A woman’s voice crackled through the speaker of an intercom, placed in the ceiling corner of a small control room beneath Vultheras. “Standby for an automated broadcast; from your king, Kalen Darigon,” she said. A flat tone played and the audio clicked. “To all personnel; the shield surrounding Vultheras Island has fallen. The final phase of Protocol Sigma will now commence. I hereby order the controlled release of the sea gate; the opening of the dam. Flooding of all sections below ground level will begin immediately, starting with the lowest sector. Evacuate to the surface immediately, and if you have been approved for divine safeguard, make haste to the palace chapel. Otherwise, make your prayers, and if you have a bold heart, I welcome you to take up arms; for Bastilhas. This announcement will now repeat.”
The tone played, the audio clicked, and static flushed the intercom. “To all personnel,” the king began again.
The announcement was tuned out by the engineer in the flood control room; his periodical discarded on the floor, his hand set on the first lever in his array. He squeezed the safety release, pulled down, and with a thunk set loose the gears beneath the floor. They clattered loudly; their cacophony joined by the klaxon of a red alarm.
The engineer heard water crash beyond the control room, so loud it drowned out the alarm. He looked up through the bullet-resistant window, saw the chasm of the subterranean sluice lit by great, warm lights. To the left was a long catwalk, suspended by taut wires, that connected the isolated control room to a far-away hall. And, to the right—out of sight—was the source of the calamitous noise.
He recognized the sound and curiosity drew him to the control room door. It was forged of dense steel, with a horizontal chest-high slit reminiscent of a pillbox window. On a rack beside the door was a rifle for self-defense, but the engineer always had his own revolver, holstered to his hip.
He pulled on the door’s fixed bar, rolled it into the wall, and stepped out onto the catwalk. His hands he set on on the walkway railing, and from his perch high above the ground he marveled at Vultheras’ enormous dam. Its structure, composed of many brass-plated iron sheets riveted together, appeared to be one giant wall. Above and below were large wheels, and across its face were four great valves, tens of feet in diameter.
The waterfall made by just one valve was astounding; it flooded the concrete sluice, where the first of many pipes opened like hungering mouths. In short order, the remaining valves would be opened, and then the dam gate itself. The Brass Sea would be let loose, and the tunnels beneath would be closed by her cold waters.
The king’s announcement continued. “Flooding of all sections below ground level will begin immediately,” he said through the intercom, his voice faint behind the alarm; beneath the crash of water. The engineer listened, leaned against the railing, and appreciated history in the making.
“Sir!” a voice cried, and the engineer turned his head.
A young man, in the plain gray uniform of the Royal Engineers, waved as he crossed the catwalk. There was a paper, like a letter, flapping in his hand.
“Yes?!” he shouted back, above the noise. The engineer straightened out, combed back his black hair with his hand, and worried about appearing professional. In the back of his mind, he worried there was a ‘periodical’ abandoned on the control room floor.
“From High Command!” the young engineer shouted.
And the senior engineer found that strange. “We don’t answer to them!” he yelled.
That was true. While the Royal Engineers were a sub-branch of the Army, the Critical Systems Group was under the purview of the king, and by extension duke Eddleston. Their missions included maintenance of the undersea dam, but also more clandestine operations, when necessary.
The senior kept his hand close to his holster.
“I was told to bring this to Flood Control!” the young engineer yelled, then about ten feet away. “I don’t know what’s in it!”
The senior engineer held out his hand, gripped the end of the letter; without letting go, the young engineer drew a knife from his waistband. The senior went for his pistol, but the young man was fast, and before he could pull his pistol his throat was cut.
He collapsed against the railing, gurgling blood. The stranger, who looked down at him with strange eyes, left nothing to chance. The knife came down, he was stabbed and stabbed again, until his uniform was swollen with blood.
The young man looked youthful, even innocent, with black hair and blue eyes. The engineer had been ready to believe that he had been sent by mistake; after all, communications were easily confused in those final days. Yet, that lad had just plunged a knife ten times through his chest. There was no pleasure, no confusion, no regret, or anger in his eyes. The engineer, bleeding through the catwalk grate, was just an obstacle removed.
He stepped over the engineer, walked into the control room. The gears in the wall turned loudly, the water began to slow, and the alarm ceased. Then, the engineer heard the hiss of a flare.
He struggled on the catwalk. Perhaps the lad had taken him for a simpleton, but he was a member of the Royal Engineers—no, a member of the CSG!—he would not go quietly. With a jittering hand, weakened by blood loss and pain, he drew his revolver. He turned toward the control room and leaned himself against the catwalk railing. The lad crossed into view when he made to seal the door.
Blood burst from the lad’s shoulder; he snarled, tore the rifle off the wall.
The second shot missed as the stranger shrunk out of sight. The engineer waited, tried to keep his hand steady as the seconds passed. It became hard to breathe, and it became hard to focus. His final thoughts turned to his wife.
As special personnel, his spouse was eligible for Mathematzen’s protection. It had been months since he saw her last with her lovely hair, and her lovely dress, and a lovely voice so familiar to his ears. He almost felt he could hear her, just as he had the day of her departure, when she had gussied up for her meeting with a god. She was afraid for him, for their city; she was nervous, and so uncertain, but she wasn’t a soldier; talented in so many things, yes, but not killing.
He sent her away, convinced her he’d follow soon after. He had to stay, because his king needed him. The army was short on hands, there was no one else to operate the dam. He promised he would go with the final call. He would go, just as soon as his work was done.
As soon as it was done.
“Make your prayers, and if you have a bold heart, I welcome you to take up arms,” the king said, his baritone heard through the open door. “For Bastilhas.”
The lad peeled out from cover; rifle drawn.
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