Previously: Starling and Glimmer are ejected from town. They take up drudge work in an archaeological dig.
The door at the side of the Archive was pitch-black and seamless with the surrounding stone. It would have been impossible to detect if Starling hadn't collapsed from exhaustion just a few armspans away, and if Glimmer hadn't focused on her mag-sense while she waited for him to wake up. It was thin, ferrous, and boomed when knocked.
Starling had showed Blund the spot, claiming he had stumbled on it when he leaned against the wall. "You don't mind if I hide you, do I?" he asked belatedly as Blund ran back to the camp, crooning triumphantly.
"If you showed me off they'd hold you down and take me away. Besides, if I get lonely I can just shout."
Six men on a rope attached to a heavy-duty magnet from the Antechamber managed to slide the door out. A pair of laborers trained submachine guns on the entrance, but were greeted with silence. They relaxed.
The big man in the leather jacket, a professor of anthropology named Soman, gasped for breath and rubbed his hands. "Good job," he said, and he slapped Starling on the back.
"Oof." He shook his wrist. "What's that?"
Somin narrowed his eyes, but Blund's excited shouting pulled his attention away. His headlamp was already a distant circle in the next room, and it disappeared at intervals as the archaeologist passed obstacles much wider than the Archive's pillars.
"Right," was all he could say, and he was off, less exuberant than Blund if more excited. The headlamps and flashlights of the research team cut sharply through the room, which seemed to be a labyrinth of long, low walls, with halls cut through at angles radiating from the door.
Starling followed, trepidation in his step. "Any clues?"
"Follow the wall to your right," said Glimmer. "I think there's an active magnetic field in here."
"So that means..."
"Electricity. I hope." Starling's headlamp flicked over a mural, colored and far from abstract, of human figures kneeling in supplication or prayer. He followed their adoring gazes along the wall. A man in black with a gold halo stood on a pile of rubble.
The next mural was a cutaway of an opulent palace, where haloed, black-garbed men and women sat among levitating pitchers of wine and plates of food.
"That's what they look like," whispered Starling.
"You're sure they're not just paintings on the walls?"
"There's... the angle is wrong for that. It's accurate otherwise. And there's little shadows..."
The mural continued outside the palace, a field of grain tended be mortals. At the end was a black-garbed, haloed overseer. A man with broken manacles raised a sickle against his master. His head was a red mess.
"That's brutal. Can you see, see the..."
Starling leaned in. "The red color looks like graffiti, though..." He noticed the flecks on the bonnet of the weeping woman kneeling behind the rebel. "Yeah, there's bits."
"I hadn't asked, chief, but is it normal to be ruled by evil psychic overlords now?"
The next mural began with an army of mortals, all with broken manacles, marching under battle flags, holding a motley assortment of farm tools and rusted rifles. It ended with three black-clad, haloed men with anger on their faces.
"Uh, no, no, it's not. We're ruled by... votes... and... uh... bribes." He tore his eyes from the red paint in the middle of the mural. "It's more complicated, but no, no psychics. They're a myth, they're fictional."
"So this is fiction, you think?"
"Let's say it is and maybe I'll sleep tonight."
A plinth stuck out from the wall after the battle mural, followed by one of psychics attending some kind of school. "Here," said Glimmer. "There's a current running through something on the wall. Try touching things."
He found the top of the plinth to be a sort of lid, with a pair of catches on the side that allowed him to pull it towards him. The inside was a mess of tiny switches, marked in a bizarre, twisting script, in concentric circles around a slightly larger switch in the middle.
"It's flipped up, the rest are flipped down. Should I flip it?"
He glanced around him. Most of the research crew had gathered in the center of the room, and he could hear their shouts if not understand the words. He reached into the box and pushed on the switch. It resisted so strongly he thought it was a decoration at first, but Glimmer spoke on his headset, "That's it! That's it! Keep pushing," and he grunted and strained and pushed with his body, and he felt like he might cut his thumb open but the tiny breaker flipped and he was blinded by a bright light.
He cringed and covered his eyes. The rest of the crew was shouting, and as he strained to see through aching eyes he saw strips of white light climb the walls of a great dome, and the room grew even brighter. He stumbled toward the archaeologists, feeling his way with one hand as he gazed in awe at the dome through the other.
The walls had lit up with an image of a brilliant blue sky, fluffy clouds packing the air with an uncanny illusion of depth, and the dome's horizon, just above the height of the murals, displayed a great field of wildflowers of all colors on an emerald sward that stretched to eternity. Four pillars went from floor to ceiling, and walkways connected them to rooms suspended from the dome by wires. In the center rose a curved stone monument, two stories high yet still not halfway to the top of the dome.
As Starling found his way to the crew, he saw the monument was painted with another mural, in the same style as those on the walls but with much more skill. On the right stood a man clothed in red, with the emblem of a golden sickle on his chest. He shook hands with a humanoid robot, its gleaming joints and breastplate lovingly rendered with metallic paint, a marvelous creation of pistons and plastic, its head a one-eyed cylinder that through some genius of the artist looked on the man with affection. Both of them placed a foot on the bruised and bloodied body of a black-clad man.
Blund caught sight of him and approached, eyes shining, mouth gaping. Starling waved. "I found a... switch-"
The archaeologist clasped him by the shoulders and shook him. "Can you see this? *It changes everything!" One of laborers had dropped to his knees. Somin was stumbling to the monument with arms raised.
The two armed laborers had held back. One of them had his wrist to his mouth. Starling caught his eye, and the man stared steadily back at him, whispering something to his companion, who nodded. The first guard raised his weapon and fired in the air.
The shots echoed like thunder, and the archaeologists stopped in their tracks. The second guard stepped forward. "It's over," he said. "Everyone back upstairs."
One of the researchers protested, dumbfounded, but the guard pulled a black badge out of his pocket, blazoned with a sign of a haloed man, and the other man fell to his knees, completely deflated. "They're Black Hats," he shouted, and a wave of disappointment swept through the room. Starling tried to match their faces, and walked out with the rest.
Another pair of laborers had reached the Archive. The two that had been present for the door breaching saluted the older of the new pair, who looked at the archaeologists with an apologetic expression.
Somin stood at the front of his team and held his arms out protectively. "The others, who didn't see it..."
"We'll protect them," said the Black Hat leader. Somin nodded. "Be brave, friends."
A voice crackled from Starling's headset, Glimmer emulating the voice of one of the laborers. "Where are we going?"
Somin looked around, the exuberance of discovery replaced with crushing weariness. "Where do you think?"
The Black Hat leader nodded. "You're going to meet Zarn."
Shuffling with disappointment as heavy as shackles, they walked single-file up the stairs to their fate.