Illumination 3.7: Planning For The End Of The World

Jehane moved quietly through the corridors again. She’d left Elian at the core, because they both felt uncomfortable leaving Kentigern alone at his heart at a time like this. Normally Kentigern would be able to deliver messages for them, or direct them to who they hoped to find, but he had admitted that he wasn’t reliable that way anymore. Half the time, he saw his people as nothing more than frightening black silhouettes, moving in ways he could no longer understand.

That left Jehane as best suited to finding somebody in charge, so she was the one who walked away. She passed whole families clustered in the halls, working together to repair the walls. Small children chased passing motes with jars and brought them to their elders, who spoke to them firmly and released them up against damaged walls. Older children herded the tiny mini machines.

It didn’t seem, to Jehane, that much was being accomplished by the children. Some of the adults, Readers who’d studied Kentigern for decades, actually seemed to be using small, unfamiliar tools to manipulate the material of the hallways themselves. That seemed better, but she didn’t think it would be enough. It seemed like putting bandaids on a skinned knee compared to dealing with the massive damage that Kentigern suggested was lurking under the surface.

“Darkness is a defense, as well as a danger,” observed Kentigern, randomly. An elderly Reader sat against the wall, writing in a book the characters that drifted across an undamaged section of wall. He glanced up when Kentigern spoke, then patted the wall and sighed, watching Jehane pass by.

She could feel his eyes on her as she entered the dining hall. He’d seemed so sad. She supposed that for the older Guardians, Kentigern had been the one friend they could rely on to outlast them.

Her throat tightened, and she shook her head. Kwan sat at a table in the dining hall, eating a bowl of soup while talking soberly to Hatherly and several other Nightlights.

She approached the teacher, and he noticed her immediately. “Pull up a chair, Jehane. An exciting mini-break, eh?”

Jehane regarded him solemnly. It seemed like a ludicrous thing to say, but somehow he pulled it off. “Kentigern told us he’s going to shut down permanently soon. In a few days at most. I thought I should tell somebody.”

Kwan sighed and rubbed his temple, then pushed his soup away. “I was afraid of that. Well, he’s been here for a long time.” There was a shifting and murmuring from the others at the table.

Jehane wondered if everybody knew what was going on, somewhere deep inside. “What will we do?”

“Well, it depends on how Kentigern goes out. We should probably evacuate the children and their caretakers immediately, though.” He turned to speak briefly with two of the people at the table. They got up immediately, and went to speak with the kitchen staff.

“What about the rest of us?” demanded the Nightlight remaining at the table, a young woman with a sheet of dark brown hair. Jehane listened to her fast-paced shadow music and remembered her name: Aya. “What about the Guardians? Is this it?”

Mildly, Kwan said, “We still have the luminators. This Tower is our base. It’s a convenient transportation hub, not our heart.”

“It’s Kentigern,” said Aya harshly, then closed her mouth, her lips thin

“I know,” said Kwan simply. “But Kentigern outlasted his people. We can outlast him. Surviving will be the best thing we can do for him.” He took a deep breath and looked at Jehane again. “It’s possible we can move to another tower. There’s a lot of them out there. If Kentigern shuts down gracefully after the primary evacuation, a squad could make its way to another tower and try to activate it. There are Prowlers who have been in them; they aren’t all hostile. Some are just odd. It would be risky, of course. If they couldn’t activate portals back, they’d be trapped here.”

Hatherly folded his hands neatly on the table. “I’m quite certain that there are some Prowlers who would prefer to spend the rest of their lives here rather than on Earth. It isn’t a hellish place, just strange.” A faint, reminiscent smile flickered across his face. “I did some time with the Prowlers before realizing I had more to offer as a Nightlight.”

Jehane said uneasily, “Kentigern said he was odd, too. Like the other towers. But Lailoken patched him up. That’s not in the histories.” Jehane knew as much as she could find about Lailoken, since people were so fond of comparing her to him. “But the histories are fuzzy around then. Kentigern doesn’t like recalling things from… before. I guess before the patch.” She was terrified they were going to expect her to repeat Lailoken’s feat with another tower. But if she had to do that to stay here, she’d find a way. Somehow. “So there’s hope,” she ended, borrowing Seth’s chirpiest tone.

Aya had been gazing at the tabletop, but she looked up, her expression dark. “The antecessors built all this, maybe even this whole world, and where are they too? They ended, too. Everything ends. We’re just trying to sustain things a little longer. We never talk about it, but we’re sitting in the dark.” When everybody looked at her, she shifted uncomfortably. “Hey, I’m all for survival. But how does ignoring the truth help?”

Hatherly sighed and said unhappily, “Thank you for your contribution, Aya.”

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