Chapter 40 IN THE ZONE
Haides waited until the patrol had disappeared, then slipped away. He wandered aimlessly for a while. The weather had turned cold, and for the time being, dry. The ground was still wet and muddy, though. He didn’t really mind. As long as he kept moving, he wouldn’t freeze, and the too-large boots on his feet had just received a generous helping of grease and were effectively water-tight.
Hours went by as the careful boy wandered the broken, empty cityscape. A few times he came across other survivors, but he slipped away before they knew he was there. Eventually, Haides ended up at the edge old forbidden zone with the hospital building looming in the center. It made the boy think of his birthday again, the cake he never had, a Father he barely could remember, a Mother murdered, Nik, Jan, Eli, Luca, and all the others. One day there, the next, gone.
He’d come to the zone on more than one occasion. He never set out to go the—his legs would guide him there of their own volition. Like they had today. Whenever he was back at the Zone, Haides would sit and observe for a while. Observe—and think of the old times, before the war, before he was betrayed. He would stay until he could take it no more, then leave, wowing to never come back. But he always did.
After the war, there had been continued activity within the zone for a while. Not a whole lot, except for a brief period. During that time, he’d once seen a convoy of ostentatious vehicles with Conclave markings and amazons riding shotgun. Athena’s woman warriors had looked quite impressive and intimidating in their white-and-gold exo-suits, pennants fluttering from their ceremonial phase lances. When the amazons helped the Coalition take Thira, they had been wearing urban camo and wielded coilguns and pulse cannons. Haides figured they were escorting someone famous, but without binoculars and a good vantage point, he couldn’t see who it was.
When next Haides visited the market, he had stopped by Himilco to bargain for some purification tablets. The old apothecary had rubbed the scar at the base of his skull where the bomb was located and kept up a steady stream of gossip. The great Prelate Zhukov was in Thira to visit his good friend, First Minister Verrigan. It must have been Zhukov’s column Haides had seen.
Eventually, the burst of renewed activity passed, then dwindled to nothing. No more hopper flights or armored columns coming and going. The frag-wire fences and sentry turrets remained, but the black-armored soldiers without unit markings went away. Once in a while, a Technocracy maintenance crew would arrive with an escort, stay for a few days, and then leave again. That lasted through the second winter after Haides was abandoned. After that, nothing. The Forbidden Zone, and the facility that lay at the heart of it, had stood silent and unused for the better part of a year.
Despite a series warning signs posted around the perimeter, proclaiming a ban on the area, jointly issued by the authority of Count-Planetar June I Othrys and Archon Guillaume of the Coalition, there had been several attempts at getting in over the years. From lone scavengers to armed bands of Vaxandii to groups of desperate Akakian survivors. As far as Haides knew, none had succeeded. The would-be treasure hunters had all been caught by the zone’s automated defenses. Killed outright, or more rarely, driven away. It had been a while since anyone had tried, but the boy was sure the anti-intrusion measures were still working. A year or two of negligence wouldn’t put a technomancer-crafted security system out of commission.
The careful boy had never tried going back inside, not even across the outer perimeter as he had done in the past. There was no point in trying. Any meaningful loot would be locked inside those hospital buildings, and there was no way to reach those. Meaning any break-in attempt would net nothing, except mortal danger. He hadn’t survived for this long by taking needless risks.
The weather was taking a turn for the worse. A particularly foul wind came screaming down from the Mastaris, the place Haides’s family had used to go summer skiing, carrying with it a mixture of rain and snow. That particular combination of wind and precipitation was the worst sort, guaranteed to get you wet, cold, and shivering in no time. The boy took shelter underneath a section of broken nanocrete protruding from a gaping hole in the ground. Heavy artillery shells—or air-dropped bombs—had landed here, years ago, creating a swathe of chaotic terrain that led all the way from Haides’s observation point to the outer defensive perimeter. He could practically reach the fragmentation wire without risk of being seen as long as he stayed low and followed the craters.
Out of the wind and driving sleet, it wasn’t so bad. Haides pulled down the hood of his oilskin cape to better look at what lay ahead but kept his home-made mittens on. The garment was of a type favored by the lakeshore fishermen. It was a couple of sizes too big, but that just meant the boy could easily fit everything he carried underneath. As far as clothing went, it was definitively his favorite piece.
He huddled under the slab, staring at the zone. His thoughts turned to the betrayals like they often did. How friends and family had turned their backs on him, one after the other, until he was all alone in the war-torn hell formerly known as Thira—now named Athens. He pushed the past away. There was a way inside. He was sure of it. He’d crept through the zone on more than one occasion, back when it was fully operational. Granted, he hadn’t tried getting into the actual hospital facility, but it went to show that getting in was possible—if you wanted it enough and was smart about it. Static defenses had one significant weakness—they were fixed. Given time and ingenuity, an intruder could always defeat them. The boy had plenty of both.
He had, however, lacked the desire to make an attempt. It wasn’t worth it. The facility hadn’t been abandoned in a rush. It had closed down gradually. The owners would have emptied it before turning off the lights and locking up. Chances were it held little of value. The reasoning was still sound, but it no longer mattered. The challenge of getting in was what mattered now. Indifference turned into resolve.
The boy put his mind to work. The way in through the outer perimeter he already knew. Actually, he knew at least three safe paths, plus a couple he hadn’t tried. The next challenge was the inner perimeter. Haides hadn’t gone through it, but he had a plan that should work. He hadn’t actually tested it, since any miscalculation on his part would end in death. He tucked the heavy woolen shirt inside too-large fatigue pants, tightened the belt a notch to keep everything firmly in place, pulled up the hood again, went through the plan one final time, and moved forward.
The weather was favorable: the wind and driving sleet combined with the remnants of today’s morning fog to eliminate any chance of being picked up by visual sensors. Even multi-sights and scanners would have trouble spotting the heat signature or movement trace of a small boy through all that cold interference. Thank you, Artemis.
The boy got through the outer perimeter with no trouble at all. He moved along one of the pre-plotted routes, found the hole in the fence under a few inches of snow, quickly dug a passage, and slipped inside. Loki favors the bold.
He moved towards the chosen penetration point. The boy hadn’t been inside the zone for a long time, so he was a bit anxious. Had things changed during his absence? He needn’t have worried. Everything was just the way he remembered it except for the snow. There wasn’t a whole lot of it, but there was enough both on the ground and flying through the air to make seeing the markers nigh impossible.
Without the markers, he couldn’t be absolutely sure. He stopped for a bit, thinking. The prudent thing would be to turn back, but curiosity got the better of him, and he moved forward, trusting in his memory.
There was a whirring sound, barely audible over the wind.
The boy froze.
Through the driving sleet, he could see a sentry turret, barrel moving back and forth, actuators struggling against accumulated snow and ice. It didn’t fire. The intruder was a hairsbreadth outside its search area, and as far as the turret was concerned, he didn’t exist at all. Fortunate that, as the multi-barreled pulse cannon would have made short work of a defenseless kid.
Inside the inner perimeter lay about a dozen buildings. Most of them had belonged to a Thiran hospital. Paragon Daedalus’s Mercy Hospital, if Haides remembered correctly. There were no physical signs anymore—and the virtual signs had died with the Grid, years ago—just a stark facade of stone and shuttered windows. It had been an outstanding hospital, catering to the wealthy. Haides had gone there once before the war. His sister—while he still had one—had been kicked in the head by a horse and needed emergency treatment. The boy had tried remembering what it looked like inside but found he had almost no memories of the place, except for Eli lying motionless in a bed, surrounded by medical equipment and doctors.
The buildings had all been secured. Barred windows and closed-off doorways limited access to a handful of entry points. Those access points would be guarded, and thus out of reach. The boy had to find something the security crews had missed—or make his own entrance.
He couldn’t climb up. That would leave him exposed, and there was no guarantee he’d find an entry. Perhaps if he could go all the way to the roof, but it was too high. If it had been in summer, with light clothes and no risk of being shot, sure. But not in this weather, with wet, bulky clothes, and a target painted on his back.
He had to go down, through the storm drains, and into the sub-levels. The drain pipes would be well protected against outside intrusion, welded shut or otherwise blocked, mined perhaps. But inside the perimeter, they should be accessible.
It was good a plan as any.
The plan didn’t survive first contact with the enemy. The metal grate covering the drain had been point-welded shut. Security measures were even more stringent than Haides had accounted for. The right thing to do would be to turn around and go out the way he’d come. A little colder and wetter than before, but none the worse for wear.
Instead, the boy started thinking about the grenade at the bottom of his satchel. It should crack the welds. A waste of good money, but his blood was up. He pulled out the grenade, jammed it against the metal grate, popped the primer, and took cover. There was a loud bang, a blast of heat, and smoke that was quickly dispersed by the foul weather.
The boy rushed over.
His pulse quickened. The opening was too narrow. The grenade had cracked the welds like he had intended, but had also damaged the hinges. And now the grate was stuck.
Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the sounds of a portal crashing open. There were no people left at the facility, but that didn’t mean there were no defenders. Rover drones were being deployed to investigate the explosion.
Haides grabbed the metal, set his foot against the edge of the sidewalk, and pulled with all his scrawny might. The grate didn’t budge even one millimeter.
He could hear walker drones approaching, their clawed metal feet scraping the icy nanocrete with every step. The boy’s heart was racing now, so fast it was painful. He had only seconds more to live. With a singular focus brought about by his imminent termination, he willed the grate to open. It tore right of at the hinges, and he tossed it casually aside, twenty kilos of metal feeling practically weightless.
He got down on his belly and snaked inside the drain pipe. It was a tight fit. Good thing he was a small boy, or he’d be stuck out on the street. He kept moving forward, trying to put as much distance between his heat signature and the approaching drones.
The sound of metal feet against the icy ground grew fainter until he could hear them no longer. The boy was elated. He was inside. He’d probably need to find another way out, but that was nothing. He kept going. The further he got from the grate, the darker it became, but he didn’t want to stop to rummage for his torch. At some point, the drain pipe had begun sloping downwards, without Haides noticing. One moment he was crawling along, pulling his satchel after him. The next, he slipped and went sailing down into the darkness.
He could touch the sides of the metal pipe, but despite his best efforts, there was no way to stop the wild ride. The narrow passage quickly emptied into a bigger one. There was more traction here, but Haides was disoriented and in the dark, and could not find any purchase. Then he banged his head on something, and all rational thought fled his brain. The boy became a screaming lump of meat frantically clawing at metal, even as he hurtled towards his doom.
Wintertime meant precipitation in Thira. Usually in the form of cold rain, but sleet or even snow wasn’t unknown. Lately, there had been quite a bit of every category falling out of the sky. This proved most fortunate, as the water helped cushion the fall.
Had Haides’s sojourn taken place during the dry summer season, he would have fallen eight meters onto the nanocrete. The fall would have left him crippled. He would have died a slow, lonesome, and painful death down there. His body would become food for rats, and no one would ever find the remnants.
Instead, there was a big splash. The boy touched bottom but came away with nothing worse than another bruise. He thrashed around for a while, completely panicked. When finally he realized the water was only a little over waist deep, he stopped screaming and started to feel around for somewhere dry.
It was pitch black. Panic threatened to overwhelm him at any moment—an irrational fear of being sucked into another pipe and dragged a place so deep and dark he’d never see the light again, let alone breathe air. Eventually, he fumbled his way into a wall then followed it until he felt a ledge above the water.
Sensing that salvation was near, he nearly panicked again but managed to keep it together. Found a metal ladder bonded to the nanocrete, dragged himself up of the water, collapsed on the floor—and started laughing. There are few things as exhilarating as narrowly cheating death. Even when laughing makes your cracked ribs scream out in agony.
The laughter quickly faded as reality grabbed at a skinny, malnourished body. Death was staved off for the moment, but the cold was not. With numb fingers, Haides got a compact Coalition-issue torch out of the satchel and turned it on. The light beam played across water and nanocrete. Multiple pipes, all of them big, led into the room, high up. An even larger tube—more of a tunnel, really—sat lower down, but still above the water level. He was in a gargantuan cistern that was part of Thira’s extensive storm drain system.
A system of ladders and walkways were bolted to the walls, making it possible for maintenance workers—and intruders for that matter—to get around. The hospital sub-basement had to be close by. He just had to find it. And fast. He was no longer shivering with cold. He was shaking uncontrollably. He could barely hold on to the torch, his mind was fuzzy, and he was feeling oh-so-tired. He had to move or die, not of impact injuries, but of the deep slumber that follows on the heels of hypothermia.
Without a clear plan, Haides began walking, with nothing but torchlight to guide him. Again there were no signs. Why would there be signs? If you came here, you’d have the Grid to show you the way—no need for signs.
After what seemed like an eternity, Haides stood before a door, clearly labeled as leading into Paragon Daedalus’s Mercy Hospital, sub-level three. Someone had taken care to spray-paint the stylized dragon rampant of the Dragon Order across the door. Below the symbol was a short warning in High Dominion: Prohibitum accessum per preceptum Ordo Draconis.
The spelling wasn’t quite one hundred percent, but the message was clear enough. Whatever lay beyond the door was forbidden by order of the Dragon Order. Haides was too cold to be suitably intimidated by the ominous symbol. And somewhat bemused by the Coalition’s poor command of high Dominion: when the children of your enemies know your own language better than you do, to what end do you fight?
The answer was, of course, that soldiers didn’t care much. They just followed orders and fought whoever they were told to fight. And if asked to spell something, they would try as best they could and never worry too much about the niceties of grammar and syntax. Only the learned waste their time on the purely academic.
Haides examined the door under the white sheen of the torchlight. It didn’t look like it had any additional Dracon Order or Technocracy security measures, just the standard Akakian door control: a simple numeric keypad with an attached lock-scanner. Whoever had marked the door hadn’t expected anyone to come this way, ever again. The place was well inside the security perimeters, deep underground.
Haides’s own lock—had he still carried it—wouldn’t have helped. It would not have held the necessary permissions since he wasn’t a member of the hospital staff or a maintenance worker. He also lacked the physical passkey and the keypad combination that would let him open the door without access to the Grid.
He was stuck. He didn’t panic. There was no point. He couldn’t go forward, couldn’t go back. He slumped down in front of the door. Sat there, shivering violently, with nothing but fading torchlight and his own dark thoughts for company. He could feel every cut and bruise, the bone-deep weariness. He should never have come. There was no way out. No use struggling. Better if he closed his eyes and fell asleep, never to wake again. Nik would be there, waiting for him. The dog knew it had to be done; he was wise. Together they would pass through Hades, be judged free of sin, and find their way to the blessed fields of Elysium.
No. That’s not how it will be. It will be the Pit—for all of us. We’ve destroyed paradise. We deserve no better than eternal torment.
Haides willed himself to get back up. It was a monumental task just to make his legs obey. Standing up was nearly impossible—he had to push against the wall to avoid falling down again, so badly was he shaking. He stripped down to bare skin, painfully stiff fingers working against soaked clothing. He wrung his clothes as best he could. They were still wet, but no longer dripping—not much anyway.
Then he dressed anew, but this time only in wet wools: two pairs of socks, ill-fitting long underpants, and the shirt with the carved bone buttons. He pulled the cape on top. The yarn would keep him warm, even when wet, as long as he kept moving. The oilskin would limit the flow of air, allowing the wool to work its magic.
His too-large boots were soaked through and through. He drained them as best he could—what a mess. Now the grease would only make them dry up slower. But he had nothing else, so they’d have to suffice.
Haides found a couple of self-heating pads in his satchel, put one inside each boot, and wiggled his feet back inside. It was a tight fit with wet socks, even with the shoes being two sizes too big. Before long, the pads starting warming up. It wouldn’t last forever, but for the time being, Haides felt like he was walking in the hot sand of a sun-kissed beach. The rest of the soaked rags he threw aside. If—when—he got out of this, he’d find something else to wear.
He jumped around some to warm himself. He got a foil-wrap packet of compacted biscuits from the satchel. A staple of many GI ration packs. Tasteless and bone dry, but nutritious. He had an endless supply of cold water to wash it down with. A candy bar rounded out the light lunch.
While eating, he walked around in circles, knees high, and arms swinging, looking at the door. In between mouthfuls of food, he tried the handle again. And again. It was firmly locked.
After finishing the candy bar, he stopped and grabbed the handle with both hands. One final try. He pulled. The door handle tore loose. He stood there, dumbfounded, looking at the handle. He grabbed onto the edge of the door and willed it to open. Nothing happened. He tried again, tapping into deep reservoirs of anger and anguish.
The door didn’t open as such—the lock held firm, until both the door and the doorframe both away. A gaping nanocrete hole beckoned the boy forward. He tossed the ruined metal into the tunnel behind him, where it shattered a layer of flash-frozen ice, showering Haides with a spray of water and slush. He barely noticed. Somewhere deep inside his chest, a fire raged. The boy had nearly died—but had never felt so alive.