The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Interlude - The Fifth





“Wait, Linch,” Avrum Black nervously called out into the black void ahead of him.


Moments earlier his assistant, Jason Linch, had been walking a few feet in front of him but Avrum, looking away for a few seconds in a fruitless effort to adjust his glow lamp, lost the younger man into the darkness that seemed to press in from all sides. The narrow tunnel, with its cracked, crazed walls and gaping holes where sections of plaster had fallen away exposing damp earth, looked as if it might cave in any second. Every so often, Avrum would shudder when a droplet of cold water hit him – usually on the back of his neck.


Avrum Black had never cared much for small, dark, confining spaces. Once, as a boy, he and his twin brother, Calem, had ventured into one of the many caves dotting the hill country of Alamant. As usual, the expedition had been the idea of the always-adventurous Calem. Since their family’s villa, on the outskirts of Darmon Forge, was only a few miles from some of the caves, the ever persuasive Calem – more daring than his bookish and timid twin – convinced Avrum that they’d have great fun exploring the many passageways and caverns that could be found in most of the caves of the Alamant Heart Range, which arose near their home.


Although he’d been reluctant at first, Calem’s promises of hidden treasure tempted Avrum, who eventually was convinced to accompany his brother. Surreptitiously commandeering one of their father’s small hov-lifts, the boys flew to the foothills and began exploring, but only a few minutes after entering the first cave, Avrum became separated from Calem, who excitedly ran ahead of him – searching for bags of gold and chests filled with jewels. One day later, the rescue party from Tower Mount found Avrum, after a frantic Calem returned home reporting that Avrum was hopelessly lost. Cold, hungry, and exhausted, the boy had spent a sleepless night cowering in one of the dark, damp caves. He was terrified and near panic from the bats, small rodents and insects that made the cave their home and upon his rescue, he vowed never to go into such places again - which was why his friends were so surprised when he made archeology his life’s profession. But it was the same profession that Calem had chosen, and the two brothers, always inseparable, worked well as a team – Calem out in the field on one adventure after another, and Avrum content to remain in the lab studying, analyzing, and cataloguing his brother's finds.


But now Calem was dead, which was the principle reason Avrum now found himself in a small, dark tunnel a hundred feet beneath the emperor’s summer palace outside of Küronas. Stopping to catch his breath, he pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at the sweat on his brow.


“Jason?” he called out warily, only to gasp and stumble backward when the face of his assistant suddenly peered back at him from the dim limit of the light cast by his glow lamp.


“I found the intersecting tunnel, Professor Black,” Jason said, excited and breathless. “It’s just like Professor Black described it.”


Avrum nodded and motioned Jason to go on. “Just don’t get too far ahead of me, Jason,” he said. “I thought these bloody glow beams were brighter than this, but I can only see a few feet ahead of me.”


Jason turned around and took the glower from Avrum. “The control is here, Professor,” he said, quickly adjusting the dial. The glower's illumination grew in intensity and lit up a considerably larger portion of the tunnel.


While happy for the additional light, Avrum frowned when he turned the same corner Jason had ducked around only to see that the second tunnel his assistant had entered was longer than the first. Realizing just how far he’d have to traverse, Avrum’s ever present claustrophobia boiled up into his consciousness, threatening to send him into a panic attack, but he swallowed hard as he struggled to push it away.


“I don’t know how Calem did it all those years,” he thought to himself as he scurried to catch up with Jason.


“It’s right here, Professor Black,” Jason said enthusiastically as he pointed to a spot on the right side of the tunnel a few feet ahead of Avrum. “I’m sure Professor Black - I mean, your brother...”


“It’s alright, Jason,” Avrum said, “I’m used to how confusing it sounds.” For years they’d each been “Professor Black” to their students. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t have been a problem, but as twins, full professors, and members of the same department, it was a minor annoyance they’d grown to live with. Standing next to Jason, Avrum held up his glower and peered at the spot where his assistant was pointing. There, scratched into the crumbling plaster of the wall was an arrow and two initials.


CB ®


“Yes,” Avrum said, looking to Jason. “That’s Calem’s mark.”


“We must be close,” Jason said, his excitement so palpable that Avrum half expected the boy to jump out of his skin.


“Well, yes,” he said. “I agree, it must be close. Lead on.”


Jason turned and quickly dashed down the passageway.


“Take your time and be careful, Jason,” Avrum called out. “If one of us gets hurt down here…”


But his young assistant was already gone, vanishing into the inky blackness ahead of Avrum. Thinking of spiders, Avrum gave an involuntary shudder and continued on.


“I’m right here, Professor Black,” Jason called. “I think this is the spot.”


Thirty seconds later, Avrum was standing next to him in front of a bricked up archway, and although all the bricks were in place, he could clearly see that there was no mortar between them. They’d passed a number of these arches on their journey down the tunnel, and all of them had been sealed – all but the one where they now stood.


“This must be the one,” Avrum said, turning to his assistant. “Calem said it took two days for him to get through, and he told me that when he left, he restacked all the bricks.”


If Jason was listening to Avrum, he didn’t acknowledge it. Instead, he was quickly removing bricks from the archway and piling them, one by one, to the side. Finally only a few rows of bricks remained, creating a wall low enough for them to step over. Jason quickly scrambled over it, once more vanishing into the darkness. A few seconds passed and the older, shorter Avrum, grunting softly to himself, crawled through the gaping archway.


“Professor,” Jason called out, the young man’s voice virtually squeaking with excitement, “You’ve got to see this.”


Once on the far side of the arch, Avrum found himself in a large chamber with a high ceiling – so high he couldn’t see it, even when he lifted the glower above his head.


“Wait, Professor,” Jason said, shrugging the large backpack off his shoulders and setting it on the ground. Opening the flaps, he reached in and took out a long, thin cylinder, which he quickly unfolded into a tripod. He did the same with a second and then a third. Going once more into the sack he pulled out three small rectangular objects that he fastened to the tripods. One was slightly larger than the others, and Jason pressed a button recessed into its side, causing all three to flick on, casting a bright beam of light far greater than that coming from their glow lamps.


“This is it, Professor Black,” Jason said, turning off his glower as soon as the chamber was filled with light. The surprisingly high pitch of his voice made him sound more like an excited and giddy little girl than the twenty two year old young man he was. “This is really it!”


And although Avrum found himself speechless, owing to the solemn gravity of the moment, he had enough presence of mind to nod his agreement to the grinning boy at his side. The chamber was large by underground standards, and although it now made up part of the foundations of the Summer Palace, some parts of the structure directly over his head had been once part of the first palace built over four and a half centuries ago, at the inception of the Empire. The chamber was empty save for a large stone block near the center of the room. The floor, walls, and vaulted ceiling were stone. Three of the four walls were plain, and without embellishment – not so, the fourth wall. Standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder, both men stared at the high wall that loomed before them. Set into the smooth gray granite blocks of the wall were two great marble arches that flanked each other, and looked like giant doorways.


Two large marble columns, half imbedded into the granite wall, held up each arch. The columns of both arches ended in ornately carved capitals, and as the light from the lamps on the tripods illuminated them, Avrum could make out traces of the original gold leaf that, at one time, had decorated them. Spanning each pair of capitals were heavy lintels – also inset into the wall – forming thick marble architraves. Above each architrave was an expertly worked frieze. The frieze above the architrave on the right showed a man speaking to a large assembly consisting of men, women, and children. The frieze on the left displayed a scene showing a general, or king, leading an army. Atop the frieze of each archway sat a cornice, and above it a broken pediment. Into the gap of both pediments had been placed a cartouche in the form of an oval coat of arms – each fashioned from both similar and different elements. The flat cornice atop each frieze, along with two raking cornices, formed a recessed triangular tympanum. Typically, for the period, Avrum knew that this area would have contained another frieze, but instead of holding more carvings, a mosaic had been inset into each tympanum. Both mosaics had backgrounds fashioned from sparkling, golden tiles. A border of flowers and scrolls twined around the outer edges of each recessed triangle, and Avrum could see that in all ways save one, they were identical. Set within the golden tile of the background were additional tiles of black and red that spelled out different names on each. In the arch to the right, the colored tiles formed the name:


Escalad Agramos


The raked cornice of the arch on the left had been damaged – a large chunk of marble having been broken from it. A few of the golden tiles in the tympanum had been damaged and others had come loose from the mortar, but the center section was intact and clearly showed the second name:


Jacques de Valčn.


Leading up to each arch was a set of marble steps flanked by carved marble handrails, supported by thick balustrades. Moving closer to the arches, Avrum’s heart sank. The marble stones that walled up the Agramos crypt had a large hole punched through them. Making his way up the steps Avrum peered at the damage. Reaching out to touch the edges of the hole, he could see that although the stones were scorched, the edges around opening were smooth and polished. “It had to have been made by a plasma torch,” he mused to himself as he ran his hands along the smooth, fused, glass-like edges of the hole. Turning his glower back on, he thrust his arm through the hole and then his head, to look inside the crypt. As he'd suspected it would be, it was empty. Calem had told him both crypts were uncompromised when he’d found them, but that was twenty years ago. A lot had happened in those twenty years.


Turning away from the first crypt and walking down its steps, he turned to the second crypt and climbed up its stairs. It appeared untouched; the marble blocks sealing the entrance were still intact. Avrum slapped his open palm against the cold, damp stone, and it made a soft thwack that echoed softly through the chamber.


“It hasn’t been compromised, Jason,” Avrum said, turning back to look at his assistant. “Well, not for long,” he thought as he watched young Jason reach into the sack a third time and pull out a stubby, cylindrical object.


Once more Avrum turned his back on the crypts and stepped back down the steps. He walked past Jason and moved to stand behind his assistant, who’d donned a pair of shielding goggles. Turning around, Jason handed a second pair to Avrum. Once he had them on Avrum nodded to the boy, who flicked a small switch on the side of the cylinder. A series of lights flashed on, and Jason made some adjustments.


“Remember, Jason,” Avrum said, “contain the beam. Keep it narrow and focused, and watch the level of intensity. We want to get through the wall, not destroy what’s behind it."


Nodding his agreement, Jason held the cylinder in front of him and depressed a button. Blinding, actinic light filled the chamber as the beam sliced through the wall, vaporizing it instantly where it touched the cold, gray stone. After a few minutes, a hole of sufficient size for a man to crawl through was cut in the wall – not all that different from the one in the wall of the crypt next to it.


“It will take about an hour for the surrounding stone to cool,” Avrum said, and then reached into Jason’s pack, pulling out a bottle of champagne and two plasteel tumblers, which he placed on the large stone in the middle of the chamber. Popping the cork on the bottle, he jumped in surprise when some of the liquid erupted from its neck in a spray of foam. He poured the bubbling wine into the glasses, and handed one to Jason. Looking ruefully at the bottle, his expression clouded. The wine had come from the northwest district – home to the finest vineyards on the continent. It had been meant for he and Calem, but that was now in the music of the past. “To Calem,” he said gravely, raising his glass. “Dear brother, I pray you didn’t die in vain.”


“To Professor Black,” Jason said solemnly, raising his glass in imitation of Avrum, and then putting it to his lips and taking a small sip.


“And to Croal,” Avrum said, once more raising his glass in a second toast. “May fortune favor him. He’s put all of our necks into the noose - I can only hope this scheme of his is successful.”


Jason’s face took on a frightened look and this time, instead of toasting along with Avrum, he gently set down his glass. Avrum noticed that the boy’s hand shook.


“Do you really think…?” the suddenly pale-faced young man said, choking out the words as all the blood drained from his face.


“It’s too late to think about any of that now, Jason. The die’s been cast. We’ve stepped into the fire. All we can do is finish what we’ve started." Then, smiling at the boy, he changed the subject. “Soon enough we’ll take a look and see what kind of job you did with that torch.”


For almost an hour the men conversed, as Avrum sipped his champagne. Avrum noticed that Jason kept anxiously looking about the chamber, as if a 'toon of imperial guards or a band of the Emperor’s Vipers might stream through the portal at any second. When he thought the stone was cooled enough, Avrum reapproached the arch. At the foot of the stairs he paused, looking up at the gaping hole where an hour before there’d been solid marble. One by one, he ascended the smooth, marble stairs – his boots making scuffing sounds as they scrapped against the light dusting of sand covering the tread of each step. As Avrum had hoped, the plasma torch cut was clean and smooth. It never left any residue or dust. It also didn’t create any smoke and it supposedly never left an odor, although every time Avrum had been near one in use, he always swore he could smell something – a phenomenon he’d long ago come to suspect was probably in his head, since logic told him that a device that could burn through solid stone just had to create some kind of odor, even though it wasn’t supposed to.


Standing before the gaping hole, Avrum could still feel some heat radiating from the stone. He paused and switched on his glower, then he crawled through the newly created opening, calling out for Jason to bring the necessary equipment. Like the antechamber he'd just left , the interior of the crypt had a high ceiling, yet the room itself was tiny and offered little room to maneuver. Most of the space inside the crypt was taken up by a large stone block, on which sat a plain marble sarcophagus. The sarcophagus sat high – its lid a little above Avrum’s eye level. Circling the sarcophagus, he examined it under the light of his glower and found no carvings, markings or ornamentation that would indicate the identity of its occupant. Given the external majesty of the crypt, he was initially surprised, but after a moment’s thought he concluded that the grand exterior was the face the outside world would see. Once the crypt was sealed, any ornamentation wouldn’t have been visible and may have been deemed unnecessary. Rubbing away some of the dust covering the front of the sarcophagus, his hand brushed against something small and metallic. Brushing more of the dust away, he could see a small plaque affixed to the sarcophagus with two metal rivets. It was corroded, but he could make out some of the letters:  AQUE  D   LEN. It was easy to fill in the obscured letters and thus satisfied, Avrum once more called out to Jason, and then jumped when the boy suddenly appeared out of nowhere, tapping him on the shoulder.


“The lid looks quite heavy,” Avrum said, “and it might have been mortared shut.”


“Do you want me to get the plasma torch, professor?” Jason asked.


“No!” Avrum shouted, louder and with more force than he’d intended, he realized, as he watched Jason flinch. “We only use it as a last resort. Do you have the crowbars?”


Without a word, Jason produced two short, stubby crowbars and handed one to Avrum. Wedging the flat, spatulate ends into the small cracks between the lid and the body of the sarcophagus, both men pried with all their might and the lid heaved up slightly.


“Good. It looks like we’re lucky. I don’t think it’s been sealed,” Avrum said. “But it’s heavy.”


It took about thirty minutes, but after much prying and pushing they were able to separate the lid from the box and slowly slide it halfway off the sarcophagus.


“Now move to the top and I’ll go to the bottom and we’ll see if we can push it the rest of the way off,” Avrum said.


Taking his assigned place, Jason pushed in concert with Avrum each time Black counted to three and shouted "Push!", and little by little the lid slid to the left. Finally teetering by a thread, one final push sent it over the side and it crashed onto the stone floor, splitting in two. Dust billowed up and both men began to choke as they fled from the crypt. After a few minutes the dust settled and they reentered. Avrum had to stand on tiptoes to peer in. To make his mentor’s work easier, Jason carried in some of the bricks he’d stacked up in the passageway – creating a platform of sorts for Avrum to stand on. When he was high enough to get a good look into the open sarcophagus, Avrum could see the coffin it contained. Made of wood, it was covered with a dusting of long dead mold and exhibited advanced decay – probably from centuries of dampness. When he instructed Jason to help him lift the lid of the coffin, the wood – soft and spongy – crumbled under their hands into seven large pieces, revealing its contents.


Where at one time there had been a body, only a skeleton remained – covered with gray and moldy strips of insect-chewed rags that had once been clothing. Avrum pulled at one of the rags and it disintegrated under his touch, and he was left holding the remains of what had once been an intricate design made of gold thread that the mold, moisture or insects couldn’t damage.


“Look at the chain,” Jason said lifting up a dust covered golden chain set with precious gems. He attempted to remove it from the neck of the skeleton only to be stopped by Avrum. “But it could go into the archives,” the boy protested.


“We’ve done enough desecration,” Avrum said, “After we get it, we leave as much untouched as possible." 'And besides,' his thought to himself, 'We don’t need to hand anyone proof on a silver platter that we’ve been here.'


Jason, suddenly seeming to understand, let the chain drop from his fingers. It bounced against what was left of the coat enrobing the skeleton's chest and ribs, and a small puff of dust flew up from the remains.


Out of his pocket Avrum pulled a pliers-like instrument and bent down to examine the skull. The skeleton’s jaw fell open under a gentle touch, and Avrum took a few minutes to examine its teeth.


“Any viable material remaining will be in the teeth,” he said, then added “That is, if the enamel’s remained intact.”


After deciding on the best candidates for extraction, Avrum gripped a tooth with the pliers and pulled. There was a dry, cracking sound and the tooth popped out of the jaw. He repeated this action two more times.


“That should do it,” he said, placing the final tooth in the last of three small vials Jason held up for him. “If there’s anything there, Croal will find it.”


Placing a stopper in the vial, Jason handed all three to Avrum, who slid them in his right pocket at the same time he slid the pliers in into his left pocket.


“Let's get out of here,” he said, eager to leave this place behind.


Jason quickly gathered up their equipment and stowed it in the backpack, and then he and Avrum began their journey back to the surface. At the formerly bricked up doorway, he asked Avrum if they should reseal it. Avrum shook his head no.


“We’re already grave robbers,” he wanted to reply. “After all that desecration, restacking the bricks would be like putting a bandage over a small finger cut on a man who’s just been beheaded – useless, and a waste of time.”  But instead he looked at Jason, patted the pocket where he’d place the vial and said, “I’ve got to get these to Croal as soon as possible. We can’t afford to waste any time.”


Retracing their steps to the surface, they eventually crawled out of the same service vent they’d entered inside the royal park, across from the summer palace. Since it was early fall and the imperial court had vacated the palace a few weeks before, it was mostly empty – maintained by a small staff until the following summer when the court would once again return for two months. The park itself was completely deserted. Once they were back on the surface, Avrum instructed Jason to go back to the laboratory and get rid of any evidence of their expedition and that he’d take a gate to Dragon’s Cove in Isewier.


“But gate use has been restricted,” Jason said.


“Yes, I know, but I have a code key no one knows about, and it’s untraceable,” he replied. “I’ll be back in a few hours. Don’t wait for me. When you’re finished, use the shower in the lab to clean up, dispose of the clothing you’re wearing, and then go home. When we meet again, we’ll not discuss this; it will be as if it never happened. Do you understand, Jason?”


“Yes, Professor Black. Of course,” Jason replied, giving Avrum a wide-eyed look as he took in a deep breath.


Avrum stood for a few minutes watching his assistant walk from the park. He waited until he heard the fluttery whoosh of one of the two hovs they’d ridden in. Exiting the park, he climbed into the second hov, took a moment to adjust the safety straps, and took off. The trip was short, and in ten minutes he was landing near the gate station at Jerol’s Crossing, some distance from the city.              Leaving the hov parked on a deserted street, he walked away from it. Eventually someone would notice the unclaimed craft – hopefully days later – but there was nothing to connect it to him. With a wary look around to see if anyone was watching him, he quickened his stride and hurried to the station.


Since the restrictions had been put in place, all public transfer stations had been closed, but this station – one of the first ever built, initially as a test site – lay outside the city, and was deserted. He walked through the main gate and into the small building. Although transport through the gates had been proscribed, there were no guards or troops stationed at any of the stations to block their use. Since all the keycards had been deactivated, there was no need to secure them. Striding across to one of the three large, mirror-like structures, he reached in his pocket and withdrew a red card with a gold stripe. Looking down at it almost reverently, he slowly turned it over. The cost to acquire it had been high – a price paid in blood.  Once he used it, it would deactivate and become untraceable – or so he hoped. Touching the mirror’s frame, he inserted the card and it sprang to life. Looking around to once more satisfy himself that the station was deserted, he walked through the shimmering wall of light.


Alana Crosswich stood on the balcony of the low-lying villa, looking out over the bay that formed the inlet of Dragon’s Cove. Beyond the entrance to the bay stood two large stone towers held aloft by giant hands rising from the sea – one of the remaining, ancient Gates of Safros. The day was sunny and warm, and a light breeze stirred the sky-blue water, pushing it into soft ever-shifting white caps – it also plucked at the light shawl she wore, and she gripped it tighter to keep it wrapped around her shoulders. The undulating surf rushing off the water crashed onto the shore, washing over the reddish sand that was common to the coast of Isewier.


Under normal circumstances, her trip here from the institute would have taken a few minutes – but then, these were not normal circumstances, and her journey had begun hours ago. Riding hov’s, taking gates, and even traveling on foot, her route had been circuitous. The three hov’s she’d used to get here had all been sitting in the exact spots her cryptic instructions had told her they’d be, and after using each, she abandoned them precisely where she’d been told to leave them. The six gate jumps – each made with a separate red key card with a gold stripe – had taken her from one end of the continent and back again, until in the final jump she’d arrived here. Well, not really, since she had to walk five miles to the villa, but she was sure she hadn’t been followed.


Alana, probably more than anyone else – with the exception of Croal – understood the scientific breakthroughs that had allowed her to be in the position in which she now found herself. Two centuries of genetic manipulation had managed to stir the twin sparks of precognition and telepathy in humans, and although the experiments had been successful, those great talents still only flickered tenuously in the minds of a few. Some had one or the other – she’d been blessed with both.
And they’d been the strongest in her, although to use word “strong” regarding something so transitory and fragile seemed ludicrous. Yet it did work from time to time, and had proved invaluable in her work.


As chief psycho-neurologist at the Dossian Institute, her mental powers had allowed her to help some of the most troubled minds in the empire. Alana’s work of repairing, rehabilitating – and most importantly, healing – would never have been possible without that tiny, and oft times unreliable, spark. It had been her greatest joy. Her greatest frustration was that she knew some of those responsible for the ever-expanding corruption and decay the empire was sinking into were more in need of her help than even the sickest of her patients. That was one of the reasons she’s responded to Croal’s coded message, even though she knew that if anyone in authority got so much as a whiff of what they were up to, they would be subjected to long and painful torture, followed by an equally painful – and probably public - execution.


Taking out a handkerchief, Avrum Black wiped the sweat from his forehead and stared up at the sun. Although the day’s temperature hadn’t been high, the sun had been warm. No longer in shape, he’d found the five mile walk from the hidden gate near the dunes to the villa exhausting. Eager to quell his increasing dehydration with a cool drink, he quickened his pace to reach the large, sprawling dwelling ahead of him. But despite his body's urge for a cool drink, just before he reached his destination he paused for a minute and took in the sight of the grand seaside home that looked more like a palace than the home of a scientist. Villa Mare Vista, as Croal called it, was one of the most beautiful private homes Avrium had ever seen – and he’d been in many a grand home and palace over the course of his life. He’d even lived in an exquisite one as a child. Although he’d seen pictures of Croal’s home, the actual sight of the grand and glorious villa, built into a large outcropping of rock and jutting out over the red sandy beach like a large ship ready to set sail, caused his heart to skip a beat. 


Ringing at the gate, he was greeted by one of the household servants who ushered him in with a smile and a bow. The man, moving in fluid and graceful strides, led the way in silence as they walked through tastefully decorated rooms that were filled with some of the most amazing art he’d ever seen. As he’d first approached the villa, he could see that one wall – the one facing the cove – was made up entirely of glass panels. Now, inside the structure, the view of the bay leading to the open sea was nothing less than breathtaking. “A beautiful place to raise a child,” he thought to himself.


Following close behind the servant, he climbed the large, open staircase that stood to one side of the domed atrium and found that, although he was still inside the villa, he was standing on an elevated porch above the atrium. Turning and looking out through the glass wall, he was surprised to see a woman on the opposite side. Standing on a balcony where the porch terminated, she gazed out over the bay; she seemed to be enjoying the beautiful, sunny day. His movement must have caught her attention, because she turned and looked through the glass at him.


The servant who’d been accompanying him excused himself, telling Avrum that he would notify his master, but Avrum barely heard him. The woman was beautiful. In her early thirties, she struck an almost classical pose as the breeze gently tousled her short, golden hair. Her face was serene, and she gave him a slight smile. But it was her soulful eyes that stirred Avrum the most: in the bright sunlight, they were the most striking shade of blue. When she stared at him, her gaze turned piercing and she gave him a look of such intensity that he felt as if she could see into his soul. Roused from his trance by the same servant who’d greeted him, the spell was broken when she looked away and turned back to stare out at the bay, but not before flashing him one final smile. The servant, informing Avrum that his master was ready to see him, led the way back into the house and Avrum followed.


Still haunted by the women’s eyes he absentmindedly followed the servant, so lost in thought he barely noticed the exquisite furnishing and priceless artwork they passed on their route. After going through at least seven rooms – Avrum was too bemused to count – they entered a room with only one door and no windows, which appeared to be a small study.


“Ah, my dear friend, I’m so glad to see you,” Edwin Croal said, rising from his chair and quickly stepping around his desk toward Avrum.


“And I you, Edwin,” Avrum said, embracing Croal. “Would it were under different circumstances.”


“Yes,” Croal said, then added softly, “I’m so sorry about your brother. I know it’s a poor consolation, but he died a hero.”


“I know,” Avrum said. “Teaching with integrity is dangerous business these days, but his death only lends more meaning to what we do.”


Croal moved to his desk and took a seat as he gestured for Avrum to take one of the soft, overstuffed chairs opposite him. “You look hot, and I’m sure you’re thirsty after your walk. I’m having something brought for you to drink. I’m sorry I couldn’t send a hov, but… well, you understand.”


“Of course,” Avrum said. “By the way, Edwin, who was that woman on the balcony?”


“You saw her?” Croal asked, and Avrum was surprised to hear a tinge of anger coloring his tone. “I told Castor to bring you up the back stairs. Who she is, isn’t important; in fact, it’s critical that none of you know each other. Only three people know the whole picture. Everyone else just has a piece or two – those directly involving them. It’s the only way I can hope to protect all of you. If one of you is discovered – well, you know how efficient the Vipers are. You can’t name anyone if you don’t know who they are – especially if torture is involved,” he added grimly.


Avrum nodded his head in grim resignation. If it came to that, he had a solution to that problem.


“I have what I promised,” Avrum said, lightly patting one of his jacket pockets.


Croal nodded in understanding. “Come with me, Avrum,” Croal said, standing up and moving toward the door. As they were leaving the room, the servant who’d brought him to Croal was approaching with a pitcher of lemon punch and two glasses. As he stood holding the tray, Croal poured a glass and handed it to Avrum. “Bring it with you,” he said and continued down a hallway.


At the end of the hall he pressed a button and a door opened – revealing a small lift. They got in and the lift slowly headed downward, taking far more time in its descent than Avrum would have expected. When it stopped and the door slid open, Croal and Avrum stepped out. The two men hadn’t walked but a few feet when Avrum turned to Croal.


“Edwin, this is incredible,” he said, looking at the vast, underground laboratory stretching out before him. "If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was standing in Gold Glass. How were you able to accomplish this?”


“That’s not of any importance, Avrum. And you know, under the circumstances I couldn’t tell you anyway.”


“With as much scrutiny as the empire’s placed everyone under, it’s impossible to pass a fart without Savaron Loka knowing about it,” Avrum said, “yet you’ve managed to do the impossible.”


Avrum paused when he noticed a second lift on the opposite side of the laboratory. The door opened and two white-coated technicians stepped out. What caught Avrum’s attention was the fact that, according to the indicator lights, the lift had risen from floors below, not come down from above. But before he could ask, Croal, seeing the puzzled look on his face, responded.


“There are three more levels below this one,” he said.


Avrum simply shook his head in disbelief.


“After they took Loran from me, I knew I couldn’t remain in Gold Glass any longer. I’d made such progress with him, and then…” Croal grew quiet for a moment, but then resumed. “I could see the hand writing on the wall, and started this little endeavor,” he said, moving his arms in a sweeping gesture to take in the laboratory before them. "I wanted to get Loran out to bring him here, but…” and once more Croal grew quiet.


“You treated him like a son,” Avrum said, putting his hand on his friend's shoulder. “You got emotionally involved, Edwin. You can’t do that with an experiment.”


“An experiment?” Croal replied sharply, his back suddenly stiffening. “Is that what this is to you?”


“Edwin, that’s not what I meant and you know it,” Avrum answered defensively. “What I meant…”


“I know, Avrum, I know,” Croal interrupted. "I’m sorry. I’m just tired of all the cruelty, and the horrific injustice. That’s why I left Gold Glass and retired. When I left, they were just starting to experiment with vision, and those who they deemed failures…” he stopped and shook his head.


“So I heard, Edwin,” Avrum said.


"The next one won’t be like a son, Avrum; he will be a son.”


“Next one? What are you saying, Edwin? What are you planning?”


“I believe this house would be a beautiful place to raise a family.”


“Yes, but…”


“Never mind, Avrum, I’ve told you too much already."


“Don’t worry, Edwin,” Avrum said, and then turning his head, he pointed to a small pinprick of a dot behind his left ear. At first glance it looked like a tiny mole, but when Croal looked closely, his eyes widened. “It’s permanent,” Avrum commented, almost conversationally. “All I need do is touch it with my finger in the proper sequence.”


The spot Avrum Black pointed to was a tiny encapsulated and coded tab of vesporan imbedded there. It would be more than enough to stop his heart and make it impossible to revive him.






“Enough of this grim talk, Avrum,” Croal said. “Come with me, my friend. I’d like to introduce you to someone.”


Following the older scientist, Avrum Black walked through the laboratory, pausing every so often as Croal stopped to speak with one of his technician or scientists.


“All this, right under the bloody Emperor’s nose,” Avrum said, unable to hide his amazement. “And none of it off-planet.”


“The best place to hide something is usually in plain view,” Croal said.


Avrum simply nodded his head. Reaching the back wall of the large lab, Croal gestured to an open door, waiting for the archeologist to go head of him. Following after his friend, Croal closed the door behind him after he’d entered the room.


The first thing Avrum did was remove a set of vials from his coat pocket and hand them to his friend.


“Here they are. I don’t know what you’ll get from them, but I harvested them myself.”


Croal took the vials and placed them in a rack sitting on a nearby table. Finally free of them, Avrum relaxed and began looking around at what he realized was a small, isolated laboratory. Sitting on stools in front of a laboratory bench were two Avionnes. The first had white wings with light teal highlights, but one look at the second and Avrum’s heart began to beat faster.


“Edwin?” he asked, as he gave Croal a look of shock and surprise. “What is this? They’re only allowed out of Küronas by special permit – with an armed escort – and I’m sure you don’t have the authority to acquire any permits. Besides man, they’re tracked – all of them, all the time! You might as well paint a target on this place. I can hardly believe there aren’t at least ten 'toons of Imperial Avengers outside, breaking down the doors. Loka and his team know the whereabouts of every Avionne.”


“Not these two,” Croal said. “And Avrum, they prefer the name Icarian.”


“Avionne, Icarian, what the hell’s the bloody difference, Edwin? Dead is dead, and that’s what you’re going to be if you smuggle Avio… Icarians out of Küronas.”


"I didn’t smuggle anyone out of Küronas - I invited them here, and they came on their own. Allow me to introduce you: this is Jonas,” Croal said, motioning toward the angel with the teal-tipped wings. The young Avionne – Avrum still couldn’t think of them as Icarians – stood up from his chair. He was only a little taller than Avrum, but he carried his slender frame with the regal bearing of a king. He was strikingly handsome, but then the professor had never seen an Avionne who wasn’t beautiful. Jonas smiled at Avrum and extended his hand. Reluctantly, Avrum shook it. Croal gestured toward the second, but before he could introduce him, Avrum surprised him by backing away.


“I know who he is, Edwin, and I can’t believe you’d bring him here.”


Turning abruptly, Avrum rushed out of the small laboratory. Croal was right on his heels. Catching up with him, Croal grasped him by the arm. “Avrum, you know the plan. I can’t do it without them. Especially…”


“Especially a spy? Someone who’s sure to betray you? Oh Edwin, you’re my friend, but you’re acting like such a fool!”


“It’s not what it looks like, Avrum. Please, trust me. Your brother did.”


“And he’s dead.”


“And you, of all people, know why.”


For a minute Avrum stood silently, looking at Croal.


“Please Avrum. You know it’s the right thing.”


“But we can’t pay for all their sins, Edwin.”


“No, my friend, but we don’t have to add to the ones that have already been committed.”


“This is all going to turn out badly for you, Edwin.”


“I don’t care. I can’t be a part of it any more. There will always be evil men doing evil things – that’s to be expected – but when good men stand aside, doing and saying nothing… Avrum, you’re a good man. Calem was a good man. The woman you saw upstairs is a good woman, and so are the many others you don’t - can't - know about.


“You know, Avrum, I have it on good authority that Lon Nol has perfected the synaptic enhancers. He’s managed to incorporate them into a new class of microbes Jeffers has created, and my sources tell me he’s discovered a way to encapsulate them for delivery. Apparently Loka has this crazy idea about it. I’m not sure what it entails, but I plan to find out.


“You know, of course, that that’s why they took Loran away from me after they measured his precognitive levels. They need a precognate – a strong precognate – who also has the Talent to make it work. With the help of the two Icarians you just met, I can acquire Lon Nol’s data. You know my initial studies were on aging, and as I worked to crack that code it was just fool's luck that I discovered some of the keys to precognition. It was during that time that the focus of my work changed – and also when I came up with a plan. Avrum, you have no idea how far I’ve pushed the boundaries of precognition through genetic manipulation – further than anyone could possibly have hoped for… far beyond Minoton’s wildest dreams. And I know I can push them even further.”


Suddenly he became quiet and the look of excitement on his face rapidly faded. “I thought I was so clever in my work, Avrum. I did things none of them could have dreamed of, but when they took Loran from me, I realized how stupid a so-called intelligent man could be. Now they have him, and there’s nothing I can do to save him. I should be punished for that, Avrum – allowing him to be reared without a childhood, without love or companionship in a laboratory. I can’t change the past, but I can look to the future. I won’t make the same mistakes again. My son won’t live in some sterile room day after day, under the glare of lights and constant vigilance. He won’t be tutored solely by comps and studied like a bug. He’ll be hugged and loved. He’ll sleep in a real bed and play all the games children play. He’ll eat real food. He’ll learn what it is to laugh and to cry. He’ll find out what its like to feel the warm sand of Isewier squish between his toes and the salt water of the inlet sting his eyes. And he’ll learn what it means to be a man – a good man!”


“Such dreams, Edwin; I truly do wish you well. You know where my heart lies. I want to see this rotten tower they’ve built crumble as much as you do. The Exogates have been shut down for well over fifty years now, and we’re completely isolated. You may have your spies, but I have mine as well, and if only half of what I hear is true, this whole civilization is in grave danger of extinction. Not that the bastards don’t deserve it, but thousands of innocents will suffer and die when it happens – people who only want to live their everyday lives in peace and happiness.”


“I know,” Croal said studying his friends face, searching for something. Avrum could sense it too.


“What do you have planned, Edwin?” his said curious to learn, but terrified of what he might hear.


“I plan to turn everything on its head, Avrum – that’s what I plan. The rules of the game have been set down by the powerful – and the ignorant. We play with the dice they’ve fashioned – weighted in their favor. I plan to make my own set and toss them into the game.”


“You talking about lives - human lives, Kalorian lives, even Avionne lives.”


“And what of the Ghröum, Avrum? Were their lives worth nothing?”


Avrum remained quiet, but the look on his face gave away his emotions.


“Yes, that’s what I thought. The only contact you’ll ever have with them are the bones and artifacts you and your students dig up in your excavations. That’s not how it was meant to be, and you - of all people - know it. We’re all damned for that sin. No Avrum, they’ve been playing with their six-sided die. Well, what if I make a seven, or eight, or nine-sided one and throw it into the game? My son will save this world, or bring it crashing down. Either way, they won’t be able to do any more damage to anyone or anything. We have no armies to command, no battle hovs full of Avengers or Vipers, but we have things more powerful – things that can turn worlds on their heads. And if this one is turned on its head, so much the better. No civilization has ever deserved it more."


“I know, Edwin,” Avrum said.


“I’ve said too much,” Croal said. “And I think this should be the last time we meet, dear friend.”


“Yes, I must agree,” Avrum said, nodding his head.


“When you leave here, I plan to have my agents start a rumor that you and I had a falling out and we’ve gone from being friends to enemies. Hopefully that will draw any suspicion away from you. It will appear quite convincing. Ignore all that you hear, other than to make sure you act appropriately when my name’s mentioned in your presence. They won’t suspect.”


“Then it’s not just farewell for now, but goodbye - forever?” Avrum said.


“Yes, but it’s better that way.”


“And the young woman upstairs?”


“I like her eyes,” Croal said. “I think my son’s eyes will look just like them.”


“Good luck, Edwin. May fortune favor you, my dear friend.”


“And you, my dear friend.”


By now they were standing next to the lift they’d come down on. When the doors opened, Edwin Croal and Avrum Black first shook hands, and then embraced.


“I’ll have Castor lead you out” Croal said. “He’ll have a new hov waiting for you, and a set of gate cards. Follow the instructions just like you did when you came, and you’ll never be traced."


The door of the lift slid shut, and Croal was left standing and staring at it as he heard it begin its ascent.


“Yes, new dice for the game,” Croal mused, making his way back to his private laboratory and the two Avionnes - no, Icarians - waiting for him.