GlimStar 012: Starling and Glimmer Take A Flight
Previously: Due to a quirk of Glimmer's instruments, she and Starling discover an important yet forbidden archaeological site. They are arrested by local government agents and sent to the house of the mysterious Zarn.
The dispirited company trudged up the stairs; seven laborers, including Starling, four archaeologists, and now two captors from some kind of secret police. Starling played scenarios in his head, knocking one guard down the stairs and wrestling the gun from the other, or skipping downstairs, dodging bullets, and hiding in the Archive, but he shook those away.
Someone tapped on his shoulder. "It's not scary," whispered one of the laborers, the one that had fallen to his knees before the mural. "I've done this before. You go before Zarn, and he talks with you, and you go away and you don't remember things. Standard precaution with the dig sites around here." His breath was wet and heavy. Starling wiped his neck.
The rest of the base camp waited for them in the Antechamber with strained faces, saying nothing. "If you saw something you want to keep," the laborer continued, "just forget about it now, push it away, and it might come back to you."
"I'm excited," whispered Glimmer. "I just wish we could have found a camera. That's the first thing we do when we get out of here, all right? We can figure something out for the security system -"
"We might not get out of here," Starling whispered back, as they marched up the slope out of the Mausoleum. "You might end up in this guy's private collection."
There was still a trace of orange in the western sky. A double-rotored helicopter was approaching from the southwest.
"Scary! Maybe he'll put me in his computer harem and make me massage his account books."
"This is serious," said Starling, a little too loud. "No kidding," said Somin. Someone laughed.
"That's why I'm not afraid," said Glimmer, her voice warm. "Because you're Ianno Starling. You will find a way out of this, and I will find a way to help you."
He crushed a retort, and found that easier than he had expected. He could almost feel Glimmer's faith buoying him up.
The guards bound their hands behind their backs with zipties as the helicopter approached. Blund stretched his arms, eyes on the sky.. "You did good work, Nollar. No hard feelings."
The lead guard smiled. "Thanks, boss. Means a lot to me."
"What's going to happen to us?"
Nollar shrugged. "The less I know the better." He gently tied Blund's hands.
Starling eyed the laborer who'd spoken to him, another Archives pattern finder named Bitt, but the other man was looking at the ground with a neutral expression. "You said -" he started to say, but the noise of the helicopter was too loud to speak over, and it landed a short distance away.
The helicopter was unpainted, somewhat rusty, but the engines seemed well-maintained. Its only occupant was a single pilot. The guards hustled them on and clipped their zipties onto straps on the walls. A few greasy barrels were tied up at the wall at the rear.
"I've never been flying before!" Glimmer's voice was nearly ecstatic.
"You flew last week," said Starling, and he immediately wished he hadn't. Glimmer didn't respond, and he hoped the noise of the rotors had drowned it out.
The open door of the helicopter showed a glorious view of the scrub desert. The gravel roads were bright lines across the dun landscape, and soon they were high enough to see more towns, none of them as large as Mausoleum.
Someone shouted. A black dot on the horizon resolved into a fortress on a squared-off mountaintop, seven walls with a tower at each corner, with no visible entrance, and a mess of worn, weathered masonry and roofing in the middle. A road wound through the hills surrounding it and disappeared on the other side.
The helicopter passed dangerously close to a spire as it set down in a dilapidated courtyard. A pair of guards in snappy black uniforms waited for them with cheerful faces as the spies pulled the carabiners off of the prisoners' bonds.
Starling was released fifth, and he bounded out of the helicopter to get a better look at his surroundings. "It's a madhouse," he whispered. "You could be up there for weeks..."
One of the new guards, a man whose youthful face seemed out of place on his muscular frame, waved Starling to stand in a line with the other prisoners. He looked at a crumpled printout in his hand and back, started to count from the front of the line, then shouted to the helicopter. "How many of 'em?"
Neither of the guards on board answered. The youth drew in his breath to shout again when Nollar's voice sounded out. "Ten."
He put the paper in his pocket and waved. Glimmer hummed. "It worked, didn't it."
"Yeah," whispered Starling. The guards on the helicopter waved back and it lifted off.
The hall they were led into was pillared in concrete fluted and painted to look like marble, and roofed in a collapsed skylight. Someone had swept a path through the rubble on the floor, and an ornate door hung on one hinge at the end.
It led into a series of rooms painted in faded pastels, each one more maintained than the last as they wound their way through. The last one was being dusted by a veiled maid, who seemed to completely disregard the procession, and was ignored by the guards. A double door opened into a high-ceilinged sitting room.
At the far side was a full-sized portrait of a rather plain-looking man, one whose looks the artist had apparently spared no effort, with aggressive strokes and a harshly contrasting reddish background to enliven, but without effect. His dull eyes looked over them with a bored expression. His white uniform somehow seemed rumpled, even with no visible wrinkles.
As Bitt entered the room behind Starling he collapsed screaming. The older guard leading the procession shoved Starling out of the way as both of the guards knelt to assist. "He's having a seizure!" shouted Somin, as he yanked at the plastic ties on his hands. The final tug failed to pull them loose and he lost his balance, spun completely around, and fell on top of the younger guard.
The older guard lashed at Somin with a nightclub just as Bitt kicked at his feet. The blow fell wild as the guard jumped backwards and landed on the hip of one of the laborers, a big man they called Sleepy, who blinked, opened his mouth as if to protest, then shut it and head-butted the guard.
Starling glanced at the guards. Bitt was collapsed in the entrance. Somin was struggling to get off of the younger guard, but was prevented by the man's panicked attempt to struggle out from underneath. Sleepy was battering the older guard against the wall with a shoulder. The last man, a researcher named Tibs, had pulled out a chair and was waiting patiently.
"Was that... your plan?" Glimmer's voice was awed. Starling started to reply, but found himself speechless. He stepped backwards, then turned to walk through an open door, eyes set on the darkened hall beyond. He walked faster, broke into a trot, then a run, guided by dim lamps inset by the ceiling, and the pattern on the wallpaper blurred as a laugh ripped from his ragged lungs.
He stumbled, stopped, collapsed against the wall. Glimmer spoke again, and against the dusty echoes of the long hall her voice was warm and solid.
"I told you so."