Illumination 9.6: –Thunder

“Guys!” Elian repeated, his voice shrill with panic. “Tower Effa is gone.”

Fear shot through Ajax like a cold spike. “What do you mean, gone? Blown up?”

“It’s no longer on the network. And my long-range sensors are picking up a… a disturbance. A portal? I’m notifying the other residents, and asking the other Towers to confirm my sensors.”

Jehane, still leaning on Seth, said, “Can you tell where the portal leads?”

“I’m not even sure it is a portal. I shouldn’t be able to detect a portal at this distance. And no, I can’t. We’d need to access the news on the other side.”

Jehane looked startled. “The news would know?”

“If it’s a portal, it’s gotta be a big one. I think the city would be left on the other side, though.”

Ajax blinked. “Wow. Is this what they intended to do? Or was it an accident?” And he didn’t know what he wanted the answer to be. If it was only a city–

“How could we tell?” asked Seth acidly. “I’m guessing an accident, though. What you get when you try jury-rigging a portal with an insane AI. Why the hell didn’t they just use a latchkey tuned to Tower Effa?”

“If everybody was over here, they would have had to send somebody out through one of my two remaining portals. Walk into our not-very-subtle traps— Tower Effa has come back online!” Elian paused. “Sending… insanities. Start codes for genecode factories. It thinks it’s at war again.”

“Like Kentigern did?” asked Jehane, breathlessly, her eyes huge.

“Yeah. End state for all of us, I guess. We go down fighting. But this time its war is with whatever’s on the other side of its portal. It’s calling the local wildlife to it.”

“Will the wildlife respond?” Ajax asked. His hands clenched into fists.

“Too soon to tell. But it’s going to make more, if its factories respond. Stuff that hasn’t evolved into the critters the Prowlers are familiar with. Stuff straight from the initial experiments with biological-Awakened crossbreeds.”

“You mean… they’ve opened a gate in a city we can’t access and are flooding it with hyper-engineered versions of the enemies that only we know how to fight?”

Seth pointed out, “The Prowlers use mundane weapons against the wildlife outside the Tower.”

Ajax stared at him. “That would be a good point but— and maybe you don’t know this— most people don’t have mundane weapons more dangerous than kitchen knives or small handguns.”

Seth stared back, his gaze cool and clear. “I do know that. But I want to find out what happened to the people inside Tower Effa.”

“So do I!” snapped Ajax, his voice cracking.

Jehane looked puzzled. “Effa is still there, Elian said. Back on the network.”

“More data coming in. I’m not sure if it is. Not as a tower, anyhow. But the portal would have opened under them, not through them, if it’s at all similar to my portals. Whatever’s on the other side would have been devastated, though.”

Seth stuck his hands in his pockets. “Let’s head over to the Portalry and see what comes through.”

Although Elian had said he was notifying the other residents, he must have managed some discretion, because the hallways of the Tower weren’t much busier than normal. Or maybe most of the residents just didn’t care what happened to Earth anymore. It was a dark thought.

The Portalry had attracted a small crowd, though, clustered in front of one of the two remaining portals. As they joined the back of it, Jake appeared from one of them, closing a cellphone. “Mexico City. I love modern technology. The news doesn’t have it yet, but the online gossip networks do. I got a message from our contact there. He can see the portal from his apartment building, a couple of miles away. It isn’t closing like the gates built by Kentigern did. And he said his latchkey wasn’t working.”

Murmurs of shock rippled across the crowd. Seth said, “How long can Effa keep the portal open?”

Elian said glumly, “A long time. It’s more likely to cease operations entirely before it shuts it down.”

“Is that likely?”

“I don’t know. I hope so. It’s disrupting everything.”

“So now what?” said a voice in the crowd.

Jake said slowly, “We need to figure out if Hatherly survived this… plan of his.”

“Or any of the others,” added Ajax.

Seth said, “Elian, how long will it take to re-establish a permanent outbound portal to Mexico City?”

Elian laughed wildly. “Yesterday I would have said a few hours for installation and a few hours for calibration. But Effa didn’t worry about either of those things! Makes me wonder why Kentigern never did this. A permanent gate! If you don’t have to close it, you don’t have to worry about transmitters and calibration! Whee! But now! I need something to latch onto, guys, and it looks like the super-portal is disrupting the latchkeys’ signal.”

Ajax breathed in and out, resisting the urge to shout in frustration. “How about—”

Jehane interrupted. “How about me? Can you latch onto me, like Effa latched onto somebody else, like Kentigern latched onto Lailoken?” Her face was pale, her eyes huge.

“I— Yes, I think so. But—”

Jehane looked around at the silent crowd. “Okay. I go through the Texas gate and I travel to Mexico City. Right?”

“To do what?” said an unwelcome voice. It was the Tanist, lost in the center of the crowd until people began to pull away from her. “What’s the plan once we open a gate to the big trouble spot? Once we undo the point of all we’ve done in shutting down the gates? Are we going to let whatever they do out there flood us? Chasing after them doesn’t work.”

Seth raised his head. “We don’t even know if they’re alive. And Elian expects wartime wildlife to swarm the city.” The crowd murmured after his words. It was growing larger, as more and more people turned up to find out what was going on. Gossip networks, thought Ajax.

“I bet we’ll find out really soon,” remarked the Tanist. “All we have to do is wait.”

“Elian?” asked Ajax. “Will the Effa portal undo any attempt to cut off this world from Hatherly’s plan?”

Sounding very much like a nervous boy, Elian said, “I don’t know.”

“We have to survive,” said the Tanist, softly.

Seth stared at her, then said, “We have to fight.” He looked around at the crowd. “Weren’t you all Nightlights once? Are you going to look in the face of your friends and siblings who died fighting and say, ‘We’re done fighting? Time to hide?’” An expression of disgust curled his lip. “If that’s what getting older means, I’d rather not.”

The crowd grumbled a protest, but the Tanist’s voice cut across it. “Haven’t you hurt your family enough? You are such a dumb kid, despite everything I’ve done to teach you better.”

“I don’t know,” said Jake suddenly. “I think he’s doing all right.”

The Tanist shot Jake a scornful look. “You would think so. In any case, we’re going to wait. Maintain the status quo, Elian—”

Jake smiled at the Tanist. “That’s enough, Kiley.” His voice was very gentle. “I don’t think popular opinion is with you on this.”

“Yes, well, that’s why I’m the Tanist.” She turned, though, surveying the crowd as if she was willing to argue each and every one of them into the ground.

“Valeria,” said Jake, his word half an appeal, half something else. And Seth’s mother stepped out of the crowd beside the Tanist.

She curled her fingers around the Tanist’s hand and said, “Pushing isn’t wise here, Kiley.”

The Tanist tried to yank her hand from Valeria’s, but failed, somehow. “Don’t try to manage me, Valeria. I am the Tanist here, right, Elian?”

There was a pause. Seth cast his eyes to the wall intently and clenched his fist.

Then, slowly, Elian said, “You are. And that means you’re the leader of the people who will follow you. But… not of me. I’m not quite a person anymore, am I? I’ve been thinking. If this portal had opened in Boston, I’d already be trying to build an emergence point again.”

“It’s all Earth.” Jake gave a little smile at the wall. “So we’ll get to work. We’ll need people to spread out on the other side to keep information flowing, as well a squad ready to take advantage of the new portal.”

“Hell, yeah!” said Seth. He grinned at his dad as he turned toward him. In ones and twos, the rest of the crowd slowly drifted that direction. Valeria stayed beside the Tanist, holding her hand. The Tanist looked flabbergasted, and Ajax thought it wasn’t so much the rebellion as the dismissal of the crowd.

Valeria said quietly, “Let’s go have some coffee, Kiley. We can talk about different methods of survival.”

Kiley scowled, then turned and tugged Valeria after her out of the Portalry. Ajax watched curiously until they were gone, then turned and joined the crowd.

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