As soon as they were admitted back into the Tower, Elian spoke, his voice throbbing with sarcasm. “You came back. How nice.”
“Just out for a stroll,” said Seth. “Interesting world out there and it pays to get to know it if we’re going to be stuck here for the rest of time, don’t you think?”
“You must think I’m stupid. Part of me is a thousand years old. I know why you went out there.”
Jehane looked at the nearest light sculpture apprehensively. Elian sounded furious in a way Kentigern never had
Calmly, Seth said, “Be honest. You think you know why we went out there, and you’re angry you don’t know for sure.”
“I’m pretty damn sure you wanted to avoid me!”
“Well, you haven’t been very friendly lately, have you?”
“Friendly! How friendly would you be when you’re trying to figure out how to save up to six billion people from a madman with alien technology that you should be able to understand, and meanwhile, half of the people you actually care about are trying to escape back to Earth? And my mother—” Elian’s voice broke off.
Then, a desperate note in his voice, he said, “Look, I’m sorry. I’ve been a little stressed. Please don’t do anything stupid just because I’m— Just don’t, okay?”
Ajax, Jehane and Seth exchanged looks. Seth shrugged and Ajax set his jaw.
“We all want the same thing,” said Jehane carefully. Seth rolled his eyes and Jehane scowled. “And actually, we were talking about helping you. Well, me helping you. Maybe if I shared my abilities with you again, that would be useful?”
After a long silent moment, Elian said, “Sure.” He sounded far too cheerful, all of the sudden. “I’ve been working on a better interface, too. It’s in the core.”
Jehane hesitated. If she managed to convince Elian to open a portal, how long would it last? Long enough for her to get to the Portalry and go through?
Ajax said, “You want me to come along?”
Chewing on her lip, Jehane said, “Yes. At least for the first time.”
Ajax narrowed his eyes, but shrugged. “Lead on.”
A chair had been constructed in the core, made of the same materials as the walls. The arms of the chair ended in deep, shimmering palm rests, and delicate bars curved out from the headrest like fingers.
“Pretty nice, huh?” said Elian, anxiously. “I hope it’s comfortable. I’ve had a set of machines working on it the last few days.”
“Just in case I stopped arguing with you?”
“Well, I like construction projects. And I thought— well, you’ll see. Take a seat.”
Nervously, Jehane settled into the chair. The headrest’s stone fingers bent toward her, resting lightly on her head. She placed her arms on the rests, and realized the palm rests were actually pools of goo. “I put my hands in this stuff?”
“Yep. And then you can send a bit of anima through it.”
At first touch, the goo was cold, but as she pushed her hands into it, it warmed up dramatically. Then she took a deep breath and flared her anima.
The shadow music that was a merging of Elian and Kentigern seemed to grow louder and then, floating in front of her was a translucent image of Elian. But it wasn’t Elian as he had been last time she saw him. His hair was white, and his dark skin was now ink black, with little flickers of light moving over it. One eye glowed a vivid blue, the same shade as the writing on the walls, while the other was covered with by a mirrored lens. On the other side of his image, she could see Seth and Ajax watching her curiously, but they seemed faded and distant. Lights moved around her, like the motes made large and colorful.
She jerked in the chair and he raised his hands. “It’s just a projection, so it’s easier to talk.” He hesitated. “Full disclosure: I can see pretty much everything in your mind from here.”
Jehane sat very still. No wonder he’d been so eager to get her in the chair. But at least he’d told her… after the fact.
He added, “I wasn’t sure if that would be true. I knew I’d see some of it— and it could be you still have secrets. But not among recent events.”
She said flatly, “That’s creepy.”
The image of Elian smiled ruefully. “I know, isn’t it?”
Jehane thought again about how it could have been her as the Tower ghost. How it should have been her. She was so glad it wasn’t, but she knew she’d never escape the thoughts of how it should have been her. Unless she could teach Elian what she could do.
Elian said, “That’s about the shape of it.”
“Stop it! If you won’t stop it, let me out of here. I need some thoughts to be my own, Elian.”
“Sorry,” he said, but she didn’t think he seemed very sorry. She really wanted some of her thoughts to be private, though. She remembered kissing Malachi, then squeezed her eyes shut, as if that could stop the thoughts.
“It could be,” said Elian idly, “that your thoughts are the only way I’ll ever experience some things now. Sad, isn’t it?”
“You are a bastard and I will stop being your friend.”
“You hadn’t?” He chuckled, a little, self-deprecating chuckle. “Well, now or later, it’s true. I’m figuring that out.” The glowing lights circling her dimmed, and Elian’s image flickered. “Ugh. Er. Hold on a moment, will you? Something’s wrong.”
Seth and Ajax became more real once again, each one standing on one side of her chair. Seth wasn’t smiling and Ajax had his hand under her wrist, as if preparing to pull her from the interface. With some effort, she shook her head.
“Augh,” said Elian.
Jehane tried to concentrate on his flickering image, and to extend her anima further. Maybe she could do something. “What’s wrong?”
“The other Towers… Surge is doing something. Some kind of search that is pulling on the substrate network. They want something inside of me.”
“Can I help?”
“Hell! No! Augh! Get out!” The chair collapsed beneath her abruptly, the smooth material springing apart into a collection of blocks. As her hands emerged from the goo, a sudden headache stabbed behind her eyes. The pain grew until she couldn’t see anything. She wailed, but Seth’s arms closed around her.
“I’ve got you,” he muttered, and with an effort of will, she forced the panic away. She couldn’t see, but it was just the pain from the disconnection. She concentrated on the pain. She knew a little about pain, knew how to make herself transparent so it would pass through her. Slowly, it started to ebb.
Distantly, she heard Ajax demand, “What the hell happened?”
“They were looking for her. For the imprint of her mind, I think. For… for something familiar?”
“Did they find it? Or did you get her out in time? What’s wrong with her?”
“The shock of the disconnection. I had to get her out fast! But I don’t know if it was fast enough. I wasn’t expecting that. It’s like they were waiting. I wasn’t expecting an attack over the substrate,” Elian repeated. He sounded dizzy.
“Why would they be looking for Jehane’s mind?” said Ajax, slowly.
Jehane knew, and tried to remember how to speak. At last she pawed at Seth’s hand and said, “Lailoken.”
Seth’s eyes widened. “Oh.”
“Tell me,” commanded Ajax.
Elian said, “The original ghost… the AI… it searched for Lailoken the Founder for a very, very long time before it found him. Naturally luminated minds create a disturbance, but it had to learn what the signature was.”
Seth said, “And then it opened the first gate.”
“But it can’t open a gate here, right?”
Elian was quiet for a moment. “I don’t think so. But now it knows what a naturally luminated mind looks like. It knows the ripples. They don’t have to rely on our gates anymore. They’re going to open their own.”
Apprehensively, Ajax said, “How long will that take?”
“Um. They’ve already worked out a way to target Earth, we’ve made that easy for them. It can’t possibly take as long as it did to find Lailoken. Now you really can’t go through the portal, Jehane. They’d find you immediately.”
Jehane nodded. The pain had faded enough that she could see again, but she closed her eyes as anguish overtook the physical pain.
“But minds like Jehene’s are unbelievably rare, right?” Ajax sounded like somebody looking for any bright side.
“Sane Jehane is unbelievably rare. Insane, dead young Jehane is estimated at one in a million. So I’d guess they have about 5000 potential targets if they don’t care about finding one who’s utterly broken.”
“But how long will it take?”
Elian’s voice rose. “I have no idea! I never tried it that way. I barely remember the algorithms for searching remotely without my transmitters. They must have reverse engineered them…”
Seth spoke up. “We have a little time, at least. There are still portals open, so they must want a specific location. Or kind of location.”
Ajax’s fists clenched. “But not much time. They’re ready to move.”
Elian said, “Guys—”