A beat. "Drop your weapons or we'll shoot!" he barked.
"I doubt it," I replied.
"Where is the Cannon?" demanded the girl in white.
"I don't think we're through the maze, yet," I said, pointing to the open doorway behind us. "If you kill me now you'll never get there."
The girl frowned, her face taking on an even more childish quality. "Nestor Simonithrat Fell," she said, the muscles in neck working with tension, "you are a man of commerce and therefore a liar. You will not negotiate your way out of the execution so you richly deserve."
I chuckled. "I'm not Nestor Fell."
"Let's go, Jeremiah." I turned on heel and walked through the doorway, Jeremiah padding beside me. This next section of maze was darker than the first, lit by widely spaced amber lamps set into the floor. The air was more moist, and had a fetid edge to it. Ignoring this I pushed ahead, quickly choosing one branch and then another, eager to put a few corners between us and the Citadelites before they gathered the sense to follow us.
"I've lost visual contact!" I heard one of the soldiers shout, his voice echoing strangely around us.
We continued to hear their whispers even after we made yet another turn, and I wondered at this. Jeremiah indicated for silence, then leaned in closely to my ear. "Listen, Simon. Every sound is travelling the length of every hall. They can hear our footfalls right behind them as surely as we can hear their voices, but I believe they are no longer close by."
"An acoustic trick?" I frowned.
"Hey, shut up -- I can hear them!" cried one of the soldiers. Jeremiah and I stood in silence and I held my breath. A few seconds later I heard the soldiers exhale. "I don't hear anything," someone else claimed.
"Find them!" snapped the voice of the young girl viciously. The sound of their careful footfalls resumed, seeming to come from all around us.
This maze did not move. It was dark and still and uncomfortably warm. Jeremiah and I slunk on steadily, laboring to keep our steps as quiet as possible. In contrast the Citadel's plodding, murmuring party was easy to monitor.
I heard one of them gasp. Shuffling footfalls, and then a blood curdling scream.
I froze. "Mother of --"
A weapon fired in staccato rhythm, followed by a series of grunts and then another terrifying cry of pain. When it died away all we could hear were panicked, overlapping footsteps and heavy breathing.
"What was it?" demanded the girl, her voice shaking.
"I don't know m'lady, but I'll take care of it," promised the commanding soldier.
A moment later his dying cry resounded through every corridor in the maze. Jeremiah and I looked at one another. "The Minotaur?" I whispered.
He nodded. "A creature of myth, fierce guardian of a labyrinth."
"That didn't sound like any myth," I replied soberly.
"Indeed not," agreed Jeremiah.
It was not long thereafter that we came across the soldiers' remains, mangled unspeakably, their entrails dragged out along the length of the corridor for meters and meters and blood sprayed across the walls in rough lines. I averted my eyes and we moved past them.
Over the next while we occasionally heard muted chatter from the other party. Now and again we heard something we could not identify: a low moan, a snort of breath, or a clicking, dragging sound. I shuddered and tried not to imagine what sort of creature madmen like the tyrants of Kamari might have peopled this sick trap with. I tried not to imagine anything, focusing my mind on the grim game of selecting: left, right, or centre?
I became hypnotized, and time lost all meaning.
The sound of the dragging, moaning footfalls had locked so neatly into the rhythm of our own steps that it must have been a long time before they penetrated my attention. "Do you hear that?" I whispered fiercely.
"Sir, we have no choice but to keep moving," replied Jeremiah quietly.
I shivered. "It's matching our pace...it can hear us. It must be close."
"Continue," urged Jeremiah.
And then -- of course -- we came upon a section of corridor in which all the lamps had died. It was a stretch of total darkness, dropping off before our feet into instant infinity. I paused at the threshold, paralyzed, the sound of my pounding heart deafening me to all else.
Jeremiah walked past me without hesitation, his blue-green glow bobbing smaller and dimmer down the tunnel. I looked behind me at the blank walls and amber lamps, and found no comfort there. Muttering one of Glory's profanities under my breath I jogged into the shadows after the apparent robot.
His glow vanished around a corner and I hurried to catch him, relieved when I saw his back again. He turned another corner and I ran up to meet him, wheeling around the end of the wall and stopping short at the blank field of darkness that met me.
I heard nothing.
Reaching my arms out before me I groped for the next section of wall. I took one cautious step forward, and then another. "Jeremiah?" I whispered, my airy voice seeming very loud despite the constant banging of my blood in my ears.
There came a soft thud, followed by a dragging sound.
I took another step, my fingers aching to find the wall. My knees felt loose and rebellious. I felt as if I were sinking into the floor as I lifted my foot to take another pace. I leaned forward, my digits twitching.
Another thud. A low, whinnying kind of moan. It sounded for the life of me like it was right before my face.
"Acoustic trick," I reminded myself, trying to keep hold of my sanity. I squeezed my hands into tight fists until the pain of my fingernails digging into my palms caused little stars to shoot through my vision. I took a deep breath and stepped forward again.
I ran up against something hard, covered in hair. A hot, moist fume chuffed across my hands, and the thing moaned again. I felt its breath, and my bowels creaked in instinctive dread. The Minotaur had me!
I knew suddenly what I was, in that living moment: prey.
With an involuntary shriek of terror I threw myself backward, and heard the thing shuffle in sudden motion. I was felled by a hard, swift limb, the wind knocked from my lungs. Gasping and wheezing I shot to my feet and straight into a wall, more stars exploding across my useless field of nonvision.
I was grabbed and thrown against another wall, the thing's hot breath chortling against my leg. I jerked my leg away and squeezed spasmodically on the Smith-Shurtook's trigger. It barked twice, a harsh orange light sputtering from the end and illuminating briefly a hulking, inhuman shadow.
Apparently it was unharmed for I next felt myself picked up by the ankle and shaken roughly. I slammed into another wall and slid to the floor, groaning. I rolled into a ball, clutching the gun against my face, and pinched my eyes shut tightly until I saw colours. "Jeremiah!" I screamed.
To my shock I heard the word, "Sir!" right beside my ear, and a moment later I was pulled to my feet by a glowing green hand. I stumbled after it and we pelted through the blackness, jerked right and then left, right again. I flailed behind the speeding robot, crashing my elbows against the walls and my knees against the floor.
I fell in a disoriented pile when he released me, and from the sound of my own fall's echoes I knew that we had exited the maze and were now in a very large chamber. I heard a door slide shut, and opened my eyes to see the maze sealed. I turned around. Jeremiah was walking slowly deeper into the chamber, his arms limp at his sides. I stood up shakily.
The room was a ring, like the habitat hub of a spaceship on its side. It curved away to either side of us far away, encompassing a massive diameter. It was filled with empty desks with blank plates, abandoned chairs askew. A jungle of cabling snaked over the ceiling, thick fibres leading down to cluster of consoles and televisual boxes. An inch of dust covered every surface, including the occasional robot.
Like any formerly busy place devoid of people, it was chilling in its peace.
Directly before us was a wide gate, its doors open, leading into a second ring within the first, a slightly smaller but still vast chamber filled with a different kind of furniture. Jeremiah walked through the gate and I followed him. As we drew nearer it became apparent that the furnishings were not desks, but tables. Surgical tables. And they had patients on them.
Even after a few years the smell was strong. I crinkled my nose in disgust. Brown skeletons wreathed in tendrils of dried meat and tendon lay row after row in the second ring, still attached to dead medical appliances wheeled up to their sides. Jeremiah touched the controls of one of the machines, but it did not respond. He knocked on the chest of one of the robots, and it fell over with a bloom of flying motes.
"A...hospital?" I wondered aloud.
"No," said Jeremiah.
Some thirty degrees clockwise around the second ring was the aperture to a third ring. The doors were sealed but Jeremiah was able to force them manually, pushing the thick sheets of metal back into their recesses as the jammed mechanisms whined and coughed. When he was done I stepped through, and hesitantly passed through more rows of tables, more bodies penetrated by obscene assortments of tools.
My breath was coming too fast, and my head ached. Jeremiah caught my elbow. "Continue," he said.
Another thirty degrees of circumnavigation brought us to another aperture, this one already wrecked for us though obviously long ago, the bent doors covered in dust. I passed quickly through the fourth ring without looking at anything, but Jeremiah caught up to me in the fifth ring and dragged me over to an examination table. The robot standing over the corpse appeared to be have been frozen in the process of performing a curious amputation. "Do you understand?" Jeremiah demanded sharply.
"Torture," I muttered weakly. "Suffering."
Jeremiah indicated the cables leading from each table up into the ceiling. "Channeled suffering, Simon. Piped away. Collected." He turned to look me in the eyes. "Broadcast."
The sixth ring was worse. Several of the lights had failed, and in the shadows I could not shake the feeling that the robots were moving when I turned my back. Or that the bodies were. In the seventh ring there lay the corrupt corpses of both animals and people, and some disfigured horrors that seemed to be a union of both. In the eighth ring were children, their backs arched in torment, the tops of their skulls removed and a garden of instruments sunk into the dried brown lumps within.
I paused against the wall, my eyes closed and my breathing ragged. After a moment I heard Jeremiah approach from behind me. He put a gentle hand on my shoulder.
I shook it off. "You're telling me I did this," I cried into my muffling forearm. I looked up at the dark ceiling covered in organic whorls of dark cabling. "You're telling me this is mine."
He did not answer.
I spun around and cried, "Why would anyone be a part of this? It isn't real! It doesn't make sense! This can't be right!" I collapsed on the floor, spreading the dust with my shaking fingers. "Tell me it isn't true, Jeremiah. Tell me you're playing with me, to be cruel."
He said, "Atrocities can be justified in the defense of a great union, for the question can be framed as choosing the lesser of two evils."
I blinked, and leaned back against the wall with a rough sigh. "How?"
"By misrepresenting the motives of the enemy, by making theater a more compelling power in politics than discourse, and by artfully catalyzing a population's overwhelming desire to believe in the righteousness of the Kamari way of life." He again helped me to my feet, and indicated the way clockwise. "Continue," he said.
In the ninth ring were infants.
A distant boom sounded. Jeremiah cocked his head. "The Citadelites are still demolishing their way through. We must proceed to the inner chamber." We found the last set of doors open, and I ran through with my eyes locked straight ahead, sick to my soul.
The inner chamber was round. At its centre was a wide platform, atop which was mounted a great and menacing device much like an overgrown gun, its giant muzzle pointed at a wall lined with dark-faced televisions. It was black.
I walked slowly beneath the muzzle, reaching up to touch the cold metal with my hand. "The Nightmare Cannon?" I frowned. "We're never going to get this thing out of here. Why does everything in this galaxy fit into the palm of my hand...except this?"
Jeremiah knocked on the side of the base experimentally. "I believe this housing is for the purposes of display. The weapon itself is likely a small component, somewhere within."
Birds chirped. I swung around to search the ceiling, spotting the tiny flitting things in the shadows with effort. When I looked down six silver robots in intricately filigreed carapaces were stepping out of an alcove behind the weapon's base. "Jeremiah..." I called.
"You are trespassing. The penalty is death," said one of the robots flatly.
Jeremiah dropped off the platform and stood beside me. "We come under the authority of the Queen of Space," he announced loudly.
At that the robots ran forward with surprising speed. Jeremiah stepped forward to meet them, settling into a kind of ready half-crouch I had never seen before. When the first silver robot attempted to grab him Jeremiah flew into action, whirling about and striking the robot in the middle of its chest with a precision kick. The robot clattered to the floor noisily, and Jeremiah wheeled on the other five.
Two of them attacked at once. Jeremiah dropped to the floor and sprang up beside them, twisting his arms around their legs and pulling them to the ground. He jumped up and stood on their chests while they squirmed beneath him.
The remaining four robots leapt at him, and the fight became a blur of flashing carapaces and the rhythmic clicking, clanking sound of metal striking metal. I was unable to see who was ahead until Jeremiah came flying out the fracas and crashed into a wall violently, televisions smashing around him.
I leveled the Smith-Shurtook at the cluster of silver robots and fired repeatedly. The bullets sparked on their armor but did not penetrate it, my volley leaving them totally undisturbed until I caught one of them in the eye. It popped and fizzled. Now considering me a valid threat, the machines began to advance on me. I backed up slowly, still firing.
Jeremiah jumped over their line and landed among them, spinning as he kicked out in a rapid rhythm. The silver robots scattered, falling on their backs and skidding along the floor. Jeremiah picked up the one-eyed robot and swung him by his ankles, working up the momentum necessary to cast him into the others as a weapon unto itself. He smacked down first one robot and then another, then released his grip and the one-eyed robot sailed into the side of the Nightmare Cannon and crumpled, its head dented in roughly.
One of the robots who hadn't been knocked to the ground leapt at me, but I kept firing the Smith-Shurtook into its face until both eyes popped with twin, loud cracks and something sparked from within. The robot fell, embers raining from its sockets.
Jeremiah and the remaining four had resumed their high-speed combat. I cheered as two more robots dropped out of the melee, the carapaces over their heads broken. A third robot sailed over top of me and struck the ceiling in a hail of debris. It piled into the floor heavily and did not move again.
The last robot, however, continued to put up quite a fight, its limbs flashing into a shining blur as it met Jeremiah's every move with a precise an effective counter-move. The two robots ranged across the room, clanking and clicking in an ever-increasing rhythm until the sounds of their clashing formed an almost constant wash of noise.
Jeremiah was thrown. In a single powerful leap he returned to meet his opponent, who was in turn cast with inhuman strength to tumble across the floor, elbows and knees clanking loudly. Jeremiah ran after the robot and jumped upon it even before it had come to a rest, the two of them wrestling across the floor with moves too quick to discern with the human eye. As they rolled into the threshold of the chamber entrance, however, I espied my opportunity to contribute.
I ran over and slapped the contact on the wall next to the door, and it began to grind closed heavily. Jeremiah lifted his head and pulled aside just in time: his opponent's head was taken beneath the door and pressed into the metal jamb with a disturbingly organic crunching noise. The silver robot's filigreed body jerked once, and then lay still.
I helped Jeremiah to his feet, and then we both hit the ground as the report of another nearby explosion jostled the chamber. I got up again, rubbing my hip. "They're getting closer," I said.
Jeremiah nodded. "I will investigate the Cannon," he said, springing deftly away and climbing the weapon's mount. I noticed that his carapace was cracked and split in several places. He walked out along the Cannon's barrel and then fished himself inside its very mouth. A moment later I could hear him banging around inside the housing.
"Hurry up!" I called.
I paced the chamber nervously, glancing up at the little birds flying around the ceiling as they chirped. Another boom sounded, closer now, and I knew the Citadelites were almost upon us. And perhaps something else, as well -- something worse.
"Hurry!" I implored.