Krazzik Betran was waiting at the mine car when the three guardians returned from the cavern and, judging from the look he gave them, he knew too well how they felt despite their best efforts not to show it. The way back to the “surface” was just like their descent into the depths of the planet Karasen, mostly silent. The old miner didn’t ask about their time in the cavern, nor did any of them wish to speak of it. All Haldron wanted was to get out of there and back to his real job as quickly as possible. But there was still one thing left for him to do.
Once they were out of the mines, Haldron parted ways with his fellow guardians who started making their way back to Installation 14. They weren’t needed for the last step of his assignment, and he wanted some time alone. He wasn’t sure what happened to him in that cavern, but it was like nothing he’d ever experienced. He couldn’t believe the way he’d acted toward Benellen. That never happened to him, not even after everything. He needed to be careful when he made his report to the Chief Officer and General Secretary. If they heard anything of what happened down there, they’d certainly push for his retirement. That was the last thing he needed. The Guardians were the only family he had now; the tunnels were his home. Without them, he had nothing. Haldron boarded the tramway that would take him into the heart of Chintell, where the Citadel awaited.
The corridor outside the office of Chintell’s General Secretary was about as warm and welcoming as the mines he’d just come from. Everything from the walls to the floor and ceiling to even the seat Haldron sat in was made from the same bland stone, as was standard for Ebol architecture. The only thing that saved it from being thoroughly depressing was the glow of the pendant lights hanging above on thick chains. The architecture wasn’t pretty to look at, but it did what it was meant to, which was all that mattered in the end. Haldron’s kind had always been more concerned with function over aesthetics. As long as something did what it was supposed to, no one cared what it looked like.
It was Haldron’s first visit to the Citadel. His first time reporting personally to the General Secretary too. He felt strange sitting there. This wasn’t where he was supposed to be, even less so than the mines. Guardians never reported directly to the General Secretary, only ever reporting to the officers who then relayed anything of note to the city’s government. Being there only made the situation even stranger. It made him wonder if they already knew more than they were letting on. He couldn’t stop thinking about his reason for being summoned there. The object, standing in its spot in the cavern, its ominous presence felt by anyone who laid eyes upon it. Even from so far away, it possessed the power to cause discomfort. Haldron remembered the way it loomed over him, the way it seemed to be watching him, and the way it called out to him. It was nowhere near, but he still couldn’t help but feel like it was watching him from its cavern deep below the city, as if it knew he was thinking about it.
The door to his right swung open, and a tall, stern-looking woman appeared. “The General Secretary will see you now”.
Haldron got to his feet and followed, eager to spend as little time there as possible. The quicker he got in and gave his report, the sooner he could get back to the transport tunnels where he belonged. The office of the General Secretary was as bare as the corridor that led to it. There were no windows, not that there would be much to see if there were. Chintell’s General Secretary, Andard Neketon, was waiting behind his stone desk. He was a young man, too young for the post he held. He wore a deep red suit with a silver gear emblazoned on the right breast, the symbol of the office of the General Secretary. There were two seats opposite him, one empty, the other occupied by Tolov Makalod, the Chief Officer of the Guardians.
“Haldron”, said the Chief Officer as he crossed the threshold.
Haldron caught the General Secretary’s eye, and received a critical look. “This is the man you sent”?
The Chief Officer nodded. “This is Haldron Antulen, Guardian Senior Three, and one of the very best the City Defence Force has to offer. He has served our city with distinction for many years”.
The General Secretary looked to him once more, then nodded. “Be seated, Antulen”. He gestured to the empty seat.
“Thank you, sir”. Haldron sat down beside his superior. The Chief Officer was dressed the same as him but with a yellow diamond topped with a star sewn on his upper sleeves. His fur made it seem like he’d been coated with molten silver.
“So what is it that you have to tell us, Antulen”? The General Secretary asked with what sounded like a strong air of entitlement. “What is it that’s got these miners all worked up”? He seemed neither old nor experienced enough to fully appreciate the gravity of his position.
Haldron took a moment to choose his words. “They have discovered an artefact in a previously unexplored area far beneath the city”. He was respectful despite his thoughts on the man across from him, though he couldn’t help but feel someone else should be sitting where he was.
“An artefact? Ebol in origin”?
“I don’t believe so, sir. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before and looks like nothing our people have ever produced. It was discovered in a cavern that hadn’t been previous excavated, with no previous signs of entry”.
“Then how could it have gotten there”? Tolov asked.
“I don’t know sir. Nor do the miners”.
The General Secretary sat back, brought his fingers together. “Can you describe it for us, please”?
Haldron wasn’t sure where to begin. He didn’t want to say too much. “It is strange. Monolithic in appearance, quite tall, perhaps twenty or so feet. Thin, black in colour, sleek and shiny”. His unease returned as he recalled what he saw in the mines, the same as what he felt when he looked upon it for the first time. It was like it knew he was talking about it, and was listening. It was in his head, reading his thoughts, analysing every feeling, memory, and secret.
“Were there any markings on it? Any symbols or glyphs? Any lettering”?
“No sir, none. There wasn’t a single mark upon its surface. Not a scratch”.
The General Secretary smirked. “Fascinating”. That wasn’t the word Haldron would have used. The Chief Officer appeared to share his apprehension. Their kind saw only danger in things that couldn’t be explained. “You said it was strange. How so”?
What I told you already wasn’t strange enough? Haldron thought. He’d seen a great many strange and horrifying things in his life patrolling the tunnels, but his encounter in the mines shook him like nothing else. He didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want anything to do with it. The only thing he wanted was to get out of there and forget about the whole thing. But it would be irresponsible to keep any details from his superiors. “It has a strange effect on those who come into contact with it. It seems to possess some kind of power”.
“What kind of power”?
Haldron took a breath. “It has a powerful presence. Those who observe it seem to become… entranced. They are attracted to it. It seems to call out to them. And… as I observed it… it felt as if it was looking back at me, almost as if it were alive. The foreman who led me to it admitted he and his men were frightened by it”. It was difficult to explain in terms that didn’t make him sound crazy. He couldn’t afford to look that way, especially in front of the Chief Officer. That would certainly be the final straw.
The General Secretary stared past Haldron and the Chief Officer, apparently debating with himself on what to do. Whatever he decided, Haldron hoped it would have nothing to do with him. “It seems that this is an object of great power. I am most eager to learn of its secrets and origins. It may bring great benefits to our society”.
Something inside Haldron compelled him to speak. “General Secretary, if I may, perhaps it would be better if this thing was put back where it was found and left alone. There is an otherworldly quality about it. Something tells me it wasn’t meant to be found. It may be dangerous”.
“I understand your concerns, Antulen, given what you have told us. But as I said, it could bring great benefit to our people if we were to learn its secrets and unlock its power. In my eyes, that outweighs the risk. I will have a salvage team retrieve it and transport it to the Research Sector for examination. I’m sure they will be able to shed some light on the matter”. He was a fool. He didn’t see it. He didn’t feel the way it looked into you.
“General Secretary”, said the Chief Officer. “I believe it would be prudent for the City Defence Force to oversee the retrieval and transport of the artefact. We shouldn’t take any chances until we know what this thing is and where it came from”. Haldron had no objections to that. In that case, it would be the Sentinels who handled the situation, not the Guardians. The Sentinels were the other branch of the City Defence Force, responsible for protecting the city from threats from within rather than out.
“With respect, Chief Officer, only several of us are aware of the power this thing seems to possess. To everyone else, it’s just a block, and I doubt highly that anybody would be interested in stealing a block”.
Tolov frowned. He and the General Secretary rarely saw eye to eye. It was no secret neither man particularly cared for the other. “General Secretary, as you’ve already said, this object, whatever it is, seems to be very powerful and could well have the potential to be extremely dangerous if it were to fall into the wrong hands. I strongly suggest that- ”
“My decision is final, Chief Officer. The Research Sector will handle it from here. Now, unless there’s anything else, that will be all”.
The Chief Officer began to utter a heated response but changed his mind, probably realizing there was little point in arguing. Haldron thought of speaking up but decided against it. It wasn’t his place to argue with the General Secretary.
“Imbecile”, Tolov growled once they were out of the office, and earshot. “An artefact of unknown design and origin discovered right under our noses and he sees no reason to entrust it to the protection of the City Defence Force? Who knows what this thing is, or what kind of power it holds? It could be a weapon for all we know. Imagine if such a thing fell into the hands of the Trassani”. Haldron understood his superior’s anger, the General Secretary undermining the City Defence Force the way he had, though again, he chose to say nothing, wanting only to forget about the whole affair. “You know more about it than anyone else. What do you think about this”?
“Truthfully sir, I don’t know what to think. I don’t really know anything, only what I saw. I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t believe anyone has”.
Tolov came to a halt. “You seem shaken, Haldron”.
“I’m just tired, sir”. Not untruthful but not the whole truth either.
“You said the miners were frightened by it. What about you”?
Haldron hesitated. “I felt uneasy around it, sir”. He was never one for telling lies but this was a truth that was difficult to admit. “It had an ominous presence to it. It didn’t feel of this world”.
Tolov shook his head. “This is all this city needs. We’ve barely got enough guardians to patrol the tunnels, Trassani scouting parties being spotted almost every day, and now this? Fucking Imperium’s got the Circle wrapped around its finger, got them putting morons in charge of cities but won’t do anything else for us. The galaxy’s going to the dogs and, if we’re not careful, we’re gonna be dragged down with it”. The Circle were the leaders of the Ebol, a council composed of their most prominent engineers, scientists, and thinkers, the greatest minds the Ebol had to offer though now they were just another pawn for the Imperium. “How are you”? the Chief Officer asked unexpectedly.
“I’m fine, sir. I’m just glad to be out of the mines. I wish to return to my patrols”. Haldron was so used to them the transport tunnels were almost a second home to him.
“In general I mean”.
“I’m fine”, Haldron insisted. He knew what the Chief Officer was getting at, and it was conversation he had no interest in having.
“There’s been some discussion among the senior officers. They want to offer you Officer Primary”.
“They already did. I said no”.
“I know that. They want to offer it to you again. I strongly suggest you accept it”.
Haldron frowned slightly. “I’ve no interest in sitting behind a desk, sir. I much prefer patrolling the tunnels”. He’d considered the promotion to Officer Primary the first time it was offered, for about a millisecond.
Tolov didn’t seem impressed by his stubbornness. “You’re getting too old for the tunnels, Haldron. You’re already the oldest patrolling Guardian in the city. There haven’t been many who continued their patrols as long as you have. I certainly didn’t”.
He was old; Haldron would never dispute that. Perhaps even too old to continue his patrols. But his life was in the tunnels. They were all he had left. The only thing that gave him reason to continue. He wouldn’t budge. “As long as I can walk, hold a weapon in my hands, and shoot straight, I will protect this city”.
The Chief Officer gave a frustrated sigh. “The officers aren’t going to accept that answer forever”.
“And you’re their leader. They can’t do anything without your authorization”.
“And I’m considering giving it”. Haldron had feared as much. “Everyone’s worried about you, Haldron, myself included. After all you’ve been through, do you really think the tunnels are the best place for you”?
“This stubbornness isn’t doing you any favours. You know what the alternative is. Would you rather they cast you out instead? There’s a limit to how long I can protect you”. Haldron was already very much aware of everything his superior said. Without him on his side, he had no hope of staying where he wanted. “You know what they’ve been saying, don’t you? This is all about Searyuhb, isn’t it? Killing him won’t fix anything. It won’t bring them back”.
Haldron finally lost his patience. “It’s about protecting the city I was born in. The city my father protected, and his father before him, and as long I live I will continue to do that, whether you and the officers want me to or not”.
He left the Chief Officer where he stood. All he wanted was to get back to his squad, back to the tunnels, back to where he belonged. It had been a strange day. Haldron wanted only to see it end. No more talk of promotions, and certainly no more talk of mysterious artefacts. He hoped never to set foot in the halls of the Citadel again, nor sit in the office of the General Secretary. He’d washed his hands of the matter. Let him do whatever he wanted with the damned thing. And if it got stolen, so what?