Our narrator has just arrived in the mysterious and remote base of some sort of evil organisation.
I’ve seen several “fortresses of evil” in my time. Mostly, they seem to fairly quickly attract the attention of the authorities, and they find out how little their power actually is in comparison to a sovereign state. This one, though, seemed fairly old; the white paint covering the walls was wearing through in places, and the metal floor beginning to rust. That was surprising, that this remote undersea base had somehow survived long enough to accumulate rust, when some evil leaders don’t manage to keep their building standing long enough for the first coat of paint to dry. Whoever it was running it, they knew what they were doing.
This was the sort of thing I lived to investigate. I have the power to turn invisible, and made my living, then, sneaking into this sort of base to report on what happened inside, but getting here had not been easy even for me. I had to stow away on a submarine bound for somewhere suspicious, keep hidden behind stacked boxes long enough to get some sleep on the journey, and then escape into this building, apparently an distribution centre for whatever illicit goods were being transported.
The corridor I stood in was broken at intervals by sliding doors, opening into what appeared to be storerooms; incongruously, they were interspersed with glass panels showing tanks filled with a variety of tropical fish. As I watched, three rough-looking workers came of one of the doors. I followed them, waiting for one to open the door to the lift, then stepping in with them and the trolley they pushed – invisible as I was, I couldn’t open doors like this without attracting attention, and I didn’t like the look of the knives each worker had in their belt.
While the lift rose, I inspected the control panel; each button was labelled with the purpose of that floor. Levels 1-2 were marked Machinery, 3 Combat Arenas, 4-5 Warehousing/Docks (I had come in on floor 4), 6 Docks, and 7-10 Residential and Administration. The brand of the lift was not marked; I can’t imagine whoever produced it wanting it known these customers had bought it. For that matter, they probably didn’t want the lift to be traceable.
No-one else came in as we rose – it was around midnight outside, so they were probably mostly asleep. Eventually, the lift beeped twice, and announced “Level Seven – Residential and Administration” in a voice that sounded like it was sick of people asking what floor they had arrived on. I followed the workers out. Administration sounded like somewhere that should have some interesting information about what these people were planning. The lift opened into a small lobby area, with corridors leading off in four directions. The lights were dimmed, but it was still easy to see that the linoleum floor was scarred from frequent use, including one stain that appeared to be fresh blood.
When the workers pushed their cart away, I headed in the opposite direction, taking care to tread quietly. This corridor ran straight on, eventually ending in a T at what appeared to be a window. Outside, dim light filtered down from the water’s surface, past several large shadowy objects. Spots of light on them were presumably windows like this one, looking out into the ocean.
Gradually, I realised what I was seeing. This place was huge! Aside from the building I was in – apparently a huge sphere – there was one dome visible below me, and the edge of another blocking the view of the above. Between the two, another half-finished frame loomed like a huge skeleton against the faint glow of the water, and the shapes of four or five submarines, at least as large as the one I’d come on, floated between it and me.
But, for now, I was looking for offices. I turned around to see a promising-looking door behind be, but apparently not one that belonged to anyone important: “Jeremy Blanch, Quartermaster, Levels 7-10”. Those next to it were similar: personnel manager, night guard, and so on, each for these few levels. As I watched, the night guard – in a white uniform with silver trim, and wearing a vest loaded with dangerous-looking equipment – came out of her office and marched along the corridor. It didn’t look like I would find anyone important on this floor.
Next to the lift, I found the stairs leading up to the tenth floor, where they ended in another lobby. Posters on the walls stated rules and regulations, or announced duels; another showed several faces under the heading “TRAITORS: EXECUTE ON SIGHT”. I shivered, and left through a pair of doors next to one of the windows. The doors led along a short passage which swayed around as I crossed it, the sets of rubber bellows just outside each door shifting disconcertingly.
This time, the lobby I arrived in was brightly lit, apparently the base of some sort of greenhouse extending upwards through the whole building. A couple of trees climbed up towards lights on the ceiling several floors above. Balconies encircled them at every second level, while other floors had bridges, and windows looking out onto the view. Late as it was, a few people were walking in the area, including two more guards.
A third guard marched up one of the adjoining corridors, stopping just short of the lobby. Rather than plain ribbon, his cuffs and collar were edged with the hooked and curled Neo-Lanthean script – the language of Elves and magic. When he pulled out his a baton and raised his other hand, I slowly stepped back and out of sight; my invisibility was magical, and could be cancelled out by the right spell.
He hadn’t seen me, though. The rod was waved in a complex pattern, and several Lanthean words crisply recited; then what must have been an illusory image of the guard walked out into the lobby. I kept watching the original guard, and saw another person arrive and pass several Aian notes to him, then leave furtively. After another few seconds, the simulacrum came back from its circuit of the room, and disappeared. The real guard walked the rest of the way out of the corridor and called the lift.
I waited for the lift doors to close behind him, then headed up the stairs next to it. A good proportion of the time, an evil leader will have their office as high up as possible, and the newer work on this level suggested that would hold true here. My assumptions were confirmed after another four floors’ worth of stairs, which took me to a level where the doors were further apart, and the tanks of brightly coloured fish set into the walls more frequent. An office had a gilt-edged card by the door announcing “Lady Clarisa da’Fenl”, and a window showing a complex glass device boiling a thin red liquid. None of the other offices had windows next to them.
The door was locked, of course, a red light glowing next to a keycard slot, but that only worked so long as the door stayed shut. I looked at my watch — morning wasn’t far away. The occupant of this office would be along soon, and an invisible spy could easily slip in behind them. Meanwhile, I ate the last of the sandwiches I had brought with me.
My luck stayed with me; well before 6 o’clock, a woman in a plainer version of the white uniform came in with a handful of papers, swiped her card, and opened the door; the lights flickered on as she went in. I followed, and found that she was apparently here just to leave the paper on an already cluttered desk, and go out again.
An odd time to have a delivery, but who was I to complain? I would need all the time I could get to find information on this desk. Half of it was covered in several layers of documents, the other half in a jumble of stationary and cables, and a state-of-the-art folding computer screen in the middle was besieged from both sides by the mess.
I took a moment to look around before examining the rest of the documents. The wall above the desk supported a whiteboard, currently showing a complex diagram filled with lines and the many tiny strokes of Elven script. Behind the oddly proportioned office chair was a glass wall filled with tropical fish, through which I could see the tree-filled central chamber.
The rest of the walls were covered with bookshelves, containing folders marked for almost a decade’s worth of records, several feet of texts labelled in Lanthean (which I recognised as spellbooks both popular and rare), a collection of well-used chemistry texts, and an unexpectedly large number of books on philosophy. Among these last, I spotted a couple that looked suspiciously like well-known discussions of how the “evil” Ranlal part of the elven religion could fit into a modern society; strange reading for a leader of her own evil city.
The other half of the room featured an imaginative painting of the massacre of “Relativity” Ousarn’s forces by the Isikyus. Again, a strange choice; it was certainly gory enough to frighten the faint-hearted, but Ousarn had been the evil one there. For once, A and the Asonian Empire had supported the Isikyus against Ousarn’s home state of Arethin, rather than the other way around.
My legs were beginning to ache from all those stairs, so I took a report on “Plans for Expansion” and sat down in one of the chairs facing the desk. The office chair looked like it was designed for an Elf, and probably would have been less comfortable than the nook I had stowed away in on the way here.
I’d obviously been awake for too long; I couldn’t concentrate on figuring out what the words meant, and I could feel a headache coming on. It didn’t help that the author was constantly peppering the document with Asonian words they expected you to understand. But I had work to do here, and I didn’t want to get caught when the office’s owner came in. I tried to concentrate on figuring out what the ‘construction work’ the report kept mentioning was, and why it seemed to involve blowing up a lighthouse on the other side of the ocean.
Then I felt a bony hand on my shoulder. I barely had time to wonder how I had been spotted before a voice behind me muttered something complicated in Lanthean, and I felt my whole body go stiff. As my captor stepped into my field of view, I felt my headache go away.
By her strange face, pointed ears, and pale blue-green hair, Lady Clarisa was obviously an elf, but I took a few moments to recognise what kind. That shade of hair and eyes was the mark of the Accurséd Elves, supposedly descendants of the great mage Zighier, who had unwittingly destroyed their own life force. While powerful mages – they could allegedly smell magic, such as my invisibility – they could not survive without stealing energy from others, as this one had just done to me. As I watched, she leaned back in her chair, and the fish behind her began to lose their colour, turning grey and ungraceful as they died.
“Show yourself!” she commanded. “We can’t afford to have spies here, but we might be a bit more lenient with you if you don’t make trouble for us.”
I tried to make my hand visible again, but I kept getting distracted by the paper in front of me. Somehow, whatever she did to me stopped me from controlling my power.
“I see.” The elf sighed. “Fine. Daesalid. Argeliar.” She spoke with the Elven lilt that human mages never seemed to get quite right, and far more carefully than when she had paralysed me. I saw my hands become visible again, and she came and took the document off me. Then she stood over me for a moment, leafing through the pages with her other hand raised as if to strike, but did nothing further. Shaking her head, she sat down again, hit a button to make the computer screen unfold, and started typing. Apparently my captor was now going to ignore me.
After a while, though, she looked up. “I suppose I should tell you your rights – what little we see fit to give you. You have the right to state your case before a Captain, or refuse to do so; they have the right to ignore you or consider your plea, as they see fit. You have the right to live in prison until your case can be heard. You have the right to a fair duel, if your accuser should challenge you. And if you coöperate, you might be granted the right to a clean death. I think that’s about it.”
Continued in Part 2.