Modern Crusaders: Adeptus Major

By PsiDraconis

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

"I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert... Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

Chapter 20

"Are you ready to go?" Evelynne asked from the doorway to Ally's suite.

"One moment," Ally requested. She was sitting in a chair tugging on a pair of sturdy boots. Once done, she grabbed her cane and stood up. "Alrighty then, good to go."

Evelynne made her way to where Ally was standing and reached up, tugging her down for a kiss. After a quick check to make sure that nobody was looking in the open doorway, Ally complied.

Breaking away, the princess hummed. "I like doing that," she said half-cheekily and half-seriously.

"I like you doing that," Ally admitted quietly. "You have to stop going away so that we can do it more often."

"I know, and I'm sorry my trip took longer than I thought it would. Besides, before that you were the one who left."

"Yeah, I know. How about if we try to stick around each other for a while?"

"Deal." Evelynne linked their arms and started escorting her companion out the door and down to the foyer. "I'm also sorry we haven't had a chance to have our talk. I would have postponed this trip today, but the weather is good all the way down the coast, and who knows how long it will last?"

"That's okay," Ally reassured her. "Depending on when we get back... This talk could take a while." She seemed nervous every time the subject was raised.

"Maybe then," the princess agreed. She wondered why Ally was so apprehensive about whatever she had to reveal. It's not as if she's going to come out of the closet to me. And I know about her panic attacks. I'm positive she isn't into drugs or dying of some disease. I know for sure she isn't married, and I'm certain she doesn't have any children. Heck, maybe she is into bondage and S and M and doesn't know how I'll react. Although I don't know how I would react in that case. Not that something like that is bad, necessarily, but I don't think it's my thing. Of course, I can't really say what my 'thing' is... except her. She cast a sidelong glance at Ally. Oh well, whatever it is I'm pretty sure I can handle it.

Arriving in the foyer, the two women saw that Sir Arthur was waiting for them. As Master of Evelynne's Guard detail, he had been up for hours arranging the last minute details of this trip to the Aztlan excavations. "Your Highness," he greeted. "Dame Alleandre. Good morning."

"Hello, Uncle Arthur," Evelynne said cheerily.

The Guard sighed. So that was how today was going to be. When his charge was in a particularly good mood - as she had not been for the week she had been away from the Summer Palace - she tended to become almost defiantly friendly and informal. Under normal circumstances that was not a problem, but for a visit to a location as large and difficult to secure as Aztlan it could be disconcerting. At least he had managed to train her to not attempt to escape her Guards... usually, anyway. And given how she had been staying close to Alleandre, and the latter's difficulties in moving quickly, Sir Arthur had hopes that she would remain relatively sedate for the duration of the tour.

"Your Highness, must you be so informal today? We are going -"

"Oh, hush," Evelynne chided. "You're almost family now. Or am I reading your intentions towards my lady-in-waiting incorrectly? I noticed that you two spent quite a while in the garden last night. Hmm?"

To the princess' disappointment, Sir Arthur's expression did not change. "I'm afraid, Your Highness, that I can neither confirm nor deny any of my personal relationships. To do so could compromise my position."

"You know," Ally said in a stage whisper, "Maïda doesn't seem to be awake yet. Do you think she got... tired last night?"

That suggestion put a wicked twinkle back into Evelynne's eye. "You're right. Well, Uncle Arthur? Did you keep Maïda... busy last night?"

To someone who knew him less well, the bodyguard's expression would have appeared as set in stone as ever. However, Evelynne recognised the amusement lurking behind his impassive façade. "Your Highness, I can neither confirm nor deny my -"

"Blah, blah, blah," the princess interrupted. "Damnit, Uncle Arthur, I want to be an aunt, or a reasonable facsimile thereof! How is that supposed to happen unless you get busy? Huh? You know Patrick won't be producing any offspring any time soon."

The barest hint of a smirk showed on the Guard's face. He tilted his head slightly to listen to his earbud. "Your Highness, We are ready to leave now. At your leisure." He indicated the front door.

"Hmph," Evelynne pouted. "Obstructionist bodyguards. Think they can get away with that 'confirm or deny' stuff. I should have them..." Her mumbling faded as she passed through the doorway.

Behind her Sir Arthur and Dame Alleandre traded grins.

The man who hurried out to meet the Royal party as they disembarked the helicopter at the outskirts of Aztlan was a personification of the absent-minded professor. His wispy white hair was blown in all directions by the wind from the slowing rotors, although it was likely that there would have been little difference had the air been dead calm. Large, thick-lensed spectacles rested on his nose and threatened to slide off every time he nodded his head. Which was often.

"Bon'gier'a, Ur-Mata," he greeted, hurriedly touching his fingers to his forehead, lips and chest. "Et hura'i o si arra'at. A mak pro'phes Dusan Malloy."

"Good morning, Doctor Malloy," the princess replied in English for Ally's benefit. Though her friend had begun learning Lantlan, she was still at a very basic level. "I'm happy to be able to visit." She turned to Ally. "Doctor Malloy, may I present my friend, Dame Alleandre Tretiak. Ally, Doctor Malloy runs the excavations here."

The academic blinked owlishly. "Er... yes, good morning, Dame Alleandre. Welcome to Aztlan. And although I hesitate to contradict Her Highness, it is my secretary who actually er... runs the show here. I am too often... distracted by new discoveries." Dr Malloy waved a stout middle aged woman forward. "This is Ms Alice Bennett, my secretary."

"Your Highness, Dame Alleandre," the woman said with a thick Scottish accent. She bowed. "Ah'm pleased to meet ye."

"Ms Bennett," Evelynne said. "It's always good when the people nominally in charge understand who really runs things, isn't it?"

Alice smiled. "Aye, Your Highness." She looked up at the much taller Doctor. "Ah'm glad Dusan do understan', a' well."

"And finally, Your Highness, this is Reanne Poloi, the foreman of the heavy excavation crews."

The huge bear of a woman who stepped forward threatened to eclipse the sun. At least seven feet tall, she moved surprisingly softly for a woman of her size. "Yer Highness," she rumbled. "Dame Alleandre."

"Pleased to meet you all," Evelynne said, and Ally murmured similar sentiments. "Now, I believe we have a tour, don't we?"

"Of course, Your Highness," the Doctor said. "In fact, you are in luck, visiting today. A few days ago we finally completed the restoration of the Maze Chamber of the Grand Temple and you will be the first official visitors. We were just waiting for your arrival. If you would care to enter one of the cars?"

Obediently Evelynne and Ally climbed aboard the back seat of one of the "cars", which actually resembled a golf cart, but with much larger wheels. They were covered, but open on the sides, allowing an unobstructed view of the surroundings. Ally, Evelynne and Sir Arthur took one car, while Doctor Malloy drove. The other nine Guard members divided themselves evenly between another three vehicles and took up position both in front and behind the princess' conveyance.

Once they were under way Ally realised that the cars were electrically powered. The quiet hum of the motor was almost inaudible, but they moved fast enough for the wind to make raised voices necessary for conversation.

As they drove along a dirt road towards the centre of the city, Ally saw several trucks and pieces of earth-moving equipment working in the distance. Occasionally the tops of buildings could be seen poking up through the dirt. "Whereabouts does Aztlan start?" she asked, leaning forward so that Doctor Malloy could hear her. "I mean, where's the city boundary?"

"Back that way." Malloy pointed back the way they had come. "We have used ground penetrating sonar to roughly map the entire city. It's approximately twenty-four kilometres across. We are actually driving on top of the city right now." Ally looked down, but could only see dirt. "The entire city was buried under between... oh, ten and fifty metres of soil. Silt, actually. It preserved the buildings wonderfully. Of course, we have only just begun to uncover it all. Almost four per cent has been excavated. Still, that's about fifty-five square kilometres. Only seventeen hundred to go!"

Ally whistled. "That's huge."

"Indeed it is. In is, in fact, slightly larger than New York City."

"That's impressive."

"Yes," Malloy agreed. "However, even more impressive are the canals that once banded and divided the city. The narrowest is just under four hundred metres across, and all are over two hundred metres deep. That would be impressive enough, but they are also lined with huge, perfectly fitted blocks of stone all the way to the bottom. The work required to construct such 'Circle Seas', as they have been called, is almost incalculable."

"So how did the ancient Atlantlans do it?"

"We have no idea," the Doctor admitted. "Oh, there are all sorts of theories, of course, but they all have one or more fatal flaws. They had no heavy lifting equipment - at least, none that we can recognise as such - and they were inconsiderate enough not to write down how they did it." He made it seem like a personal affront. "Not that we'd be able to read it if they did. To date, nobody has been able to decipher their language."

Tired of having to shout, Ally sat back and watched as their car sped on. She could not see much in the way of obvious excavation in the direction they were travelling, and wondered where the centre of the city was. All of a sudden, the ground in front seemed to open up like a crater, and the centre of the city was spread out before them.

Of course, Ally thought. The whole place is buried. They have to dig down to get to it.

The Doctor brought the vehicle to a stop, allowing his guests a chance to see the uncovered part of the city from a slightly higher vantagepoint, about fifty metres above the level of Aztlan's roads. Ally could instantly see that almost the whole central "island" had been excavated. Several large buildings, still elegant and majestic despite their obvious age, dominated the core. The style of architecture was somehow both familiar and different, a blend of styles found elsewhere around the world, and Ally could see why many people thought that Atlantl had been the birthplace of civilisation. Unlike the fanciful spindles and minarets that some fantasy authors pictures the ancient city having, Aztlan's palaces, temples and houses were heavy, solid constructions, which still managed to be beautiful and graceful at the same time. Middle-Eastern style domes joined with Grecian columns and South American stepped pyramids. The result was a milieu that was both eclectic and disconcertingly beautiful to modern eyes. What the city's original inhabitants had thought was anyone's guess.

"Wow," Ally breathed.

"It's amazing, isn't it?" Evelynne asked. She peered into the distance. "They've uncovered some more since the last time I was here."

"Yes, Your Highness," Malloy said. He pointed. "We have almost completed the first ring."

"You still think it's noble estates?"

"I believe so, Your Highness. The Central Island is the site of what we call the Imperial Palace and the Grand Temple, along with numerous support buildings: servant's quarters, a barracks, and the like. We think that one building was actually a zoo of some sort. The First Ring appears to be high-class housing and other temples. I suspect that as we move outward, we will find more common housing, industry and the like." He looked at his still gawking guests. "Shall we go down?"

The road leading down into the city had been carefully placed so that as it descended it eventually merged with one of the original thoroughfares. As the vehicle made its way down the slope, Ally became even more impressed as size of the ancient roadway became apparent: it was at least as wide as a modern four lane highway, and on either side large stone buildings loomed. The houses and edifices rarely exceeded three stories, but their gaping empty windows and doorways, and the almost palpable feeling of age they radiated, made them appear more imposing.

Despite the apparent desolation of the ruins - though most were still, amazingly, in excellent condition - they seemed to lack the mournful loneliness of many other ancient sites. Perhaps it was because their obvious age suggested that even any imagined ghosts had long departed, or maybe it was the fact that the intricate and beautiful carvings and murals which graced the buildings still seemed as vibrant as when they were first carved. Ally suggested as much to Dr Malloy.

"Yes, the inscribed carvings are impressive, and the fact they have survived so long is also a wonderful testament to the artists. Of course, part of that is due to the stone: it is a very hard form of granite. From remnants we have discovered on various murals, it seems that the ancient Aztlani were also very fond of covering their murals and statues in coloured enamels, copper, silver, and even gold leaf. Because oricalcum is not as malleable, it was used mainly as an inlay to highlight certain works. It's fairly obvious that the ancients regarded gold and silver as primarily decorative elements, but not as being of more abstract value, like money. In fact, our archaeologists have yet to find any recognisable forms of currency. Some think that the Aztlani used some form of money that simply hasn't survived to the present day - perhaps wooden tokens, or foodstuffs of some kind, like the Mayans used cocoa beans - while others believe that a barter system was used. A few have suggested that the population simply shared its produce, rather like antediluvian Marxists."

Passing one house, the group saw that a work crew was busy digging soil from its interior. A number of workers were carefully shovelling dirt into a wheelbarrow. Once full, the load was carted outside, where it was examined and strained through a mesh before being loaded into a waiting truck.

"The sieve helps us make sure that no artefacts are lost with the soil," Malloy explained. "Once it's been screened, the dirt is moved to farms throughout the country. It's incredibly fertile." He shrugged. "It helps defray a small part of the cost of the excavation."

At the same house, other workers were using brushes to clean dirt from its fronting carvings. The main mural, a fanciful representation of some kind of cat, reminded Ally of a cross between Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics.

"How old is the city?" Ally asked as they passed the work site.

"Well, we have carbon dated certain artefacts to about 9000 BC, which corresponds with geological estimates of the date of the Deluge. Naturally, Aztlan was in existence well before then, although how old it was at the time of the Flood is uncertain. Given its size, two or three thousand years has been considered a reasonable guess, and certain other sites found throughout Atlantl seem to support that number."

Ally whistled soundlessly. For a metropolis over thirteen thousand years old, it really was in magnificent condition. Even the oldest ruins found in Iraq and Iran only dated to about 5000 BC. "So the debate over whether Atlantl really is the cradle of civilisation is pretty much moot, isn't it?"

"Largely, yes," Malloy agreed. "At least western civilisation. After the Deluge we know for a fact that refugees fleeing Atlantl got as far as Egypt and South America. They likely introduced such things as farming and architecture to the locals, from whence it spread to other regions. After that, they probably did not die out as such, but instead interbred with the native populations. Given the low numbers of survivors, they effectively disappeared into the gene pool. The South American legends in particular speak of wise and learned 'bearded white men', who appeared and taught them civilisation, then disappeared. Still, there are enough archaeological mysteries around the world to intrigue us for generations to come. The giant stone heads of Easter Island, for example, have little similarity to any Atlantlan artefacts. There is speculation that another technologically advanced island nation, similar to Atlantl, existed in the Pacific, and experienced a similar demise. It is generally referred to as 'Mu' or 'Lemuria', although it is extremely unlikely that its natives would have called it as such. Just as the ancient Atlantlan almost certainly called their island something other than 'Atlantis'. Even the name of this city, Aztlan, is a guess based in certain old documents."

They were approaching the largest buildings they had seen so far, located at the centre of the city, as Ally asked, "So how did Atlantl sink, anyway? What caused the Deluge?"

"Well, assuming that it was not actually the wrath of God, who made the rain fall for forty days and forty nights, the most likely culprit was a massive tectonic shift. A mega-earthquake, if you will, right along the fault line that Atlantl straddles. Today, the southern part of the fault is the Mid-South Atlantic Ridge. Eleven thousand years ago, a large enough earthquake could have caused enough upheaval in the surrounding ocean to created a massive, globe-encircling tsunami. The mass of Flood-related legends that can be found world-wide support the hypothesis."

Evelynne took up the explanation. "After the Flood waters had subsided, there probably weren't many, if any, survivors on Atlantl at all. Unfortunately, Atlantlan civilisation had virtually disappeared. Over the next few millennia, settlers trickled back to what are now the three main islands, but the volcanic reefs that had appeared around the area serious impeded large-scale immigration. Later on, though, those same reefs made the islands nearly unconquerable, since any large invading navy inevitably found itself smashed to pieces. The result was slow and steady arrival of relatively peaceful settlers, without the large influxes of immigrants or invaders that tend to unsettle otherwise stable civilisations. And so we have slowly built up our nation with a new set of values. I personally think we've done a pretty decent job." She grinned.

"I agree," Ally said honestly. "I wonder what would have happened if the Deluge never happened. What would the world be like now?"

"Who knows?" Evelynne replied. "We know so little about the ancient Atlantlans as it is. Another question would be what would the world be like if the Flood was even worse? If Atlantl had ceased to exist altogether?"

"Actually, Your Highness, one of my students has speculated on that topic, at least from a geological standpoint," the Doctor said. "He has used computer models to see what might have happened if the tectonic shift which spawned the Deluge had been even larger. His calculations show that the island-continent of Atlantl would probably have shifted, and slowly drifted south. By now, it would likely have taken up a position in the middle of where the Antarctic Ocean is today. Right over the South Pole, in fact."

"You mean a whole continent at the South Pole?" Ally sounded incredulous. "That just sounds... weird. Would it be as cold as the North Pole?"

Malloy nodded, threatening to send his glasses flying out of the car. Only a quick, reflexive grab saved them. "By now the continent would be under at least several hundred metres of snow and ice. Glaciers, actually. It's anybody's guess as to whether people would live there. Personally, I think it would somewhat like living on the Moon."

Ally shook her head. "Well, I guess I'm just glad things didn't work out that way." She cast an inconspicuous glance at Evelynne. "I'm happy with things the way they are."

Evelynne smiled back.

"And this, Your Highness, is the Maze Chamber of the Grand Temple." With a flourish that made him look slightly ridiculous, Dr Malloy ushered his guests through the huge porticoes and into the vast, echoing chamber beyond.

Ally and Evelynne did not notice how he looked, however. They were too busy gaping at the massive empty space of the room they had just been escorted to. "E'met," Evelynne murmured. "Amazing. They hadn't restored it nearly this much the last time I was here."

The circular Chamber looked nearly new, as though it had been abandoned for mere days, rather than untold millennia. It was at least a hundred metres across, and the floor was covered entirely in blue-veined marble, the slabs set so closely that the seams were nearly invisible. At the east and west walls, huge statues of a man and woman, respectively, supported the roof on their shoulders, nearly fifty metres overhead. Both statues were completely nude, the woman with long flowing hair, and the man wearing a thick beard. The detail of each sculpture was intricate, and Ally felt her face growing red involuntarily as she look at them. It didn't help that both giant faces were pointed so that they seemed to be watching down over the occupants of the Chamber with knowing, wise, and slightly amused expressions. The only decoration on either statue was the eight-pointed star that graced each of their foreheads.

"She looks kind of like you," Evelynne whispered to Ally, pointing up at the woman above them. "That is, if you had long hair."

"Yeah, and wore a thirty-four D bra," Ally muttered back.

The roof that the man and woman were supporting was a perfect half-spherical dome, plain and unadorned. In the exact centre, a twenty-metre wide hole let sunlight in to lighten the Chamber. The shaft of sunlight poured through the opening to illuminate a circle in the exact centre of the room.

As Ally and her companions started to make their way across the gleaming floor, she couldn't help but feel as though her booted feet, though carefully cleaned before entering the building, were somehow sullying the perfection of the floor. As she walked, she noticed that the marble was not actually seamless, but was actually inlaid with veins of oricalcum and some other metal that looked like white gold. The metal looked like it had been poured into intricately carved grooves in the stone to form complex and slightly disconcerting designs. Intrigued, she asked the archaeologist about them.

"Ah, yes. Those make up what we call the Maze," Malloy replied. "The metals are oricalcum and a gold-silver alloy called electrum. They cover the entire floor of this chamber. We have managed to reconstruct a picture of the pattern in its entirety, and it seems to actually be a quite intricate fractal pattern. That in itself is causing quite a stir in the scientific community, I can tell you. Supposedly fractals were first discovered a few decades ago, but here we have a pattern going back to prehistory. It's just another example of just how much we don't know about the ancient Atlantlans. Take the roof, for example." He pointed upwards, and his guests looked to where her was pointing. "That entire dome is composed of only eight pieces of stone, each carved into a perfect eighth of a half-sphere. Not only that, but the only things holding up each section are its two neighbours." He shook his head. "The technical expertise required to construct the thing is incredible."

"And you still have no idea how it was done?"

"Not for certain, no. We have found a rather symbolic mural in a building that we think was a construction office. It depicts six men lifting each block into place using their only their hands." The Doctor smiled wryly. "Considering that each slab weighs over six tons, I think we can safely assume that the drawing is purely metaphorical. Unless one wants to believe that the Aztlani could each lift a two thousand pounds with their bare hands."

Malloy and Evelynne laughed, and Ally joined in, but she was thinking, Two thousand pounds, huh? Well, I can't quite do that, but... This trip was providing all sorts of surprising insights.

Looking down at the floor again, Ally realised something that had been troubling the back of her mind since she entered. "The floor in concave," she said in surprise.

"Yes, it is," Malloy said. "You have a good eye, Dame Alleandre. It is, in fact, the bottom of a perfect sphere with a radius of exactly 824.253 metres. In other words, Your Highness," he explained to Evelynne, "If you were to continue the curve of the floor all the way, it would form a sphere with the centre almost a kilometre above our heads. A most amazing example of mathematical engineering."

"I'll take your word for it," Evelynne said. "My own math skills are less than stellar."

"There's one other thing, Doctor Malloy," Ally added. "You say these lines on the floor are electrum and oricalcum?" The Doctor nodded. "Well, that means they conduct electricity. The only reason I mention it is that this -" She pointed to a section of pattern. "- looks like it would make a simple parallel plate capacitor. And unless I'm wrong, this would probably make a simple inductor." She pointed again. "To me, this looks like one huge circuit board." She shrugged. "Of course, I'm a physics major, not an archaeologist, but..."

"No, no, no," Malloy interrupted. He was staring at the floor with unalloyed shock. "You're right, I never considered the similarity. Oh, it may be a coincidence, of course, but it certainly bears examination." He looked up. "Dame Alleandre, it seems I may be hiring some electronic engineers soon. Are you interested?"

"Me? Oh, I'm certainly interested, but I don't think I'm the best person for the job. I specialised in astrophysics, not electronics. I only recognised the floor because I had to take a few courses in electrical engineering. Although if you want another wild theory..." Dr Malloy nodded frantically, sending his glasses to perch perilously close to the tip of his nose. "Well, the curvature of the floor and that aperture above remind me of parts of a huge reflecting telescope. I don't know how it would work, exactly, especially with the focal point over eight hundred metres overhead, and I don't think the floor is reflective enough, but it might be something to check out. Of course if there was originally a lens of some sort in that aperture, things would be much different." She shrugged. "As I said, it's only a wild theory..."

Evelynne stared at Ally in delight. She rarely got to see her friend this animated, speculating on ideas and theories. It made the taller woman seem more alive and vibrant than her usual shy, modest demeanour.

"Pole'can war esse tolu'a mens," Malloy murmured. "Del mek si'aerat on pellk. I beg your pardon." He was looking around the room as though he had never seen it before. "Dame Alleandre, all new theories are considered wild when they are first advanced. And even if these ideas of yours are not in fact correct, they have still shown me that we seem to have become too... narrow in our focus here at the excavations. We are concentrating too much on the purely archaeological side of affairs. To be fair, most of us are archaeologists. I believe I will have to see about hiring some researchers of other scientific disciplines after all. And I'm sure I could find you a job here if you wanted it. You appear to have a knack for thinking of possibilities that nobody else has considered. I would love to hire you for that ability, if for nothing else, and the fact that you have no preconceptions is actually an asset." He looked at Ally earnestly. "It will take some time to come up with the proper funding, but I would appreciate you keeping my offer in mind."

"Um, sure," Ally replied. "I'll certainly think about it."

"So you think you might enjoy working here?" Evelynne asked quietly.

She and Ally were trailing Dr Malloy slightly as they walked towards the last stop on their tour. Darkness was slowly approaching, and Sir Arthur had flatly refused any sort of continuing tour after dark.

"Hmm, pardon?" Ally asked abstractedly. She had been watching the bodyguard out of the corner of her eye. He had seemed slightly... distracted for the past half-hour. It was, of course, so subtle that Ally guessed that anybody without her heightened sensitivities would be oblivious. However, she herself could see his eyes darting back and forth, looking for threats even more rapidly than usual, and also the faint sense of... confusion, puzzlement, as though he kept seeing things out of the corner of his eye that disappeared as soon as he focussed on them. Knowing that the bodyguard was drawing upon decades of experience, Ally had tried a quick scan herself, but had detected nothing out of the ordinary.

I guess he's just jumpy about something, she thought. Suddenly she became aware that Evelynne was talking to her again. "Sorry, I went away for a minute. What were you saying?"

"I was asking if you were seriously considering Doctor Malloy's offer. You know, the job?"

"It's tempting," Ally admitted. "I think it would be a lot of fun. Although I really wouldn't want to be away from you." She shrugged sheepishly.

"I wouldn't want you to go, either. But I also don't want to hold you back. No matter what happens with... us, you still have a life of your own to consider. Somehow I don't think you're the type to become a pampered Lady."

"Probably not. I wouldn't mind trying it out for a while, though." She grinned. "Seriously, though, I don't -"

"No, you don't have to decide now. Besides, Dusan said it would take him a while to get funding. Even if I help him speed things along - which I think I'll try to do anyway - it will take at least a month or two to obtain. That's just how government bureaucracies work." She squeezed Ally's arm. "If you did, I'd expect you to visit regularly. Daily, even. Just think about it, okay?"

"Okay," Ally agreed.

A short distance ahead, the sound level was noticeably higher, the noise of engines echoing across the ancient city. There were some kind of crane structures directly ahead, which seemed to be lifting objects into and out of a large hole in the ground. Trucks piled high with dirt passed regularly on their way out of the city. The cranes hung out over the edge, and were operated from small aluminum cabins some distance above the ground.

"In terms of sheer scale, this is probably the most impressive project under way in Aztlan right now, Your Highness," Dr Malloy said, raising his voice above the noise. As the group moved closer, the size of the pit became much more readily apparent. They stopped several metres from the edge. "As you know, Aztlan is ringed by a series of concentric circular canals. This is the innermost. We have begun dredging it. As you can guess, the entire project is likely to take a while. Since this particular canal is about four hundred metres across, and two hundred deep, we must remove a little over six hundred million cubic metres of dirt. That corresponds to well over a billion tons."

"Holy cow," Ally murmured. Even from here she could see trucks and earthmovers busily digging away at the soil filling the canal. The workers had essentially dug a huge trench all the way to the other side of the canal, and were now concentrating on digging it deeper. The set-up struck her as somewhat inefficient. "Wouldn't it be easier to just start at the top and kind of spiral your way around as you dig? I think it would be easier than having to haul everything directly up and out."

"Yes, it would, but at this stage we unfortunately have other considerations as well. While the Crown supplies the lion's share of the funds for excavation, Their Majesties' purse is not bottomless. In a few months there are plans to open the site up to tourists, to raise additional capital, and we wish to present the most spectacular sights possible." Malloy seemed personally offended at having to allow gawking tourists - other than the ones he was currently guiding - tramping all over his site. Collecting himself, he said, "I think that must certainly be one of the most stupendous sights anywhere."

He pointed to the far wall of the canal, where diggers had exposed over a hundred and fifty metres of stone. Each massive block comprising the wall was at least ten metres across, and carved to perfectly fit with its surrounding stones, like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.

"No kidding," Ally said. "You know, I'd challenge any modern nation to construct anything... half that big."

"Oh, I agree, despite our technology I believe even something half as large would be utterly impossible. For example, several years ago a Japanese company attempted to build a one fifth size scale model of the Great Pyramid at Giza. They had to give up before it was even one third complete because of technical difficulties." Malloy waved at the distant canal wall. "It's not bad for a civilisation without heavy construction equipment."

The group remained, looking over the excavations, until the air was split by a loud whistle.

"Ah, it is time to quit for the evening," Malloy said. "The lifts will now bring the workers down below back up to this level."

"Your Highness, we should move away now," Sir Arthur said in a low voice. "None of these people have been adequately investigated."

"Very well," Evelynne said, taking a last look at the work site. She held out an arm for Ally, who had begun to lean on her cane more as the day progressed. "Shall we?"

They started back towards the centre of the city, Evelynne and Ally asking a few more questions of the Doctor as they walked. They were about fifty metres from the edge of the canal when Ally saw Sir Arthur's head shoot up suddenly and he stared intently at the nearest crane. Startled by his sudden movement, Ally stopped, dragging her companion to a halt as well.

Nothing happened for several seconds, and Evelynne was about to ask what was wrong, when the screeching sound of bending metal filled the air. Everyone's eyes immediately snapped to the cranes overhead. Despite the deepening twilight, it was easy to see the length of the crane's arm, and the people watched helplessly as, seemingly in slow motion, it began to fold and buckle. Slowly it seemed to fold in upon itself, shedding several steel spars as it came crashing down. The cries of workers could be heard, as the first group to begin its ascent suddenly found itself rapidly and uncontrollably returning to the bottom of the pit.

Sir Arthur and the rest of the Guards reacted instantly, and even though the collapsing crane was fifty metres distant, Evelynne found herself squeezed between the bodies of four solid bodyguards, each of them instantly alert and ready to respond further if needed. For her part, Ally was fairly surprised when two more Guards were suddenly bracketing her with their own bodies.

The entire collapse seemed to take hours, but it could only have been seconds before the vibration of buckling machinery ceased, leaving the cries of wounded workers, the creaking of swaying metal, and the sputter of cut electrical cables. Dr Malloy was already gone, running towards the accident site. He looked faintly ridiculous, his long, lanky frame all pumping arms and legs, but nobody could fault the turn of speed he had produced.

Even with the immediate threat over, the princess' bodyguards had not relaxed in the slightest, and Evelynne had to physically force a small opening to see the aftermath. "Isis," she breathed. Making a decision, she ordered, "Sir Arthur, send some people over there to help." She knew that even suggesting that she go herself would be pointless, and an easy way to get herself bundled off to the helicopter as quickly as her Guard could move.

Sir Arthur looked stubborn. "Highness, we can't -"

"Damnit, I'm fine! Nobody is going to be coming after me. They need you more than I do." She pointed to where workers were gathering to peer down the wall of the canal, having run from wherever they had previously been. The huge figure of Reanne Poloi, the foreman, could be seen already barking orders.

Sir Arthur hesitated a moment more, then nodded abruptly. "Major Nixon and I will stay with the princess. Rawson, al-Rashan, take up a perimeter. Everyone else, go and help. Move!"

Obediently, the Guards scattered, though they were obviously unhappy about leaving their primary charge.

Evelynne clutched Ally's arm as they watched. Ally herself looked on while feeling particularly useless. Damnit, there's nothing I can do! There are too many people. She breathed a slight sigh of relief as she saw emergency medic converge on the location. At least they seem to have things fairly well in hand.

Several minutes passed, and then Sir Arthur cocked his head and listened to the report coming through his earbud. He relaxed minutely. "The lift was only about twenty metres up when it fell," he reported. "Most of the injuries appear non-life threatening. However, several are in serious condition." He paused a moment. "Evacuation helicopters are en route."

"Good," said Evelynne tightly. "At least -" She broke off when Ally stiffened.

Ally had been watching anxiously, and was beginning to hope that things would turn out well, when a sudden blast of pure psychic energy slammed into her mind. There were no words to the silent scream, but the meaning came through clearly.

HELP! *can't breath, tightness* ANYBODY! *dying, fear* HELP ME! *painpainpain* *loneliness, cold, warmth trickling* NO!

Without even realising what she was doing, Ally found herself running, ignoring the pain in her back, in a direction other than the crashed lift. Instead, she angled to the side, and saw that she was heading towards the cabin of the crane, which had toppled over so that it was some distance from the edge, and away from where all the rescuers were gathered. The operator! Ally realised. He's still alive!

The cabin of the crane had survived relatively intact, rather than shattering as it hit the ground. It had, however, been crushed by the impact, and a heavy length of girder had broken loose and slammed into the side of the cabin, compressing it even more. Reaching the cabin, Ally saw that nobody was nearby. All of the rescuers had congregated to the edge of the canal over thirty metres away, and were busy helping the workers trapped there.

Moving closer, Ally looked in through the cabin's shattered windows. Inside, the operator was trapped, slowly being crushed by his wrecked cabin, and the girder that lay across it. Despite the obvious pain and panic he was experiencing, the young man, his face pasty white, visibly brightened when he saw Ally looking down at him, and another burst of thought hit her.

ANGEL! *crushed, no air* HELP ME! *terror, hope* DYING! NO!

Evelynne hurried up behind Ally. She had been startled by her friend's sudden decision to bolt, and had reflexively followed. It had surprised Sir Arthur and Major Nixon as well, and they arrived a bare moment later. "Ally' what's - Oh, Isis," the princess said, seeing the trapped man. She whirled to face her bodyguard. "Arthur, we have to get him out of there!"

The Guard had been about to chastise his charge for running off, but stopped when he saw the situation. Assessing the situation, he said, "We need to get that beam off, but we need equipment to do it with. It's too -" He broke off when he saw what Ally was doing.

The young woman had managed to get among the wreckage of the crane so that she had a good grip on the steel beam resting across the side of the cabin.

"Ally, what are you doing?" Evelynne shouted. "You can't -" She hesitated.

Ally narrowed her perceptions, concentrating solely on the metal in her hands. They're going to see, a part of her warned. I know, she told herself. But I can't help that. There's no time! I can't let this guy die. Damnit, he's like me!

Setting the thoughts aside, Ally focussed her will, then reached deep into her strength and channelled power, and lifted with the entire force of her will. Ally's purely physical muscles could lift, under normal circumstances, perhaps fifty kilograms at most. However, she was not using only physical strength. Power surged through her mind, focussed by her will and guided by the physical act of lifting.

At first nothing happened, and Ally threw even more power into her efforts, feeling as sudden stab of pain as her brain protested. Then, impossibly, the steel beam began to shift. Ever so slowly, creaking and groaning in protest, the metal began to lift up, away from the crane's cabin.

Evelynne stared, completely amazed by what she was seeing. Then she heard a groan, and realised that it was not coming from the slowly bending metal, but from the woman lifting it with her bare hands, her face absolutely white from strain. The princess was frozen until she noticed the thin trickle of blood beginning to emerge from Ally's nose. Then she somehow found herself at Ally's side, lending her own meagre strength to the effort, and found herself joined a moment later by Sir Arthur and Theodora Nixon.

Then, finally, the beam had been bent back far enough to reach the cab of the crane. Power still thrumming through her body, Ally curled her fingers around the sides of the crumpled door and proceeded to rip it completely out of its socket, while her audience looked on, beyond amazement by this point. She almost despaired when she saw that the young operator was no longer conscious, but when she jumped into the cabin and pressed her fingers to his neck, she was relieved to feel a steady, if weak, pulse.

Climbing out of the wreckage of the cab, feeling more tired than she could ever remember feeling before, she finally looked down into Evelynne's face. "He's alive," she said dully. Then the power seemed to drain out of her like water, and she stumbled and would have fallen in Evelynne hadn't caught her and eased her down to the ground. "Oh shit," she whispered through the pain of her stunning headache.

Evelynne gently wiped away the blood from Ally's face with her hand. "Ally, what just happened here?" she asked, her voice trembling.

"Had t'get to 'im," Ally mumbled. "Called me." She closed her eyes. "Please, not now. Later. Promise. Hurts now. Can't think."

"Okay," Evelynne said softly, stroking Ally's face with a shaking hand. "Later. You just rest now."

As much as she wanted to, Ally could not fall asleep, and had to bear the pain for what seemed like days.

Continued in Chapter 21

Author's Note: I thought, given the subject of this chapter, that I'd reoffer the picture of Aztlan that I found. It gives a great visualisation of the ancient city. Also, I've had a few requests for pictures of Ally's blazon, so I've managed to cobble one together. If you'd like one or both of these pictures, feel free to let me know.

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