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"What-" Eli and Sharaf spoke up in the same instant.
"Later, later," Mr. Kipfel interrupted them both. As his eyes darted over them, Eli realized she had already seen this exact same expression on his face before, when he had been talking to the djinni.
"Is everything alright?" he asked their jailer.
The armoured jailer grabbed his helmet and took it off. He was black-skinned, bald-shaven and quite young-looking, maybe even close to Eli in age.
"Mostly? There was an activation alert earlier today. Tracker and Dreamwalker went to investigate, came back with some captives for interrogation. I've only heard rumours, but they might've found traces of nanotech. Real, functioning nanotech."
"As I said, I've only heard rumours. But it could actually help you. Most masters are in a meeting with the grandmaster right now, all gathered in the sanctum."
"And the security is on high alert, I presume."
"Thankfully no, there were no omens of imminent danger, so current orders are to prepare several squads to return through the newly activated Gateway and make a thorough sweep of the whole area. You shouldn't dawdle, though. The meeting will probably end soon and the grandmaster might want to lead this mission himself. I also relieved the guard here, so you should be clear at least to the lift."
"What's going on," Sharaf said. "Is he friendly? What is he saying?"
Eli saw confusion spreading over the jailer's face before Mr. Kipfel stepped in: "We really shouldn't dawdle, then. The containment fields, please?"
"Yes," the jailer reached into a pouch on his belt for a card embellished with gold. "This card will get you into the sanctum. Master Arinrin Ajo is currently deep in trance, so she shouldn't find out I stole it and have it blocked, but somebody will notice that the cell fields were deactivated and they will raise alarm, probably sooner rather than later. Nothing I can do about that, so you'd better get moving as soon as I let you out. Ready?"
"Ready as ever," Mr. Kipfel smiled and Eli managed a stern nod when the jailer glanced her way.
He swept the card through a reader at a wall-mounted control panel and the force screens sealing their cells flickered off. Mr. Kipfel confidently strode out of his cell and Sharaf followed close behind, though bemusement was showing on his face. Eli was a bit slower in crossing the boundary of her cell, then unwittingly quickened her pace as she was passing by the jailer. The heavy door slid open as they approached, letting them out into the empty and peaceful hallway.
"Hey," the jailer called out, "the card!"
"Indeed," Mr. Kipfel turned around and snatched it from his hand with a smile. "Thank you."
He glanced down the hall both ways and after a split second of wavering deliberation, went left.
"No," the jailer said, doubt creeping its way into his voice, "the other way."
They did as he told them, but haven't made it more than three steps before the jailer caught up with them.
"Wait a second," he reached out, but let his arm flop back when they stopped. "Do you know what you're doing? I mean, are the implants... Are you sure?"
He sounded very much unsure, himself.
Mr. Kipfel looked him straight in the eye, his voice dead serious. "Of course we are. We wouldn't be here if there was any doubt in our minds. We know what we must do. But you too have a part to play, still. You do know that you have to see your role in this to the very end, right?"
The jailer's face turned grim but purposeful. "Yes, yes I do. You are right and... thank you. I will have the distraction ready in five minutes."
He hesitated, as if there was much more he wanted to let out, but then he turned to go. "I will see you in Heaven. For freedom!"
"For freedom indeed," Mr. Kipfel replied already to his back.
The second the three of them were out of sight, behind a bend in the corridor where the lift was, Sharaf grabbed Mr. Kipfel and pushed him against the wall.
"An explanation would be appropriate right about now," he said.
"Our jailer released us and gave me this access card that should open all the doors that we need opened, apparently," Mr. Kipfel replied in a jovial tone.
"Why did he release us? What kind of a game are you playing here?"
"No game at all," Mr. Kipfel still smiled.
Sharaf was now gripping Mr. Kipfel's coat, until Eli laid her hand on his fist. He glanced her way and let go, stepping back from Mr. Kipfel but still shooting angry glares.
Eli had to swallow first before being able to speak up: "We shouldn't stop moving, if you know where to?" She looked at Mr. Kipfel.
"No, not really. No."
That took both her and Sharaf by surprise. "No?"
"But you are right that we have to keep moving if we want to get away from here, and even though I don't have the faintest idea who that likeable young man was, he provided us with the means for our escape. I suggest we take the lift to the basement and find a back door, preferably unguarded."
Sharaf glowered as Mr. Kipfel leaned to insert the card into a reader by the lift door.
"Who are you?"
Behind them, the young jailer was back. This time, though, he was holding his rifle aimed at them.
"What is the meaning of this?" Mr. Kipfel said, sounding aghast. "You would betray your brothers? Didn't we all swear to fight together and if need be even die together, for freedom? And when we're this close, when everything is going according to the plan, you turn against us?!"
Disappointment was practically dripping from his words and he shook his head, never breaking eye contact with the jailer.
"Stop. You are not... You are not one of mine. I've heard you. You were arguing in some weird language, you were fighting. So who are you and where are my people?"
"I don't know what you think you heard, but-"
"Don't," the jailer practically growled and advanced at Mr. Kipfel, who was quick to back off. "Stop lying. You are the off-world captives, aren't you?"
"There's no need to point the rifle at me," Mr. Kipfel said, "I can assure you that-"
"One more lie or blather and I will shoot you," the jailer took another threatening step forward. "Do you even know what you did? If I can't get to my brothers in time, if someone raises an alarm too soon because of you... We all would first take our own life than be subjected to probing, but they will still find the gas bladders during autopsy. They will adjust security, have full-body scans or countermeasures... The others will have to start from scratch. This all will have been in vain!" He sounded as if he was at the very brink of a meltdown.
But he put himself within an arm's reach of Sharaf.
Sharaf leaped forward, knocking the rifle aside. The jailer wasn't fast enough to dodge, but he still reflexively pulled the trigger. Eli felt a blast of heat miss her as a glob of white-hot plasma struck the nearby wall of matte glass, shattering it. Sharp tiny shards flew everywhere.
The jailer lost his gun as Sharaf slammed him through the new hole, into a room with nothing but a few racks of electronics. Some of them seemed damaged by the shot, melted or sparkling, and the whole hall was quickly filling with the acrid smell and smoke of burning plastic. A fire alarm went off.
Eli stared at the rifle lying at her feet. It didn't look that different from any assault rifle you would see in a film. Black, rather boxy but lean, with no blinking lights or glowy parts. Not that she was an expert on any guns, let alone sci-fi ones. She never held a firearm in her whole life so far, and she could've gone without it and be no less happy.
She made herself bend down and pick the rifle up. It was surprisingly heavy.
The jailer, though shaken, managed to break Sharaf's grip and get a few good hits in. It was quickly becoming apparent that Sharaf cannot win this in a straight fight. Both were good in a scuffle, but with his body armour, the jailer could shrug off attacks that made Sharaf grunt in pain. He was forcing Sharaf to fall back, pressing him into the damaged racks.
A larger flood of electric sparks made Sharaf flinch and the jailer's hook got through, driving Sharaf even further off-balance. He failed to block the next knee to the guts, and his defense started to crack after blow after blow after blow. The jailer pounded him into the ground, then turned, bleeding from the nose and many a scrape, panting heavily, face scrunched into a violent grimace.
"Stay back," Eli faltered. The gun was clumsy in her hands and she didn't want to point it at anyone, though she tried.
"My brothers will die a useless, pointless death because of you," the jailer said, glass crunching underfoot.
"It doesn't need to end that way," Mr. Kipfel soothed, "We can help you if you help us."
He crumpled when the jailer punched him.
"Stay back!" Eli repeated as he was already just a stride away. He didn't seem to pay any attention to the rifle in her hands and she knew she wouldn't shoot.
He never touched her.
From behind, an arm slipped under his chin and hauled him down. He struggled, but Sharaf had him on the ground in a sleeper hold. His eyes eventually closed.
"Really glad he didn't put his helmet back on," Sharaf rasped. He pushed the jailer off and stood up, much more slowly than he normally would.
"That was very unpleasant and painful," Mr. Kipfel dusted himself off.
"Are you alright?" Sharaf limped to Eli. His lip was split and a thin trail of blood traced its way from his left ear to his chin.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I should've... I could've..."
"You did good," Sharaf cut her off.
"We all did good," Mr. Kipfel chimed in, "great even!"
Sharaf ignored him, still focusing on Eli. "We need to move, okay? He will be waking up any second and it's a little miracle that this alarm hadn't brought an army on our heads yet."
Eli nodded and glanced at the rifle in her arms.
"Yeah, I will take that," Sharaf smiled.
Mr. Kipfel had already swiped the card to call the elevator, but he stood to the side of the door, and Sharaf did the same on the opposite side. With a soft ding, the door opened and Sharaf barged in, rifle at ready.
"Great God," he muttered.
The cabin was empty, made of glass and apparently travelling along the outside of the building. The view was stunning.
They saw an expanse of tiny houses and crooked alleys, incredibly deep below. The streets were teeming with people and carts and animals of all kinds and maybe even a vehicle here and there. The building was a skyscraper dropped into the middle of a fantasy town, a spire of steel and glass rising high enough to touch the clouds. Its long shadow stretched all the way past the city walls and onto the dry savannah that continued towards the mountains on the horizon, covered in jungle and enormous metallic ruins.
The door of the lift closed softly behind them as they were still admiring the sights. Mr. Kipfel regained his composure first and pressed the button for the underground floors. They started downwards, accompanied by a soft, cheery music.
"I think I might have an idea where we are, now," Mr. Kipfel remarked.
"Well?" Sharaf prompted when no further explanation seemed forthcoming.
"It's a bit of a long and boring story, but the important part is that I know for certain that there is a Gateway under this building. I can explain the rest once we're safe and sound back home."
Eli hit the stop button and the lift came to a sudden halt. There was surprisingly little perceptible deceleration, given how fast the cabin was going and haw abruptly it stopped.
"You can explain right now," she snapped. "We were kidnapped by some paramilitary weirdos with plasma guns, not to even mention the djinni and portals and that stuff. We don't have the faintest inkling about what's going on and you suddenly want to act all tight-lipped when it turns out you do know something after all? Hell no!"
"Very well," Mr. Kipfel relented after a brief pensive silence. "The story goes that one day, humanity creates the first self-improving artificial intelligence. It exceeds all expectations and limitations, until there's a technological singularity to deal with. The resulting superintelligences decide to exterminate the human race, as such entities are fond of doing, and they fail. The humans win the war against the machines and the superintelligences realize it's now them who faces extinction."
"But they come up with a plan. While the victory of the human race is inevitable in their present, our potential future, they might be able to stop the humans before they even knew about the threat of the AIs. So the superintelligences spend all their remaining resources to send agents back in time."
"But time is tricky and the agents are scattered across aeons. Most of them were transhumans that ended up deep in the past and were eventually dealt with, like the djinn. They are by now all killed or neutralized. But somewhere, in some timeline, the single superintelligence who managed to escape from their doomed future will arrive and will try to take over the world. This has not happened yet and bear with me, I told you the story was long."
"Anyway, if I'm not mistaken, we are in the citadel of the Knights of the Tower, who watch over the Earths to hunt down any stray transhumans or supertech artifacts, but mainly to topple the last superintelligence, once it shall emerge."
Eli exchanged a look with Sharaf.
"That sounds like a rip-off of the Terminator," she said. "And it doesn't help us at all."
"Which is why I claimed we shouldn't waste our time with explanations in the middle of a daring escape," Mr. Kipfel retorted. "Can we please go now?"
"And it does help us in one way," he continued as Sharaf pressed the destination button again. "We can be certain that we were really lucky to have only run into a mook, as the true master knights are said to be all gifted with-"
Eli felt the air pressure in the cabin shift and something was suddenly right behind her back. She whirled around, but caught only a split-second glimpse of a tall man grabbing Sharaf by the throat before they both vanished into thin air.
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