“No, I don’t want you fighting,” said Doctor Pepperman pleasantly to Natalie, when she asked if she could leave the infirmary. “You’re still recovering. We’re not in desperate straits yet.”
Natalie gave the doctor a belligerent look, but struggled to explain patiently. “Wildlife is breaking through the walls, doctor. And Kentigern is sick. I don’t know how you can consider that not ‘desperate straits’.”
“The exits still work, don’t they? If things get bad enough, we can retreat to Earth. Kentigern survived for millenia without us. I suspect he could sort things out right quickly if he didn’t have to worry about our fragile lives.” Pepperman gave Natalie a look she was all too familiar with, which told her there was no use arguing with him.
“I hate just sitting around in here, especially when other people are working,” she complained.
“Would you rather sit around at home?”
Natalie considered only a moment before shuddering. “At least here I’m aware of what’s going on.” It was true. Even with Kentigern acting strangely, people regularly passed through the infirmary, reporting on the battles at the curtain as they got treatment for minor injuries. Natalie noticed how the doctor let some people who seemed more injured than her go back to the front, while keeping others, like Rohan, behind. It was, she felt, totally unfair of him to use his advanced medical knowledge to control people like that. For their own good, hah!
Doctor Pepperman set aside the tablet he’d been working on and gave her another look. “If you really want to do something, you could be my gopher. All of my people are busy. I know it’s not as prestigious as smacking down a barrus, but it’s just as necessary.”
Natalie gave the doctor a wary look. “What do you need?”
“Well, to start with, we need to get some supplies from the medical storeroom.” He pulled out a mini tablet from his desk and synced it with his own tablet, then pushed it across to her. “A list, with photo references. Everything’s sorted by numbered bin.”
“Oh, fine,” Natalie said as she snatched up the list. “I’ll be back in a little bit.”
“Take the lift at the back of the infirmary.” Doctor Pepperman pointed it out to her, then went to answer one of his assistant’s calls.
The upper level of the infirmary was a gallery that opened onto the storage level. She recognized the honeycombed rooms and the irising doors, although this area was far from the general storage she was more familiar with. She peeked in a few doors, coming across several rooms covered with large pieces of equipment hidden under sheets. She peeked under a few of the sheets and some of the equipment seemed positively medieval.
One of the rooms seemed to be a full operating theater, and Natalie vaguely recalled that Kentigern could move the chambers around when required, lowering them into pockets specially crafted to receive the modular rooms. There was a similar pocket in the center of the school wing that they used sometimes.
Eventually, she found the storeroom with the bins that matched the numbers on her tablet. It was full of not just medications and bandages and salves, but tiny metal tools and chilly temperature-controlled cases, all mysterious to her. But there was a stack of empty bins by the door, so she took one of those and went to work, meticulously comparing the numbers and pictures.
Something clattered outside, and a door whirred. She peeked out the door, remembering the monster that had come to life in the infirmary. There was nothing in the hall, but several of the doors on the other side of the catwalk were open. As she listened, she heard the thunk of metal striking something fleshy, and in the far distance the cry of a belette, one of the more aggressive forms of wildlife. She realized that the storerooms on the other side of the catwalk must be near the outer curtain, although above ground level.
That made the open doors worrying. She put down the bin of medical supplies and crossed to the other side of the gallery. As she approached the open doors, she realized something was dripping from above. At first she thought it was the watery remains of an Awakened, but when she cautiously poked it, it turned out to be much thicker.
The first open room was half-full of white storage crates. Two of them had crumbled, spilling their contents everywhere: a sort of ooze that glittered in a metallic fashion. And the wall between this storeroom and the next had a hole melted in it.
She stooped to step through the hole, and found herself in another room, very like the first except that more of the crates had crumbled. Piles of fabric soaked up the thick fluid. Another hole led to another room, this time from the back of the storeroom. In this room, all of the crates had crumbled, but there was no goo anywhere. Thousands of tiny silvery wrappers spilled out of some of the crumbled crates. And there was yet another hole.
She thought she must be quite near the outer wall now, and wondered if something had burrowed through. Kentigern might be too damaged to notify anybody. She had to find out.
As she stepped into the next room, Kentigern gave a sort of chirrup and the light behind her went out as the one ahead of her failed to turn on. She froze, waiting for the flicker to pass. But it wasn’t a flicker. The storeroom lights behind and ahead of her were gone. She was in total darkness.
As her eyes tried and failed to adjust, she realized the sound of fighting was closer at hand. She ought to turn around and go back, she realized. Moving forward risked falling through the breach she was looking for.
The Prowlers and others fighting at the curtain would have flashlights. Probably she should have found one before going exploring, but she’d never, ever needed one inside the Tower before. The Tower lights were a constant.
She felt cold and depressed. Then she realized she really did feel cold, and that there was a faint glimmer of light ahead.
Very, very carefully, she moved forward. And after a moment, she realized it wasn’t the battle lights from outside. It was the nearly useless glow of a Stage 2 weapon.
“Hello?” she called.
The light turned toward her. “What are you doing here?” said a familiar voice. She could just make out Ajax’s broad shoulders.
“Looking for whatever made these holes. Are Rose and Kotone around here somewhere? Seth stopped by and told me he’d sent you off with them.”
She could hear his scowl. “No. If I’m not going to follow you around, I’m certainly not going to hang out with them.”
Natalie blinked. “What?”
“Uh, nothing. I found this hole and I thought I ought to guard it. There’s an opening to the outside over here. I have no idea why it’s here.”
Natalie tried to focus on what Ajax was saying now, not to puzzle out what he’d said a moment ago. “I think Kentigern’s trying to… build something. Maybe part of fixing himself.”
Ajax smirked. “Yeah? Good trick, if it works.”
“I think,” Natalie decided, “I’d better stay here with you. If it backfires, Kentigern will need our help.”
For a moment, Ajax’s eyes gleamed in the darkness. “Oh, goodie. I should have known.”
This, she did her best to ignore.
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