Deep beneath the ground, below the level of the streets, was a forest of pipe and ductwork. Strapped into a rig that would not have been out of place on a mountain climber, Marietta hauled herself up smoothly, hand over hand, as she ascended through the strata of tubes and conduits. “Seven five eight two… Seven five eight three… Seven five eight four,” she muttered the designations stenciled along the pipes, before pausing a moment to rest her forehead against the chill, faintly vibrant shell of a coolant line. Her eyes closed as she counted breaths slowly, fighting against the throbbing vise that tightened around her temples.
Of course, it would have been easier if her boss would shut up for five minutes. “Drevosa,” crackled the radio mounted at her shoulder, the tinny voice of the maintenance shift supervisor lancing into her skull. “Update me. The eggheads down in R&D want to know if we’ve located the source of that pressure drop they’re seeing Down Below.”
Down Below. Haunt of the big-brain research and development crew, home of secret projects and government contracts. Down Below, where inconveniences went to disappear - at least if you believed the hushed gossip in the cafeteria. All Marietta knew was that when something broke she heard about it, at length and at volume. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll get the blighted water back on for the mole people.”
The radio yowled feedback in a tone like glass grating against her eardrums, and the maintenance worker gripped the thrumming tube before her as she struggled against nausea. Vomiting all over herself would be the perfect cap on this wretched day. Probably leave it to set overnight so I could clean up tomorrow too.
Gritting her teeth, Marietta sternly reminded herself the rent was due next week and keyed on the mic. “D-Drevosa here. At seven five eight five. No... sign of a leak yet, not even residue.”
“Five? Hell, it must be around seven six then. Keep ascending.”
Really? I figured I’d just slide down to the floor and call it a day. She sighed, resting a hand on the coolant pipe for a moment before she took a deep breath and gripped the rope to draw herself higher up. “I’m on my way up.”
And then the world fractured.
Marietta twitched, head snapping back as the squawk of her radio was swallowed up by a bone-juddering peal; it was a singular, ultimate tone, like the world’s largest church bell. The noise shuddered along her skin, rippled through her hair, vibrated inside her teeth. She might have screamed; the maintenance worker couldn’t quite be certain. Everything was shaking, as if she was strapped to the surface of that bell as its tone rolled on, stubbornly refusing to end.
She must have blacked out, because the next thing she was aware of was a gentle creak from her harness as she rocked, suspended in the forest of pipes. “Wha… What just..?” Marietta blinked, reaching out reflexively to steady herself on a nearby conduit. Somewhere below an alarm was braying stridently, and it was only then the repairwoman realized her headache seemed to have vanished.
But before she could start descending the lights went out; not all at once, but in a cascade of chattering, bursting detonations, like electric bombs surrendering their fluorescent payloads. And Marietta dangled in the dark, eyes wide amid the tinkling fall of glass and the snap of red emergency lights. She reached for her radio, fumbling for the mic. “C-Central, Central, this is Drevosa. Silo five. I’ve got... Main power is out, and some kind of alarm is going off in Down Below. Please advise.”
There was no answer, only - far above her - the distant creak of metal settling, and then a galvanic scriiiing. Marietta scrabbled at the pipe’s sweat-slicked surface as the line fixing her to the ceiling went slack. But her fingers slipped over the rounded tube, and she fell into red-lit darkness.
Marietta jolted awake in the soft, silver light of the full moon. She blinked rapidly, sapphire gaze peering up through the trees toward the distant sky. “What..?” Pushing herself up, the ranger reached automatically for her weapon belt, buckling it on as she stood, eyes transfixed by the velvet dark overhead. “That, that can’t be right.” The forester wrenched her gaze down to the camp, looking hard at the campfire. What remained was nothing more than banked coals, ready to be built up come breakfast-time.
She looked up again, and then down, and then back up. It didn't make any sense. Marietta knew she had stacked enough wood on the blaze for it to last to the morning.
But she obviously hadn't. After all, who was she to argue with the star-spangled dark overhead?
"Are you afraid you're wrong, or that they won't believe you?"
The half-elf hesitated, frowning up at the serene moon before she forced herself to look around the camp again, to think. Ember. If any of them would believe her, it would be the tiefling. Taking a breath to nerve herself, the ranger padded over to the dancer's bedroll and knelt, then lightly touched the tiefling’s shoulder. “Ember, Ember there’s something wrong.”
They had to know now.
She fed another log into the fire, careful of the sparks that gusted up from the blaze as it bit hungrily into her latest offering. After all these years fire still frightened her, and her left hand rose unbidden to knead along her right shoulder, where a heated brand had kissed her flesh and left its unloving mark. “He always did love his fire,” she commented softly, shaking her head. There was no one around to hear the words though - only her and the spitted haunch of venison roasting over the flame.
With a quiet sigh she kept turning the spit. It was no help for her to remember, and it would be no help for them when they arrived. “Policy before personal,” that brought a grim smile to her lips, before she pushed the past away, at least for the moment.
They had to know, or at the very least suspect. She focused on her work, remaining in the moment, not remembering the past or getting caught in the web of the future. But it was hard. If they were not ready to believe, if they would not see that things here were more than what they seemed…
“You’ll find out soon enough.”